Recovering From the Wounds of an Abusive Childhood
Part One of this three-part series, which includes Marlene’s harrowing account of the abuse she received as a young girl at the hands of her mother, is here.
Reaching for Blackberries
I went off to college in 1958, at the age of 18, filled with excitement and enthusiasm. Even though my mother, Leona, gave the Dean of Women a fit, and some weekends at home were the usual hell, I was finally out of there. Free at last!
Recovering From the Wounds of an Abusive Childhood
Marlene was one of Light Morning’s four co-founders. She died in 2018, shortly before her 78th birthday. Sixteen years ago, for the earlier incarnation of this website, Marlene wrote a searing account of how sustained abuse, both physical and psychological, can traumatize the psyche of a young child. Part One is a hard story to read. But as Parts Two and Three will show, even though the aftereffects of the abuse continued long after she left home, Marlene was also guided by her dreams along a path toward forgiveness and healing.
Is it any wonder that, at 61 years of age, there are still times when I feel like a walking, ticking time-bomb, ready to explode? The home that my younger sister and brother and I grew up in, a small Wisconsin dairy farm, was seldom a nurturing one. As children, we experienced frequent physical beatings and verbal whippings, freely administered by an insecure, out-of-control mother.
The wounds to my body have long since healed; hardly a scar remains. Yet the emotional damage, while crippling, has remained mostly hidden. For unlike physical scars, self-concept disfigurement is visible only to a public of one: me.
Is it possible to heal the broken heart and splintered soul that came out of such an abusive environment? While there are no quick or easy answers to this question, the story I choose to share is one of both tragedy and hope.
Marlene would have turned 80 last month. She and Ron, along with Joyce and Robert, co-founded Light Morning in 1974. Autumn makes me remember Marlene. She loved to squirrel away firewood at this time of year, and help us can up hundreds of quarts of tomatoes and applesauce, and take her beloved John Deere riding mower out for one last gathering of mown grass mulch for the garden.
Marlene died in 2018, shortly before her 78th birthday. Sixteen years ago she wrote a brave story for the earlier incarnation of this website. She called it “Healing Deep Within: Recovering From the Wounds of an Abusive Childhood.”
Next week we’ll share the first part of her three-part story.It’s not easy reading. But it’s a testament to Marlene’s courageous willingness to finally face her demons. And, with the essential help of two strong dreams, to begin to heal.
As a prelude to that intense story, though, here’s something she wrote at the same time, telling how one of her favorite activities as a 61-year-old comes from that same childhood that caused her so much trauma.
This is the final post in this series. Part One and the introduction are here.
Each of the first two posts in this series revolves around a strong medicine dream. But where do dreams like “Down Under” (here) and “Harvesting the Moment Points” (here) come from? They’re certainly personal. I’ve already shared visceral associations with the imagery. It’s quite improbable, then, that anyone else could have dreamed either of these dreams, any more than they could have my face, my voice, or my fingerprints.
Yet strong dreams can also be more than personal. Other people’s thoughts, words, and images sometimes come alive within us. That’s why poets, painters, and storytellers ply their trade. That’s what makes conversation and communion possible. That’s why myths and scriptures resonate. They help us approach the threshold between the worlds from one side. But what awaits us on the other side?
This is the second of three posts in this series. Part One and the introduction are here.
I’m sitting in the Roanoke City Library re-reading portions of Citadel of God, an historical novel about Benedict of Nursia. I’ve lucked upon one of the few armchairs scattered among the stacks. Some newspapers had been laid across it, but I put these aside and become immersed in the life and times of the man who helped birth western monasticism.
A woman in well-worn clothes walks by, glances at me, then sits down briefly on the floor a short distance away. Some of Roanoke’s homeless people take refuge in the library when the weather turns cold. I wonder whether she’s the one who had marked the chair with the newspapers.
Later I lay the book down on my lap and stare into space, thinking about the monastic components of Light Morning. Then my gaze turns to the large bookcase across the aisle from where I’m sitting. The title of one book comes into focus: Callings. I’ve just been reading about how Benedict, a young nobleman living in the waning days of the Roman empire, followed a series of inner callings to leave Rome, live as a hermit, and later become the founding abbot of the Monte Cassino monastery.
I stand up and take the book off the shelf. The author is Gregg Levoy. I open it to the inside front panel of the dust jacket.
“How do we know if we’re following our true callings? How do we sharpen our senses to cut through the distractions of everyday reality and hear the calls that are beckoning us? …How do we distinguish the true calls from the siren song? How do we handle our resistance to a call? What happens when we say no? What happens when we say yes?”1
This is a revised version of the third and final reflection paper I wrote for an 18-month School of the Spirit program called “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer.” My application for this program is here. The first paper, Two Roads, starts here. The second paper, Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans, starts here.
Between Two Worlds
This paper explores the probability that we are a species poised between two worlds. It suggests that on the threshold between sea and land, inner and outer, heaven and earth, we receive liminal gifts from a mysterious Gift-giver. For this is what liminal means: on the threshold. Although the luminous offerings we find on such thresholds are not always easily received, they are the ultimate source of our charisma, our callings, and our special friendships.
* * *
In the middle of the night I’m walking along a beach on the North Carolina coast. Bare feet on wet sand; the soothing sound of surf to my right; the long row of beach houses to my left. Some are dark. Others have a lamp or two still burning. A few are decked out with security lights.
“The inner light alone makes us feel secure,” I muse. “Security lights feed our fears.”
The mid-September night sky is clear. The waning gibbous moon behind me casts the distinct shadow of a walking man on the damp sand in front of me. It mimics me perfectly.
Sirius has climbed above the eastern horizon, faithfully following Orion, Taurus, and the Pleiades. Moonlight plays across the surface of the receding waves. Looking more closely, I smile to see the faint reflection of Sirius there as well.
The waves keep breaking; I keep walking. Slowly I slough off the constraints and conceits of this present time. The beach houses, lights, and power lines fade away, leaving a solitary human doing what our species has done for thousands of generations – walking at night by the edge of an ocean, hearing the same sounds, seeing the same constellations, marking the same phases of the moon.
After trauma had pummeled George Fox, Carl Jung, and J.R.R. Tolkien into becoming story orphans, after they could no longer find meaning or purpose in the outside world, they turned to an inner world. There they encountered murmuring voices, kaleidoscopic images, and transformative visions. They journeyed, in other words, into the magical realm of the myth-spinning mind.
Then they had to make sense of what they saw, felt, and heard in this extra-ordinary reality. They had to put their strange encounters into perspective, to translate and incorporate them into the context of their times. The new stories they were later able to tell were surprisingly well-received.
This continues a three-part series of posts which began here.
Just as the loss of story is essential for children outgrowing shoes or adolescents going through a rite of passage, so may collective upheavals be natural and needful. Thomas Kuhn, in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions,16 defines paradigms as broadly agreed-upon theories. Examples of current paradigms include the heliocentric theory, the germ theory, the theory of plate tectonics, and the theory of quantum mechanics. Prevailing paradigms get so firmly fixed in the minds of their adherents, however, that they often seem less like theories and more like reality itself.
Yet everything changes, and the human capacity to conceive the inconceivable is overrated. Anomalies start to appear even in well-established paradigms. Soon they multiply, until the paradigm becomes so riddled with inconsistencies that the map is no longer a reliable guide to the territory.
This is the second of three reflection papers I recently wrote for a program offered by The School of the Spirit. My application for this 18-month program, which was called “On Being a Spiritual Nurturer,” can be found here. The first paper I wrote, “Two Roads,” ishere.
What follows was submitted in September of 2019. How can that be? Surely far more than a year must have passed since our class gathered at the Franciscan Spiritual Center outside of Philadelphia for our fourth residency.
My sense of time — not to mention my sense of reality — has gone topsy-turvy since the coronavirus pandemic circled the Earth. For most of us, the pre-pandemic normal is no more; and whatever the post-pandemic reality may turn out to be, it has yet to appear. In this tensioning interval, many of our former assumptions and certainties are being deconstructed.
That’s why Medicine Wheels for Story Orphans feels increasingly relevant. As tumultuous and disorienting as these times are, they aren’t unprecedented. Stories are maps of meaning, and we are hardly the first generation to be shorn of our stories.
How do we learn to live with those who might do us harm? What if some of our neighbors are dangerous? Why wouldn’t we simply move away; or cause them to move away; or try to do them in? How do we balance caution with compassion?
Very occasionally an all-too-human friend or neighbor has become sufficiently unhinged to be dangerous. More often, however, it’s been one of the other-than-human creatures with whom we share this land who has tested our willingness to be neighborly. When the path that Dorothy, the Tin Man, and the Scarecrow are following leads into a dark wood — in the film version of Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz — their fears run away with them.
“Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!” they exclaim. “Lions and tigers and bears!”
We’ve never seen, outside of our dreams, any tigers at Light Morning. By slightly paraphrasing Dorothy’s fearful refrain, though, we can easily relate to it: “Lions and serpents and bears, oh my! Lions and serpents and bears!” Stories about our encounters with mountain lions and black bears may be shared later. This story is about learning to live with venomous serpents.