Sunday, February 22, 2015

Wild child

          Last Wednesday I had the pleasure of meeting a local Holocaust survivor.  "Helen" is ninety-four years young and what an incredible storyteller.  For over an hour I listened with rapt attention while she shared details about her daring escape from an Auschwitz sub-camp, unthinkable hardships she endured with her dear friend, "Greta," and a significant mystical event that led them to safety.
          Someone asked me afterwards, "Did you get everything you needed for your book?"
          I nodded.  "Yes...and a whole lot more."
          After the interview was finished, Helen and I chatted about our lives in Toledo.  She showed me her honorary doctorate that she earned after taking over thirty years of medical classes simply because she loves learning.  As I turned the pages of Helen's wedding album, I was astonished at her incomparable beauty.  Ten years after surviving the camps, she thrived as a young woman and was quite simply the most lovely lady I've ever seen. 
          Over the course of her life, Helen has endured much hardship.  Her mother died within hours of arriving at Auschwitz.  Her father perished in Buchenwald as did many of her cousins.  Only a handful of her family members survived the Holocaust and she is one of three still living.  Helen's husband, whom she met in Israel shortly after the war, died eight years ago and I know she still misses him every day.
          When I asked what her greatest sorrow has been, Helen answered, "Because of the beatings I endured, I could not have any children." 
          Like me, she has countless surrogate children (and in her case, a host of grandchildren as well), but we both know that it's not the same.  Still, after listening to the recording of the interview several times, I've come to imagine had Helen's history been different, she would still be a survivor, no matter what.  Her will and determination are evident in every word she says.  Everything she believes.  Everything she inquired of me.
          "You have children, yes?" she asked as we sat at her kitchen table.
          I shook my head. 
          "No children!  You're married, yes?"
          I shook my head again.
          Helen asked about my parents and when I told her I was estranged from my family, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, "You need to let people love you...and you need to love people.  If I've learned anything, that's what I've learned:  we all need to love and be loved."
          I nodded.  "I'm blessed with a lot of people in my life who love me...people I love.  I've learned that friends can be like family, too...just like you've created a new family since the Holocaust.  It doesn't mean you don't miss your mother or father...or your husband, but we're lucky, Helen.  We may not have had our own kids, but we've help raise hundreds of them, and in some ways, I think if I had children of my own, I wouldn't have been able to find the time to teach or be a part of my friends' lives."
          Helen and I realized we're kindred spirits...and not just by what you can see on the outside.  She's a treasure to be with and I look forward to our next tea party, whenever that might be. 
          As we exchanged phone numbers, she asked, "Do you believe the story about how Greta and I were led to safety?"  
          "I believe miracles happen every day," I smiled.  "We don't have to understand them to know they're real and true."

          Since meeting Helen, I've come to understand a few things about myself.  In light of her life, I've taken stock of my own.  My own past.  My own pain and humiliation.  My own losses and the behavior patterns I'm unwinding in order to create something more real and true.
          That's a miracle in and of itself.
          It may take a little while for what I've discovered to sink in, take root, and eventually spring up above the surface.  I often tell my yoga students, "If you want to know what your body will look like in five years, pay attention to how you're treating it in the present."  I suppose the same is true for my spirit.  What I believe and think and say create my reality in much the same way food and exercise choices create my body.  But while my body never lies and responds immediately to whatever crosses my lips, my mind often loves to spin a tale now and then. 
          It's not that I'm lying per se...I'm just coloring an experience with my projections and shadowy perceptions.  My friend, Becky, gently reminds me that my experiences create my beliefs; my beliefs create my actions; and my actions create results.  But what if what I thought to be true has been reframed based on seeing the vast forest of my life beyond the individual trees of past hurts and losses?
          Truth takes time...and sometimes I need to be ready to accept it before it will be revealed in ways altogether unexpected.  Who I thought I was supposed to be has vanished into thin air.  All the judgements and expectations and pity have disappeared.  All the stories I've been telling myself all these years about why I don't have a life like most of my friends have gone up in smoke.  No matter what happened in my past, I know I'd still be wild and free, for I've finally come to understand that I'm not meant to live a tradition life.
          And I never was.

          I was born to be wild.
         As a child I would run barefoot in the backyard, draping worms over my nose and ears for the sheer fun of it....and to get a rise out of my sisters.  I pretended a little family of fairies lived in a tree stump in the corner and we would play together while I enjoyed endless summer hours happily lost in my mother's garden.  When I was a teenager, I spent most of my time wandering in the wilderness of my journals, novels, and English papers while the rest of my friends were dating and going to dances.  In my twenties and thirties I hiked more deeply into the darkness and took a leap of faith that resulted not in a sound landing, but in growing gossamer wings.
          As my forties dawned, I literally moved to the edge of the continent and lived in a little hut on a craggy cliff, hopeful to allow my inner wild child to live untamed and free.  For a year I walked barefoot in the garden, planting seedlings among the fat, juicy worms that cultivated the soil.  I raised a passel of chickens and a feisty little kitten.  I spent endless hours soaking in the sulfur baths reading Alan Watts and Rebecca Wells and John Irving.  I hiked for hours along the edge of Highway One that led me to enchanted places where I could test my unfurling wings.   Still, one of the greatest gifts of living in Big Sur was learning that it's not always the location which provides the's the willingness and ability to embrace my true nature, no matter where I am.
          Now wherever the future might take me, I welcome the steadfast reality that I was born to be like a wildflower...showing my true colors, delighting in simple pleasures, opening up, spreading seeds of joy...and embracing the delight in being a late bloomer.