The rain had moved through, leaving thick clumping clouds, darkened and milky, and whipped with the peach of the setting sun. A vast sky heavy with mountains of monstrous clouds, astounding beauty in all directions. I whirl slack jawed feeling smaller than small, a grain of sand at the bottom of the deepest sea. Maybe it is the felt presence of the past. I often sense I am under the ocean, clouds the surface of the water, when I am wandering in the stormy desert of the American Southwest. It is our last night together of this first session of five days peering over the edge of soul canyon, and ceremonially dropping down. Solar powered lanterns and headlamps magnified by Nalgenes stand in for a fire we circle round. The guides have invited the apprentices to share stories of their own dissolutions, that we might draw our own connections, fall deeper into longing, or tremble in humility.
Dissolution: The second phase of a Descent to Soul. What occurs in this phase is the dismemberment of who you believed you were, the unconditional disintegration of everything you believed the world was, the definitive end of the story you have been living, everything that enabled you to get the things done that you thought essential to who you were and who you could become.
(If you want the definition of a Descent to Soul you'd better check out the full book The Journey of Soul Initiation by Bill Plotkin)
Their stories were stirring, but not mine to tell. That definition is stirring too! I wouldn't wish a dissolution on anyone -- it is as intense as he describes. But I haven't found it so cut and dry, so never look back, so complete. My dissolution has been iterative. I tried to clammer my way back every time, at least until very recently. I didn't have this definition, or a sense of the larger journey of which it is a part. I just thought disaster had struck my life, which seemed bad, and very much against my plan.
The first undoing came about 10 years ago. I was a vegetable farmer. I remember secretly hoping every stranger would ask me what I did so I could tell them, smiling and blushing, that I grew food for a living. Being a farmer represented all I stood for -- reviving the small and the local, building human community in partnership with the Earth, reforming the economy to be at ecosystem scale, spending all day outdoors, using the body's strength, eating well. I had learned about the incredible bonds people can form with plants in my anthropology classes and wept over the state of our food systems reading Michael Pollan. I studied and poured myself into the possibility of community supported agriculture. I believed with all my being it would change the world, and that I would be a part of it. It was my most profound passion, my reason for being, my joy and my pride.
Throughout my love affair with agriculture I nursed a love affair with a man. We'd make pickles and jams together, secretly compost on the porch of our apartment, and dream. As the second year working on a 25 acre diversified vegetable operation drew to a close I took a farm business planning course and wrote a business plan to start my own cut and eat salad farm: lettuces, carrots, radishes, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers and peas. Lucky Leaf is what I'd call it. As luck would have it, the town where he'd return for graduate school was the very town that had incubator plots to support budding farmers like myself. So we made a big plan to move up there together as soon as the season ended. I fantasized about filling his mini van with bags of microgreens and those blue/green cardboard pints of colorful tomatoes that burst into laughter in your mouth. I could see my stand at the farmers market clear as day.
It was fall, when the Earth turns dark and bottomless.
I had spent the morning laying the winter squash to cure in the greenhouse, wheel hoeing the last of the seedings, and harvesting the crops ready to come out. Seth called as I funneled whatever veggie full dish was my lunch. What began as a normal checking in, casual as any conversation of a five year relationship, ended with slowly realizing and finally asking, "Are you breaking up with me?". Followed by a definitive, "Yes". I hung up on him, which I'm sure you agree he deserved, having not heard any previous glimmers of this possibility, whether or not he spoke them.
He was so wrapped up, intertwined, with my destiny as a farmer, with my development into one, coiled around everything I trusted and knew without a doubt that this break up totally shattered my world. It threw everything into question. Actually, no. I didn't question. All that I had wrested my life on, the absolute foundation of who I knew myself to be, how I understood that the world worked: I knew in an instant that none of that was true. It became frivolous, fleeting, fate flippantly lighting fire to my life.
People said to me, "You could still move to Lowell and start your farm!" As if I still lived in that world. There was no part of me that believed in that future anymore. What did I believe in? I had no fucking clue. I got pretty spiritual pretty fast, because there has to be something enduring beneath it all, right? I could feel it actually. There was a strange ecstasy to it all. Never before in my life had I been so wild and free. I couldn't contain myself, come off tidy, pretend I was okay. There was nothing I could do save submit to my devastation. And if you have been reading this blog for any length of time, you know I'm a sucker for being taken over.
One of the metaphors that often weaves through discussions of dissolution in the Animas community is that dissolution is a leaving of, or a burning down, the first house of belonging. I think they got it from David Whyte's poem The House of Belonging, mixed with Rilke's Onto a Vast Plain and maybe William Carpenter's Fire. Perhaps for some, also Marion Woodman's Leaving my Father's House. It's the life you've built, and well. The home you know. After my break up I went home to Iowa. My parents had no idea how to hold me, and were disturbed by something they'd never seen in me -- unleashed emotion. They were living in a condo on the river, the house I grew up in still waiting for a buyer. So I went to it, all cold and empty, and wept, estranged from all I knew, homeless.
Those moments of rapture, of wild freedom, were mixed with a lot of triggered trauma, though I did not understand it that way at the time. My self-esteem was totally obliterated. I went from knowing exactly how my future would unfold to having absolutely no idea, in an instant. My spiritual seeking led me into deep communion with the natural world, a wider sense of God, a profound sense of meaning, but my trauma and uprootedness led me into deep spirals of anxiety, insomnia, and self-hatred. Fuck it was rough. I didn't have enough wholeness to deal with the uncertainty of my life, which wasn't helped by not having a larger story to hold me -- it was still years before I found Soulcraft, Bill's first book.
So I did what any young American would -- I put my life back together, best I could. I found a job in the field of herbal medicine, which I hoped would become the new local food, would capture me and compel me the same way. And I poured myself into that as if it did. I also got really into craft cocktail making, using handmade medicine as analogs for common liquors, having happy hour every day after work. It all caught up to me soon enough, slammed into me really. I don't want to be drunk for my life, and I'm spending all my energy doing something that doesn't actually matter to me. Oh, existential instability! My dearest friend. My partner tried to talk practical sense into me, but luckily, I was inconsolable.
Looking back, I call this chapter Signe 2.0. I gave it another college try. But the story I had been living had died, and I could no longer deny that.
All that I just wrote I've told before. I wrote it in my application for the guide training program at Animas, I wrote it into papers and reflections in graduate school. What happened next, the deeper dissolution of the last year and a half....that's a story I'm still learning to tell, that is becoming itself as words fledge tentatively from my mouth.
Maybe I'd call this chapter Wounds: The frame of the house revealed, then dismantled.
They warn you, before you accept the invitation to join the guide training program, that it seems as if accepting is a delicious seduction to Mystery, who immediately deepens your descent. I can't help but picture it like a pre-play negotiation. Once settled, Mystery Dominates you until you moan with your death rattles.
It was the application process itself that was the first clue of what was to come. The Muse was brilliant in conjuring my offering. I wove poem, song, image, story, in a compelling, captivating, even funny story of my life, of the juicy guide I was meant to be. It was irresistible, truly. Then I sent it off, a point of deep vulnerability for anyone, and as I learned during my February writing challenge, a particularly soft spot in myself: casting a perfectly made fly, waiting, praying, needing that tug on the other end.
They said they'd follow up in a couple weeks. More than a month went by. By the time they replied with some simple questions that seemed to say "yes, you're in, just make sure you're sure", I was a mess of doubt, inadequacy, and despair. The depths of which I hadn't felt since that fateful phone call, when the sun set on my farming fetish. It took me a month to recover and reply. And then I went on with my life, but on the edge of my consciousness there was a new awareness -- the depth of a wound that could take me over. I chocked it up to the vulnerability of the moment, couldn't tie it back to any earlier trouble, the same wall I'd hit a million times in my attempts to do healing work. The crazy thing about the unconscious is, you truly don't know it. Can't even see it when you go looking, like a teenager searching her room for something by asking where it is, the eyes glazed over.
At that time I was pursuing a graduate degree in the Community, Liberation, Indigenous, and Ecopsychologies program at Pacifica. I felt deeply and truly that I was pursuing this degree in response to soul. I had a numinous experience that sang of my interbeing with the world. And I also fell under the spell of critical whiteness studies. Looking back I think what captured me about antiracism was this: I've always felt on a deep level that I was bad, wrong, didn't deserve to be alive. Some part of me has always felt that way, and that part never got any air time -- that type of vulnerability was absolutely forbidden in my family/psychic system. All that is wrong with white people, what we take for granted, how we are actively ignorant....hearing all that critical analysis resonated with that forbidden feeling. In a strange kinky way, it felt good. I felt validated. That part of me finally had something to latch onto that made sense: "Oh! This is why I've always felt this way. Because I am bad, and if I just get woke enough, I can save myself."
That was all unconscious to me then. What I was conscious of was social justice work seeming to align perfectly with the encounter of my shared flesh with the world, at least the human social world. Community and liberation psychology are all about how our individual psyches simply cannot be untangled from our histories, and our cultures. It is hilariously ironic that the deepest thing I learned in that program was how much my passion for social justice was fueled by my individual wounding.
I say that, but the truth is my wounding is ancestral. I could just have easily started this chapter not with my application to the guide training program, but with beginning to make relationship with my ancestors.
The first chapter of my dissolution was the falling away of who I knew myself to be in the world, and the faith that I could ever be defined by something like a job. The second chapter was the falling away of who I knew myself to be to myself, how I thought of and saw myself, how I told my story.
I used to roll my eyes deeply at all the talk of trauma in our culture. It seemed to me an obsession and a fad, not reflective of anything real, except maybe people being unwilling to own their shit and grow the fuck up. If I'd read the books I've read in the past year and half they would have seemed stupid, too simple, or just made no sense. I didn't know what words like fawning meant, but if I had I would have denied it applied to me in the slightest. Slowly, slowly, my trauma came out of shadow and I could see my foundational protective system for the first time.
This was horrifying in a sense. I relived the absolute worse times in my life, the ones that were so bad that my system hid them for 32 years, that my system was formed around never letting happen again. This lead to intense insomnia among other troubles. But on the other hand, I made sense to myself in a way I'd never known. In the past, I tried to think my way back, wondering why I was so plagued by inadequacy, but always got nowhere. Suddenly, I understood. I understood why I've always felt so lonely. Why I always took what I was served and didn't know what I truly wanted. Finally I could feel the sensitivity that had been tucked behind defenses. It was deeply dysregulating and profoundly painful, and strangely ecstatic.
For me, a good portion of my first house of belonging was held together by unconscious psychological protection, keeping me from an unconscious wound. To dismantle that house I had to see that all for what it was, a process I don't wish on anyone who isn't ready, but everyone who is. That shit tempered me. Grounded me. Humbled me. Forced me to fall in love with myself.
Clearly there is more to say. I've been sparse with the details of Chapter 2, which is still at work in me and not so easily wrangled, not ready yet to fly from the nest of my being.