The River - An Autobiography
by Annie O'Shaughnessy (2003)
My mother birthed me in twelve minutes. Mine was the seventh body to pass through her womb in ten years. She said I was born hungry and happy — a chubby smiling baby. Ann Elizabeth Ellen O’Shaughnessy.
I am surrounded by faces and touched by hands, cooed at and kissed. I am cradled in the tiny baby holder my dad built so that my mom could cook with me on the counter top. In the afternoons, when my older siblings come home from school, I am passed around; each takes their turn with me, trying to get me to giggle and smile. I oblige them. And evenings, I am taken to the dining hall of the school where my parents work and live and there, a new wave of smiles and warmth peers in at me as I lie in my stroller. I am never alone.
I am in my mother’s arms in a dark room, in a rocking chair. My ear hurts and she is stroking my back. I am crying and she is singing. I fall asleep.
My mother is doing the laundry; I crawl in the huge pile of dirty “whites” and smell my father’s Old Spice. I am shooed away. I find my own way around the big old house. I creep up the steep crooked steps to my oldest brother’s attic bedroom. Only the smell of mothballs is there and I crawl backwards down. In the morning my mom rushes around to get the others ready for school. I am in the bathroom alone, no more diapers for me. I want to be “grown up.” I use half a roll of toilet paper. I can hear my mom calling my name impatiently — she has to get the others to school. I emerge smelly but proud and my haggard mom just smiles and laughs to herself as she cleans me up.
When I think about my journey I think about this beginning. I think about the gifts of such a baby’s life: love, freedom and trust. These gifts sustain a life — or I should say, my life — and balance the darkness and fears that inevitably emerge. Anne Hillman, whom I interviewed recently, said to me, a baby is born with perfect faith and then the world and its imperfect humans make holes in it.
St. Aloysius Catholic School. Fear of death. Fear of “judgment,” fear of forgetting all the rules. At age seven, I wake up in the middle of the night in terror, realizing I have forgotten to pray to God to protect our house from fire. I learn at school the difference between right and wrong. Heaven and Hell. I learn about cardinal sin and lesser sins — confession and penance. I learn the complicated code of the church, which, if I follow it, will lead me to heaven. I learn to do what I am told and to not speak out of turn. I learn how to get the nuns’ praise by cleaning the convent after school. There is a simplicity in the orderliness of things — a distant comfort in knowing that if I just try hard enough I will get it all right. I am good at trying hard.
But this play between dark and light in the early days of my life is beyond awareness. I am playing. I am fearing. I am sleeping. I am cuddling. I am fighting with my sibling. I am climbing a tree. But I am not thinking of these things. The nightmare of the burning house is my reality. The kiss and tickle from my older brother is my reality. Awareness begins later when right and wrong become muddied. When things no longer fit into black and white.
I am fourteen-and-a-half years old. A handsome boy I know from my father’s football team asks me for a kiss. And I oblige. He asks me to come with him and lie beside the boxwood shrubs in the headmaster’s garden. It is in the far corner, past the rows of forsythia and rose bushes. And I do, having hidden there many times before with my best friend David, playing war, playing Lewis and Clark hiding from Indians. He asks if he can see my body and so I take off my clothes, curious to see his too. His hands caressing my skin feel familiar and warm. He asks me if I want to become a woman and I say yes, of course, what a silly question, thinking of my two oldest sisters who had grown into women — wanting to be like them. I don’t know what sex is, although I have seen dogs do it. I do not know sex is involved in becoming a woman.
He moves on top of me and presses something hard into me and I am surprised. But, I think: This must be what grown up women do and what I should do. I need to do this right — this “becoming a woman.” I am curious and the moon is out. I don’t want to disappoint this handsome boy or to be told I am baby. So I try my best to do what I should do, lying there on my back underneath this boy, I realize I have learned no rules to cover this. Afterwards, he says he should leave first so no one will know. I am left there, looking up at the stars through the branches of a beech tree. I feel uncertain and awkward but decide I should be proud. I have become a woman. And I pull on my clothes and walk home.
Two weeks later I wrote to the boy asking him why he had told everyone what we had done and why he didn’t want to see me anymore. My mom found the letter, came into the den after school, turned off the TV and asked if I was still a virgin. I answered “yes,” then “no”— confused by the new terminology. And then she cried. It was the first time I saw my mother cry. I cried. I don’t remember any more of that conversation except she did not yell at me. I was simultaneously defensive and contrite. My life had lost its beautiful simplicity.
I had learned shame for what happened. I felt alien — outside my Self. What happened to the confident playful tomboy? No football with the boys, no sleepovers at David’s house. I decided I would go away to school. I had learned the rules well enough to earn a scholarship to a boarding school ninety minutes away from home. After a few months away, I wrote to my mom of the shame I felt about my sin, how I felt like a terrible person for doing what I did and for making her cry. In response, she wrote:
It only proves that you are part of the human race,
struggling and striving — sometimes falling down.
The important thing is to learn from it and let it go.
And with these simple words my mother sent me on a seeker’s life. She released me from guilt and allowed me to embrace the journey. What I learned then was the transformational power of unconditional love.
I feel lucky now that as a child I took on little of our culture’s burden around success. I grew up as the youngest of seven with little asked of me except to go with the flow. When it came time to choose a college it became clear to me that my peers seemed to have a calling and I did not. But, I had fierce determination in two things: I was a lover — passionate and honest and open in all my relationships. I let my open heart lead me. Impulsively and urgently I drank up the sweetness of connection, and reveled in the playful, joyful sexual selves that emerged in others through me. The other was athletics, which for me was like religion: Pushing my body to its limits lifted me above all thoughts of inadequacy. In the crew boat or on my bike or on the cliff I had a purpose — a calling. It was purifying. I was graced with fine genetics and I followed my body’s urgings, until it gave out. I spent a week in the hospital with a fever of 105∫ that the doctors never could explain. But I knew — I had burnt myself up. As a Chinese doctor said, “You have depleted your Chi.” And, I had worn out my heart. Always open and eager for the next big thing — I had invited too much in. I had ventured down many dark roads. I did not know where I ended and the world began. I wanted safety, security, peace. After careful thought, I decided I should settle down. I did the first reasonable and rational thing of my life: I went against my gut and married a man I considered to be in every way a perfect husband, potential father and companion. The world applauded — sighed relief. I had finally come to my senses.
When I was 32 I left this husband of ten years. One month before I left, I wrote this in my journal:
The story of my leaving still feels like something written in code — a code no one could understand on the rational mind level. It was my soul’s decision and no amount of explaining or writing has helped enlighten those who did not understand it. I barely understood it myself. To those who did understand, I had to say very little. They knew within the first two minutes of my telling. They were inevitably people who, at some point in their lives, tried to bury their own soul’s yearnings, who had decided to live a perfectly fine and reasonable life, until the day they could not. That day of “soul excavation” remains crystal clear in their minds. As do all the nudges and urgings from the universe that led them there. Once I left, I looked back and saw this path towards that day so clearly — to me it made perfect sense. So much so that when friends asked me later, “How could you leave such a life — not having to work, good husband, nice house?” I would answer, “How could I not?” And yet, I had never felt so humbled. With my leaving came the realization of how very little I had known my Self all those years. And how hurtful that not-knowing was to my husband and children. I did not leave gracefully.
I did not expect my soul to be such an urgent and powerful force. Nor did I plan to leave when I did — but once I did, I felt supported and encouraged by something I could not name. The path ahead kept lighting up as if with neon. Go there. Do this. Fear accompanied me and frustration, guilt and desperate prayers, but no longer did I feel that deep sadness I could not name, which Sarah Ban Breathnagh, in her book Simple Abundance, says is “you missing your authentic self.”
As I write this, I want to stop along the way and tell my story more deeply. I want to tell that it was never all this way or that way. I was never all impulse and desire or all safety and security. I was always both of these things in varying degrees. While married, I explored my soul’s yearning through a women’s sacred circle, through volumes of reading and writing, through Chi Kung — things that eventually shored me up through the tumult of my leaving. I was planting the seeds and keeping my soul fed.
But this condensed story reflects a life driven by determinations — either a determination to be a free spirit or the determination to be a woman who makes reasonable and smart choices. Both lives reflect a woman with a monkey on her back. Neither life reflects surrender or peace. Even after I left my marriage and my soul filled me to bursting, I was still under the assumption that to live one’s truth meant doing the head-down high dive into experiences as they came along. I refer to this as the ping-pong stage. Bouncing around — desire and ego came before integrity. Defined and steered by others’ perception of me I could not hold the rudder steady. I had not learned to witness and honor my Self unfolding. Although my intuition served me well and the ping-pong ball often landed in rich experience, I could not see my gifts for all the movement and striving. I did not yet understand that I needed to make a quiet place for Grace to dwell.
The ping-pong ball landed at Heron Dance. After I left my marriage, I made a few dollars stocking brochure racks on the Burlington waterfront, which worked because I could bring my kids along. I was poor and without a home but I was happy. I wanted to explore my Self outside of relationship. But, as it turned out, life had a different plan for me. Following that well - lit path in front of me, I was guided towards connection. I found myself having lunch with a red-bearded stranger named Rod MacIver. I was harried and late as usual, but I slowed down enough to take a long slow look at him. It was something tender in his eyes that moved me to respond, “How about tonight?” when he asked if he could see me again.
This connection laid me bare. It was, at times, just a romantic relationship between two humans. But at others it was the opening up to a force I had had only glimpses of in my life. In this place of Grace there was a beauty that often made me cry. In those moments, late and quiet, half asleep, I lost my sensation of humanness and became all Love. I was in the middle of it, just a small part of a fullness that stretched and flowed way beyond the two of our hearts beating. I was learning to accept and open to the big river of Love out there.
Marianne Williamson writes that you’d better have your spiritual chops down when you meet your soul’s mate. You better be grounded firmly in your own sense of your self. But I wasn’t. At times I was elevated by this Love and then brought to my knees. I felt like I was climbing with no rope. Way up there, exhilarated but terrified, I wanted Rod to throw me the rope — “Tie me in man, put me on belay!” He had no rope to offer, but he had a way of being with himself that offered the lessons I most needed to learn: to find my own deep center, to access my gifts, to find peace and Love within myself. It was not easy. It was scary.
Although my heart and soul knew this love was not something we had created, I insisted on making it personal. I insisted on wanting to understand it, name it, measure it, reduce it. I wanted him to do the same and to explain to me how he was the way he was. I wanted an operating manual for this complex character. I wanted all the answers today.
On our second date Rod gave me a copy of the Druid Vow of Friendship:
I drink from your well
I bring an unprotected heart to our meeting place
I hold no cherished outcomes
I will not negotiate by withholding
I am not subject to disappointment
I have it taped here on my wall. It is a vow to live a life by, in all our relations. It has been difficult to honor.
Several years ago a friend and I decided to hike to a cliff ten miles up into a pass. It was 95 degrees and humid. We each had sixty pounds of camping and climbing gear — we sweated gallons. For most of the ten miles my mind banged up again and again against the questions I thought I needed answers to. Near the top of Indian Pass I saw some “smoke.” As I walked to it, I realized it was vapor coming from a cave filled with ice. I crawled in and squatted in the coolness. I put my head in my hands and crouched still. Five minutes of exhausted quiet and I heard this: “Live the questions.” I recalled the Rilke quote my mom had sent to me in college. The words had little impact then but today they came back to me with a startling clarity:
Rainer Maria Rilke
This moment humbled me. My much loved and depended-upon mind was forced to listen to something bigger — to be a receiver instead of a doer. There have been four more moments like this with four more distinct messages. Each came when I was forced to let go of what I thought I knew.
I think there are many things that lay a person open — experiences that make them naked enough to receive Grace. Maybe it is in art or music, maybe it is the experience of childbirth or a close scrape with death. For me right now, it is this Love that flows through me. Rod and I arrived in each other’s lives with backpacks full of contrary baggage. On the human level we had much to sift through — on the heart level it was pure and powerful. So powerful that in order to dwell there, I had to give up many of my preconceived notions of relationship and love; I had to give up my cherished outcomes; I had to surrender to Love. Not to Rod’s love, but to the Love out there that had somehow rushed into the space we held between us.
And the truth is we all want it so badly. For a lot of us it feels like a dirty secret at first to admit… God forbid we should say, “I want to surrender.”
Marianne Williamson, from A Woman’s Worth
Many times in my life, my human self has wanted to take a stand — “Hey, wait a minute, that isn’t fair” or “That isn’t right. They shouldn’t treat me that way.” My concept of what was right or wrong in a human connection was stubbornly ingrained. We keep tabs; we hold evidence. But what is the use? These thoughts block the River’s flow. Big heart — big mind. I have learned a lot about acceptance. I have learned to guide myself by that River. I am trying to tune my life by its rhythms — I feel a pain when I travel too far from it. When I am connected to it, I feel it travel through my lips when I kiss my child, or through my voice when I talk to a friend on the phone.
I used to feel I should do this or do that to become more enlightened. I thought I should read books and work on my discipline. Now I know my path is just there — right before me — just like always. I have to be quiet enough to hear its calling and have the courage enough to follow it. It is all still unfolding.
Love is our fuel. We fail in our deepest responsibility to God and to ourselves each time we fail to declare love and act on love and be witness to love.
Marianne Williamson, from A Woman’s Worth
When we get out of the glass bottles of our ego,
and when we escape like squirrels turning in the cages of our personality
and get into the forests again,
we shall shiver with cold and fright,
but things will happen to us
so that we don’t know ourselves.
Cool, undying life will rush in,
and passion will make our bodies taut with power,
we shall stamp our feet with new power
and old things will fall down,
we shall laugh, and institutions will curl up like burnt paper.
D. H. Lawrence
I have come to know simple truths that before were disguised by my complexity. I have come to know the inner vision that sees with much clarity. I’ve come to know me, the gentleness of my spirit, as it may express itself through love and tenderness. I’ve come to know power in a way that’s personal and creative. My personal power of choice. I’ve come to know love; love of self and others is the same. I’ve come to know the oneness of all who walk the planet in an attempt to journey home.
This essay was first published in issue 34 of the Heron Dance journal.