Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Pilgrimage Through Time

By Susan Esther Barnes

A couple of times a year my job takes me on a road trip through time, causing me to drive past the towns I lived in years ago. Sometimes it’s hard to drive by those places without remembering what my life was like when they were my home base.

Last night I passed by the town where I lived with my ex-husband from the mid-80’s through the mid-90’s. Whenever I think about that place, I think of mitzrayim, Egypt, the narrow place from which the Jews escaped in the Exodus. Those days were unbelievably constricting. I felt like there were walls pressing in all around me, to the point that my spirit was almost crushed.

I used to think of myself as a person who would be married to one person all my life. It was incredibly difficult to give up on that vision. In the end, I mourned the loss of the marriage, but not the distancing of myself from the man.

It’s not that the vision was meaningless, or that I didn’t love my ex-husband, but the relationship we had never constituted a healthy marriage. In fact, I realized on our honeymoon that I had made a horrible mistake. In a way I was trying to cling to something that never existed. It reminds me of a line from a song by The Wailin’ Jennys called “Heaven When We’re Home” which says, “I’ve been hanging on to nothing when nothing could be worse than hanging on.”

Also last night, I drove by the town where I lived during and after my separation and divorce. When I think of that place it always brings a feeling of lightness. The heavy burden of my marriage was gone.

The walls, however, were still there. They were just pushed out a little farther away. It was like moving from a straightjacket to a room of unknown size with dense fog obscuring the walls. I didn’t know what my limits were. They felt close, but I didn’t know how close.

Like the Israelites who left mitzrayim, I was b’midbar, in the wilderness, and I didn’t know how to handle my freedom. I remember one evening, early on, pulling to the side of the road on the way home from work. I had to stop because I couldn’t decide what to have for dinner, so I didn’t know whether I should drive home, or to the grocery store, or to a restaurant. I had to decide before I could move.

Deciding was so difficult because, for ten years, deciding on what to have for dinner was about reviewing what we had eaten recently and then trying to guess what my husband wanted to eat. The penalty for guessing wrong was getting yelled at, and being told what was wrong with me.

On my own, when I tried to think of dinner, my mind kept going to what he would want, and I had to keep reminding myself that didn’t matter any more. It was just about what I wanted. That thought pattern was alien to me.

I understand long-term prisoners have the same problem when they get out of jail. When someone else decides everything for you – what you wear, when you wake up in the morning, when you go to sleep, what you eat – it is hard to decide those things for yourself. These decisions seem simple and easy to most people, but it’s hard to train yourself to employ new and different patterns of thinking.

Like the ancient Israelites, I was physically free, but still wandering in the wilderness, trying to make sense of my new circumstances and trying to learn a new way of being.

Finally, last night I drove to the area where I now live. This place feels expansive. It’s not that there are no walls; it’s just that they are both further away and more clear to me. These walls are so far distant that I don’t run into them often, but unlike the hardly-seen walls after my divorce, their presence isn’t a mystery.

In the middle I live in a safe place, with a husband who loves and supports me, and who gives me a solid home base from which I can take the risks necessary to explore the placement, the strength, and the height of the walls.

I’m not convinced it’s possible to live in this world with no walls. We all have limitations. They are physical, or financial, or spiritual, or emotional. The difference is, these walls aren’t stifling. They don’t interfere with my daily life. I know where they are. And I know that if one gets in my way, I can give it a good shove, and it will likely move aside.

I don’t know where the next place will be, or how it will feel. I don’t know what the walls will be like there. But I know it will be where I’m supposed to be. It brings me back to the same Wailin’ Jennys song, with its refrain, “It’s a long and rugged road, and we don’t know where it’s headed, but we know it’s going to get us where we’re going.”

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