The ego contracts around problems, said my yoga teacher, quoting a Franciscan monk, while the soul wanders for meaning. Another yoga teacher put it this way: A bad day for the ego is a good day for the soul.
My wandering soul kicked off a month of good days (car rear-ended, computer stolen) traveling north to Vermont to drop the child off at summer camp and to spend a week with my mother. A close friend came along. We planned to write, practice yoga on the deck, take walks. She had the goal of finishing the book she’s been working on—the peace and quiet of backwater Vermont would be just the thing. At the last minute, we elected to give up sugar for the week which may or may not have had something to do with the bitterness that followed.
Because my mother, who suffers from dementia, requires supervision, I’d stay at the main house and my friend would stay in my usual spot up the hill at the guest house we call “the cabin.” The wildflowers in the meadow below the cabin were in extravagant bloom–purple lupine and daisies. The first afternoon we practiced yoga together on the deck, as planned. From the pond came the charming back and forth of two bullfrogs, each with its distinctive voice, a brag, a query.
After serving my mother dinner in front of the network news that night, I lost the first game of Scrabble to my friend. We walked together back up to the cabin, admiring the fireflies in the gathering dusk. After making sure she was settled, I returned to the main house, which is dark as a cave and something of a hostel for a wide-ranging population of rodents. I once watched as a chipmunk skittered between my mother’s legs through the open front door. “Mom!” I cried. “A chipmunk ran in the house!” She waved her hand in defeat, not a trace of resistance. “They live here,” she said.
One winter, a weasel took up residence in the barn attached to the main house. Call him a magical friend come to help; my father reported that was the only time in history they didn’t have a rodent problem. Weasels are carnivorous mammals belonging to the Mustelid family. One night I caught the briefest glimpse of that shy fellow. He hung suspended in the shaft of light that spilled into the darkness when I opened the barn door: a long streak of white with a black-tipped bushy tail as if it had been dipped in an inkwell. You never forget such a thing. For starters, you never forget that you must continually be on guard for startling animate contents.
My mother used to change the sheets for visitors, to put fresh flowers in a little vase on the nightstand. I looked everywhere for a pillow, and then a pillow case, finally settling my head on a raft of batting flat as a pita pocket, puzzling over what had become of every last pillow and pillow case in the house. I woke, wide-eyed, in the middle of the night with the thought that I was lying in the exact spot where my father had drawn his last breath and the early apprehension that I would not so much be writing this week as acting out a chapter from a Faulkner novel.
Over the next few days my friend, flying first-class up at the cabin, that little haven of order and simplicity, sent ecstatic texts: “I love it here!” she wrote. “It’s so beautiful! I’m getting so much work done!” Oh, and did I need any help, she asked, time and again.
It’s true, I have trouble asking for help. In the main house, I was engaged in a different kind of work, into my mother’s dresser drawers, where I found not clothes but rubber gloves, ski gloves, a few coat hangers, some baby wipes and cloth napkins, together providing a troubling glimpse into the heavily-plaqued mind. With the feeling of losing ever more of her executive function, there’s paranoia, the sense that Someone is stealing from her (“Someone” is). The cure for this is to hide things so that Someone will never find them. Then when she has hidden them so well that she can’t find them herself, she pitches a fit and blames Someone for stealing them. This squirreling away and fruitless searching consume the better part of each day.
Over the next few days, my emotions were stirred to a witchy froth. I soon began to feel jealous, oppressed, and self-pitying. I missed my bed up at the squeaky-clean cabin with its plush pillows and starchy sheets. I was sleeping poorly in steerage and saw no easy way through the ongoing struggle of a devolving mother situation. My ego saw that things would likely get worse before they got better and it contracted around this wound like shrink wrap.
Sometimes you find yourself in a working patch, something trying to poke its head up from down below, something struggling to come to awareness. It’s exactly like that Whac-A-Mole game you may know from past arcade experience. You stand poised with a rubber club over a cabinet pocked with holes. When moles start randomly poking up out of one hole or another, you score points for bashing them squarely on the head.
This is exactly parallel to the practice of Shadow Work. When we’re triggered, hot and bothered, when rodents are popping out of holes and we want to bash them back down, it’s the people closest to us that take the heat, carrying the brunt of our unconscious projections. We strap onto our friends and family the saddlebags that are ours alone to carry, seeing out there what is in here.
Our projections may look something like this: she is selfish, vain, ambitious, on an ego trip. Write your rant down, whatever it is, then tuck that piece of paper into your wallet and read it back to yourself in a month or so, whenever you are ready to face the truth of your own unflattering self-portrait, that snapshot of your projected smallness. This, dear reader, is real life Whac-A-Mole.
Or maybe, if you have a really, really good friend, you won’t have to wait a month to do this work. Maybe you’ll be so undone by emotion that you can’t hold it in anymore. She will text and text asking you for help but you will be so deeply into your martyr act, so bitter that she’s having all the fun, getting all the work done, as she always has with her four published books, that you just won’t answer. At the end of a long day of not answering, when she appears, fresh and innocent as a meadow daisy, with her bright goodwill, saying, “What can I do? Are you okay?” and then, finally, “Are you angry at me?”, you will lash out at her, then retreat in hostile silence to sit next to your mother on the couch in front of the news, blinking back hot tears. She will quietly do the dishes and return to the cabin from where she will send you a long email imploring you to tell her what to do to make this right. You will have successfully offloaded some of your misery onto her and now she too will be a weepy mess.
The next morning the two of you will stuff your pockets with tissues and set off on a walk– two hours, four mountainous miles up and back along the lonely dirt road. Talking your way through this minefield, you’ll trace the grievances through two losing Scrabble games and back through all the years of your friendship, grad school, teaching, babies, books, and on into your bittersweet childhood where it all began long before she even entered the scene. Doing this work of self-exposure, you’ll blow through the tissues and find comic relief in the tiniest insults (You played the Z on that triple letter square!), and if you keep tunneling, you’ll arrive, finally at the sweet spot where there is insight. You’ll understand that she carries your greatness as well as your smallness, that she models the virtues of hard work and setting boundaries around that work. Your jealousy can be seen, if you are not too blind or self-protected, as a roadmap of where you need to go. You’ll see that everything has its light and dark side–that vanity can also be read as engagement—a life vibrantly connected with the world, and that self-absorption can be seen as discipline and focus. You’ll see that she is a woman claiming and living her gifts, and showing you a way to do it. You’ll see that she is your teacher.
In the next few days, you’ll find a healthier balance—she’ll work alongside your mother at the main house—she doesn’t care if she’s facing the meadow or facing the pond, both great views–while you take a break up at the cabin. She’ll counsel you to do less. She’ll sit and hem your mother’s pants and listen to her stories and you will feel, once again, that she is the most magical friend a person could wish for.