Cancer does this: Shake you out of the status quo and drop you into a different realm, one where your everyday priorities are rearranged and suddenly small talk, the cleanliness of the house, even your job ambitions seem ridiculous. Instead you give yourself over to what really matters: Being present to one another. Doing everything possible to tend to health and well-being. Emily and I call this place of intensity Cancerland. Life-threatening illness does a marvelous job of helping you reprioritize.
But so do other things, like the death of a loved one or losing a home or experiencing trauma. The last time our country did a collective gasp and had to reprioritize was 9/11. The recent election shocked some of us into a new way of seeing the world. Our national shadows—the parts of us that fear the Other, that wants to eradicate whatever seems to threaten our wellbeing—are now out in the open. They’ve been there all along, as people of color and immigrants and trans folks have been trying to tell us. But now we’re all plunged into a new reality: Shadowland, a country where democratic processes are scorned and fear has taken the reigns.
When you first descend into Cancerland, you get the bends. You grieve, you struggle to breathe, you panic. You flounder around trying to learn everything you can about the disease and treatments, rallying your community, connecting with good doctors, considering diet, setting up streams of communication… Eventually, if you’re lucky, you settle into a routine and find space to consider what does and doesn’t matter. Out goes the job, in comes time with the beloved. Out goes self-consciousness, in comes fearless presence.
When Emily was declared cancer-free and we finally left Cancerland, we rejoiced. But we also experienced a strange sadness, because health returned us to fretting over our wardrobes and stressing out about work and never having enough time. In hindsight, Cancerland demanded that we live what we value, in a pure and whole-hearted manner that easily gets forgotten when we’re safe.
This, I suspect, is the great invitation of entering Shadowland. In the face of real darkness, we can now reorder our lives according to our values, and live these values to the utmost.
Here, by way of example, are my gleanings from Cancerland about what matters.
First: Love, and faith in love. Without connecting with a Source greater than yourself—be it love, God, community, the natural world, your breath, your family—you have nothing. I believe, and have been blessed to experience, that love is our Source and that love pours itself into and through us and all of creation, relentlessly. My first responsibility in Shadowland is to remember this. Daily I must reconnect with this larger presence, and trust it. I will do this with my spiritual practice, which asks me to release all that stands between me and this emergent love so it can manifest more fully in the world. I will receive love and care from my family, my community, the natural world, and my physical body, and I will tend this love. More so than ever now, the ground for my every word and action must not be fear but faith in abundant love.
Second: Agency, and faith in agency. “Christ has no body now on earth but yours,” Teresa of Avila counsels us, “no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which Christ’s compassion is to look out to the earth.” To translate from the Christian language, the mighty force of justice-seeking love needs people to make it present in the world. Therefore our every word and action matters. I believe, and have been blessed to experience, that my every action, from privately penning my thoughts to teaching a large class, is capable of creating a just, loving world. When our leaders sanction the destruction of the earth, the harassment and even deportation of vulnerable people, and the diminishment of some people’s humanity, there’s a new urgency to act. I can no longer deny my own capacity to influence change. In every way I’m humanly capable, I now must dedicate my energy, work, money, words, and time to building a just, meaningful world.
Journey inward, journey outward. Contemplation and action. These are the two wings all humans need for balance, wholeness, and flight. Connecting with the Source requires that we face the realities before us. Right action depends on an open, loving heart. In Shadowland, it’s tempting to despair or be afraid or lash out in anger, but then the shadow wins. Instead, let’s use this opportunity to stretch out our wings and exercise them. –Elizabeth Jarrett Andrew
Post script: In case you’d like some concrete examples, here are my most recent commitments in response to Trump’s election.
- I now host a Centering Prayer group on Wednesdays from 11:30-12:30 in South Minneapolis, just northwest of Lake Nokomis. All are welcome. Contact me for more information.
- I am learning to pay attention to and get involved with local and state politics, because I believe Minneapolis and Minnesota are strong leaders for our country.
- I am attending Gwyn’s elementary school’s Black Lives Matter parent group.
- Emily and I have made charitable contributions to the ALCU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota, and commit to continuing financial support of organizations fighting for civil rights.
- I will support those who are exploring what gives their lives purpose and meaning by making my spiritual memoir teaching more accessible online. More to come.
Second Fridays; 1:30-3:30 p.m.: Spiritual Memoir drop-in sessions, Wisdom Ways Center for Spirituality. December 9: Symbols & Metaphors
Participants in the Book Binders’ Salon will read from works-in-progress on Tuesday, December 6th at 7 p.m. in the front lobby at 2615 Park Avenue, Minneapolis. Hope to see you there!
SAVE THE DATE: October 2-6, 2017: Alone Together: Living Revision at Madeline Island School of the Arts.
10 thoughts on “Entering Shadowland”
Thanks for this so much, Elizabeth. I have been in such despair since the election, living deeply in Shadowland, I’m afraid. I can barely muster the energy to go to school and teach. My writing has languished. All I want to do is hole up and read. It’s rather stunning to me how I have felt since waking last Wed. So — this is a good reminder, a hopeful call. Thank you.
This is such a weighty time. I’m with you, Patty; it’s easy to let all that weight push me down. Knowing the cycles of loss, grief, and transformation that are just part of life doesn’t lighten the load but it does put it in perspective. I appreciate your touching base! Be well–Elizabeth
Elizabeth, Thank you very much for this. I found it very helpful, especially the wonderful image of contemplation and action being the two wings of balance, wholeness, and flight. May you, Emily, and Gwyn have a peaceful and joyous holiday season. Tom
Sending you well-wishes, Tom!
Thank you Elizabeth for such uplifting words of encouragement to go forward in love and compassion. May your words be spread across this country.
Thank you, Paula. I’m honored by your enthusiasm.
Thank you Emily. Your words have been so helpful to me. I’m going to pass them along to friends who are also struggling in Shadowland. Your ability to think clearly and share so deeply is a blessing to us all.
Thanks, Edelle! Although I’m Elizabeth, not Emily. Her blog post is pretty awesome–perhaps you’d like it as well: http://www.wisdomdances.com/leaning-into-whats-possible/
oh my elizabeth
the parallels between living intimately in the midst of cancer
and what we are going through right now in our country
are so striking
a year ago i had my first experience of cancerland
and it is so true
that the priorities completely shifted for me
as i feel they have now
thank you for the insight
for showing us in very concrete ways
how you are acting in the midst of it
Isn’t it one of the beautiful ironies of life that times of crisis bring both loss and huge gifts? Here’s hoping we can embrace both in the years to come.