I cry easily.
This past week, I was in Aspen and Glenwood Springs, Colorado where I taught a group of eager providers about being with others who experience traumatic grief. At a few points during teaching, my eyes welled with tears. It's almost impossible not to feel deeply as I recount the stories of the many families with whom I've worked over the past two decades.
People often ask me if I'm comfortable expressing sorrow; indeed, I am. Because it is in the place of sorrow where my heart remains soft, open, and willingly vulnerable.
It is because of our own broken hearts that we are able to dwell with others in their dark night of the soul. It is because of our own broken hearts that we are able to advocate for others with fierce compassion (such as the rescue this broken creature). It is because of our own deep connection to sorrow that we are able to connect so viscerally with other beings.
And perhaps others sense this capacity for connection?
For me, this mysterious place where the "I" ends and the "You" begins is where the magic lives. And we learn, not in a conspicuous way, but with each sublime unfolding: there is no real "I" and "You."
Those who have access to this place know precisely of which I speak.
Those who do not yet know: keep your hearts open to knowing.
Because I'm awed, every time I'm invited by life- and death - into this space. And though the scientist in me has difficulty resisting rationalization, I understand, somewhere in the center of that small, still inner voice, that these experiences are nothing less than extraordinary moments between ordinary beings. For me, it feels an ancient truth...
Since I can remember, I have been highly sensitive to the pain and suffering of natural world. When I was 7 years old, I declared that I would not eat meat any longer, a strange and unusual proclamation for our ethnic culture. At 9 years of age, I lobbied for the first Save the Whales campaign.
Years later, in 1985, I read this Adrienne Rich piece, and I wept because it resonated so:
“My heart is moved by all I cannot save:
so much has been destroyed
I have to cast my lot with those
who age after age, perversely,
with no extraordinary power,
reconstitute the world.”
Perhaps, her words epitomized the human I wanted to become, preverbally. And I think my first experience was both preverbal and pre-sentience.
When I was 18 months old, a wild bluejay flew into my father's store and became, oddly, attached to me. He wasn't injured and seemed tame. He just... well... hung out with me. I have no conscious memory of this interesting relationship but I have our family narrative, and a photo from the New York Times, to support my family's story.
For me there is nothing extraordinary about spontaneous connections like this except that others feel it to be unusual enough to make the papers.
Simply, I attribute these kinds of experiences to a state of "wide open shattered heart". This is the heart that willingly feels the sorrow of all beings. And I know many ordinary others, like me, who have practiced the "wide open shattered heart" and who are now privileged to experience these kinds of mysterious connections.
Back to my week in Colorado: I practiced staying aware, present, and in every moment wherever I am (note: practice). I practiced listening with all my senses to the pain of others. And I heard many such stories in Colorado. Willingly. Over and over. I didn't protect my heart. I didn't turn away. I didn't shut down. I stayed with some of the most horror-filled stories imaginable. There was copious crying.
And every person who entrusted me with his or her pain is deserving of such presence.
Meanwhile, I'm finding ways there - in between the sorrow-filled moments - to connect with beauty. I took off my shoes to hike barefoot down Aspen Mountain, where I climbed to 11,300 feet up the mountain shoed, and felt both the soft sand and the jagged edges of the earth beneath my bare feet during the descension.
I played in the park with others' dogs, and I talked to strangers, one of whom is an incredible musician named Chris Collins who performs John Denver tribute concerts (he's generously offered to perform at a benefit concert for the MISS Foundation!).
And here's where it gets interesting. We met because his dog, Molly, kept playing ball with me in the park, and so he came over to introduce himself. He invited me to Maroon Bells, a gorgeous outdoor area near Aspen, where they were going to sing by the campfire. Intrigued, I knew this was my kind of event.
Chris Collins singing "Sunshine on my Shoulders" for me
View toward the lake at Maroon Bells
Two friends went with me to the Maroon Bells area, and we left early to explore the lake and stream about which others raved. We had hiked up the creek first, and then went to explore the lake. As we were walking on the edge of the lake, I realized there were other people enjoying the area. But the three of us were so taken by good conversation that we hardly noticed anyone else.
About 100 feet away, up on the bank, a family was picnicking. We hadn't noticed them until, completely out of nowhere, a little boy from their group came running full force away from his family toward the water where we were walking. He passed my friend, who was walking on the inside, and threw his arms around my legs.
I was - shocked- pleasantly surprised, and my friends looked quizzical, as if to ask if I knew him. I bent down and said, "Oh hi there, sweetie, thank you for the wonderful hug." He squeezed tighter as I looked around for an adult. His mother was running toward us but he was undeterred and hung on to my neck. She stopped about 15 feet from us and, with the most clearly nonplussed look said, "Did he just run up to you and hug you?"
"Uh, yes," I said, almost stutteringly, with a smile. "I'm not a creeper, I promise."
Her husband started toward us and she explained to him, at a distance, what happened. They were both - well - we were all - floored.
I asked if I could pick him up and she said yes and began to take photos of this rather bizarre and beautiful connection.
I asked his name. "Vaughan," he said.
"Where do you live?" I asked curiously.
"At home," he replied innocently.
He held on to my neck so tightly I could hardly move, and I could feel myself tearing up with emotion. Every second of his attention was intently focused on gazing into my eyes and gently touching my hair and face, just as my once-young children had done many years earlier. Every time the wind blew hair into my mouth, he would take his little fingers and gently move it back behind my ears.
It was seriously- and I mean seriously- one of the weirdest and most intense hugs I've ever had.
My friends were speechless, I was speechless, his parents were speechless. Yet, here we all were... my only flimsy explanation is that something in that little boy's heart recognized something in my own heart, perhaps because he knew my heart was shattered and wide open... what other explanation could there be for such a moment?
Four year old Vaughan, one magical little man
On the way home from the warmth of Aspen, between Moab, Utah and Kayenta, Arizona, a small black dog stood in the highway, injured. I pulled off the side of the two laned, remote road and called to him. He came timidly toward me. He had porcupine quills embedded in his face and neck, obviously in pain and swollen.
Second best souvenir ever...
That was three days ago, and as you guessed, I have a new four-legged family member.
His name is Aspen Vaughan, and I cried, happy tears of my "wide open shattered heart" this time. So, I'll keep on crying, and feeling, connecting and being in that place. It is the place where the heart is broken open into the realm of the immaterial, the unexplainable, the extraordinary experiences of connection.
And with no extraordinary power at all, those who suffer can, and do, reconstitute the world.