Cracking the Shell

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It wasn’t until the last few days that I felt deeply in my bones that something had shifted for me. I couldn’t pinpoint what it was at first. It was like driving from Tucson to California in the middle of the night and reaching Quartzite at the break of dawn to catch a luminous edge, a glowing orange, peering slightly above the horizon. The feeling at the sight of the first emergence of light over the dusty mountains on a lonely highway was sheer awe. Driving for hours with the road visible only by headlights and the dim sheen of a crescent moon and desert stars, the immensity of deep relief gazing upon the new morning stunned. A rush of energy pulsed through my nerve-endings.  Inky skies no longer blended with black landscapes. A sudden awareness of detail, of sharp contrast, brought clarity to the road. The sun’s fiery threads weaving through the mountains illuminated the path to my final destination.

This week I saw the break of dawn in my own life. I was unaware until the light flooded in that I had been submerged in the dark depths of my own shell, a protective layer of subconscious that kept me suspended in stasis. I wasn’t fully living. Before the Diagnosis, before the Cancer, there was fear. I had married, divorced, and married again. The fear was palpable. Did marriage guarantee monogamy, fealty, unconditional love? My experience said no. My expectations of love set me up for failure, for I had bought into the myth that another person could complete my life, set me free, liberate my soul, and fulfill my longings. I believed in soulmates and twin flames. I believed in complete synergy with another human being who would complement and unify all my parts.

I sought so furiously, desperately, for this union outside of myself. I believed that happiness and true love meant finding that perfectly amazing human being to whom I was fated to be and live with throughout this physical existence and beyond. Everything hinged on me finding this person. So, I searched and searched.

What has taken most of this life to learn is that the person I have been looking for so feverishly is my own Self. This search is the luminous edge. It is the cracked shell. But now it has broken open, the cracks are wide.  No prayer of re-assemblage.

The Hopi have said, “We are the ones we have been waiting for.” In the most profound manner, I have begun to embody this belief. Like an egg, my shell has been cracked again and again until, finally, the Truth of who I am in relation to this life has spilled out. It has been messy, unpleasant. There is no containment. I am who I am. We are who we are. And the internal knowingness that only we can fulfill our intrepidly wild and gorgeous dreams is one of the most powerful truths I have ever encountered. It’s like driving in the dark without headlights and reaching the cliff’s edge. My inner guidance knowing to slam on the breaks as I wait for the Sun’s first rays.

With much love,

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Disclaimer: For those who may be tempted to read into this reflection, please know that all is well at home – with/in and with/out. There is a sense of peace and deep love where before there was sometimes doubt, within and without.

Remembering Dolores O’Riordan

In the early 1990s, when the Cranberries were at the height of their career, I remember enjoying their music but keeping them at a distance. It seemed like every alternative music station was playing “Zombie,” “Dreams,” or “Linger.” Though I appreciated the complexity of the lyrics and was riveted by Dolores’ voice – which sounded like it was resonating in an echo chamber – I was oversaturated by their fame. They were ubiquitous and, like any celebrity band, reproductions and copycats of their sound and image were inescapable. I didn’t want my early and mid-twenty experiences defined by memories of their music. For example, I didn’t want to associate my experiences walking through the streets of Mexico City with “Ode to My Family” churning over in my head. I wanted the playlist of my formative adult years to reflect the pain and desires of falling in tormentous love and looking for an exhilarating external freedom (which only much later on, would I realize could only exist within). I wanted something audible that was raw and full of power. Sound Garden, P. J. Harvey, Sonic Youth, and Nirvana provided backbone to all the mixed tapes and CDs I created to accompany me on road trips and international adventures or during indulgent brooding sessions. There was no room for the Cranberries during this period in my life though, in some ways, they were always there following me through magazine covers and background music in restaurants and bars.

Then in 2012, I watched The Cranberries on Tiny Desk Concerts. It was sometime in March or April just a few weeks after I had been diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember I was alone. It was late at night in the living room. My husband had gone to bed and the girls, including my 10-month-old baby, had finally fallen asleep. The house was quiet, but warm. It was early spring in Washington state and, though there was a deep chill in the air outside, inside, my husband had prepared a beautiful, crackling fire in our wood-burning fireplace. It smelled of sweet hickory.

I couldn’t sleep. I was preparing myself emotionally and psychologically for the upcoming mastectomy. I sat on the couch with one of my cats on my lap and began scrolling through Apple TV. I had started watching Tiny Desk a couple of weeks earlier and had caught a set by Foster the People. I wasn’t terribly acquainted with their music, except for “Pumped Up Kicks,” and immediately appreciated their acoustic, stripped down performance. It hooked me. I wanted more.

I scrolled through the Tiny Desk menu and saw, “The Cranberries” listed. My heart gave a little jump. I thought, “Wow! They’re still together? I’ve got to see this.” I pushed the play button on the Apple remote, and there she was – Dolores O’Riordon. I was immediately struck by her short black hair against her pale white skin and minimal makeup. She, too, was stripped down. She felt raw to me, but far from vulnerable. There was an inner ease and strength in her voice and movement. She started the set with Linger and, at one point, when she sang, “I swore. I swore I would be true and honey so did you. So why were you holding her hand?,” I felt her question measured, direct, and full of context. On the word “why,” she arched her body forward and squinted her eyes as if posturing to an old lover who had deceived. That gesture said, “How dare you mess with me! I will not stand for this! I am worth so much more!”

My heart filled watching her, feeling her emotions ebb and flow. At certain moments she was standing her ground and speaking from her heart and, at other times, aloof and distant. At one moment, it seemed like her mind had drifted and had landed on a deep, dark memory. Her stare was thousands of miles away. Then, suddenly, she came back as if jolted into the present, smiled at her “lads,” and poured air and life into each forthcoming word.

Tears flowed down my face as I watched her performance. I found myself standing in the center of my living room arms outstretched, in the same manner as Dolores’, singing with her. I poured and channeled all my anger and fear into each song and was completely surprised by the fact I knew almost every word. How in the world had I learned these songs? A part of me must have always been paying attention. A part of me must have known during the 1990s how important these songs would be to me one day, how cathartic it would be to sing with Dolores in my living room as I sang out the fear of death.

Something about who Dolores was now, in 2012, became really important to the healing that occurred that night. I saw my own pain, sorrow, and happiness reflected in her eyes. There was a deep understanding that I knew we shared. It was the indescribable bittersweet experience of feeling loss and hope simultaneously. She embodied both and, that night, I was completely receptive to the underlying message her soul was expressing.

Dolores, in Spanish, means “pains” or “sorrows.” It is not lost on me that in the Tiny Desk performance she is wearing a beautiful, heart necklace which, I believe, is a representation of a Milagros pendant. A Milagros, which translates directly to “miracles,” is a religious folk charm that is traditionally used for healing purposes and as votive offerings of hope. I find it profound, in the retelling of her Tiny Desk performance, that what I experienced as the most transformative aspect of that 4-song concert was the juxtaposition of the pain and hope I felt from her through that set. Now, after her untimely death at age 46 – the same age I am now – I am struck by how she weaved, pain and hope, so viscerally, effortlessly.

This is my Ode to you, Dolores. Thank you for always being there for me, in the foreground and at a distance.

Much love,

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Ring the Bells that Still Can Ring

“Ring the bells that still can ring,

Forget your perfect offering,

There is a crack in everything,

That’s how the light gets in.”

 

Anthem by Leonard Cohen

When I was recovering from my mastectomy in 2012 there was a night when the pain was so intense I didn’t think I’d make it through to dawn. I sat upright, propped up on my pillows trying to breathe, but my lungs would not fill with air. I thought to myself, this is the end. Then suddenly, I became aware of an orange, glowing light. I realized it was my salt crystal lamp illuminating the room. The light had not changed in intensity or brightness, but somehow my clarity had sharpened. In that moment of clear vision, I knew I would live even though my body felt as if it was breaking down and separating from my spirit.

I had read in Elizabeth Edwards’ memoir, Resilience, that when she was reckoning with her husband, John’s affair; her oldest son’s death; and her terminal cancer; she would remember Leonard Cohen’s lyrics from Anthem. The verse above was one that would come back to her repeatedly. These words became my anthem, too. I heard them from a distance getting closer to me as I weaved in and out of consciousness and clarity, the Percocet strumming on my neurotransmitters and brainwaves.

Cohen’s words carried me through, just as they had done for Elizabeth during her most trying times. I was, like Elizabeth, raw. Blood and bone. An imperfect offering for any god that would have me. But I was alive. My heart was still beating. With all my scars, tubes, and fluids, I knew that God’s light was close and that I, in all my bandages and imperfections, was loved.

These lyrics reminded me of my humanity and grace. Like Elizabeth, they ignited a thirst within to live, to love, and to overcome all the shit, fear, and darkness that threatened to extinguish my light.

***

Yesterday, 2017, five years later, Cohen’s lyrics came back to me but in a completely different context.

Yesterday, I bore witness to many young men and women – Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA) students – speak of their love for our country. I listened intently to their personal narratives as they spoke, one at a time, in front of the large crowd standing on the State Capitol steps. I was moved by their immense gratitude for the United States in spite of the shit, fear, and darkness that threatened their safety and security.

Their stories highlighted the good within our country even though many of them and their family members had faced and continued confronting discrimination, hatred, and unfair treatment. They spoke of hope and of light. They described their dreams of being citizens and of working hard to build strong relationships between people, across borders, and among countries. They were young and held hands as they spoke. Their tightly grasped hands like chain links as they stood their ground and claimed the only place they knew as home. They protected each other, and we, in solidarity, formed a large circle around them to reinforce and strengthen their resolve.

The bells rung for us and we, responding to the light coming in, understood that our common humanity was what mattered the most.

***

Yesterday was a sad day for me as I listened to the testimonies of so many young men and women who face real fear and danger in their fight to stay in the United States and become citizens. I couldn’t understand, but could only imagine the betrayal many of them must have felt by those they thought loved and cared for them – neighbors, teachers, and even old friends. People who they thought they could trust were no longer their allies. This “reality” experienced first-hand reinforced ad nauseam by the mass media.

Yet, in the midst of this sadness church bells began to ring in the distance… God was reminding us to hold tight and take heart.  The Light was coming in.

This is not the end for our DACA students. It is not the end of hope, either.

It is a moment to choose who we are and what we stand for.

 

How will we respond?

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Counting Blessings

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Lately I have had difficulty keeping track of time. The summer is passing by so quickly and each day is full of activities and things to accomplish. I have many self-imposed deadlines coming up and the prospect of getting everything done seems impossible. In the past, I would have felt anxiety and stress. I would be worrying about all the work ahead of me and feeling guilty about my upcoming vacation. I would be berating myself for taking on too much and not having enough time to enjoy my summer. A part of me would feel miserable and another part excited about the opportunity to get away from the daily burden of to dos hanging over my head.

Right now, though, I feel only calmness. It’s a detached state of mind where a part of me is observing all the activities I am involved in without feeling the rollercoaster of emotions I am used to experiencing. It is a strange sensation, especially because I realize I may not complete all the tasks I had hoped to accomplish by the end of summer.

Perhaps part of this sense of inner calmness comes from knowing that in twenty-four hours I will be on route to Spain to celebrate my fifth-year anniversary of being cancer-free. I am meeting up with my sister-in-law who is also a cancer thriver and who just completed radiation treatment. We are celebrating our precious lives and counting our many blessings.

As I have written about before, I experienced many dark nights of the soul going through my cancer journey. There was one night I will never forget. It was the night I spent in the darkness of my basement grieving the life I felt I was about to lose. That night I was gently, but firmly, shown two paths. One led to the end of my suffering where I would quickly slip away and out of my mortal coil to be one with the Light. I knew that if I chose this path I had little time to remain in the physical plane. Though I didn’t want to leave my husband, children, family, and friends, the exhaustion and pain I felt dealing with the cancer was almost unbearable. I was tempted to step onto this path and be released fully from the anxiety and fear that plagued me.

The other path, in some ways, was more difficult. It meant that I would have to choose life in a conscious and deliberate manner. Choosing life, for me, meant knowing I was fully responsible for all of my choices, actions, thoughts, words, and feelings. I felt the gravity of what choosing life would mean for me. It would mean no more bullshit. It would mean that I needed to step up to the plate, live in the present moment, and BE aligned with who I truly was. No more shrinking, backing down, or slinking into the periphery. By freely choosing LIFE I made the decision to no longer give away my power. I realized and acknowledged the incredible inner sovereignty within.

I remember thinking, “Oh shit. This is REAL.” I could feel the weight of my choice. God wasn’t playing.

By choosing LIFE I have chosen a more challenging path. The difficulties lie in making sure that what I say and do are aligned with the highest good. There’s a passage in the Bible (I just looked it up), Matthew 19:24, which reads, “Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” In my view, even with wealth aside, it feels impossible to enter the “kingdom of God” IF, like me, you believe that the kingdom is not so much a place, but rather frame of mind or level of consciousness. How can I walk through the “eye of the needle” if my consciousness is not pure, if my heart’s intentions are not aligned with the highest good? This question makes me check myself again and again. Do I honestly believe and feel that I am being true to myself – my higher Self – in my daily routines and interactions? In other words, am I truly walking the walk?

Though I believe, in my heart, that the kingdom of heaven is open to ALL of us, I also have an internal knowing that there are ways to open our hearts here on Earth that will make it easier for us to fully experience (and understand) the Light that is constantly being offered. Being aligned with our highest good – our greatest most divine Self – is a huge step toward receiving and integrating this light. I interpret this biblical passage to mean our ability to be our highest Self without judgment of others or self (our Earthly personality/ego). It is to BE who we came to be by stripping off the protective layers, carefully constructed or forcefully imposed, and to KNOW we are living our lives from LOVE, not fear.

As I prepare for my trip tomorrow, I feel genuinely happy that I am HERE on this physical plane and that I chose LIFE when I had the opportunity to do so. I am aware that every day is a new opportunity to align my thoughts and actions with my higher Self and to be able to ask if what I am experiencing holds the intention of the highest good. I am blessed to be able to have these internal reflections and am grateful to have a space where I can share my heart. I am counting my blessings and am conscious in this NOW moment of the gifts this LIFE has offered.

With much love,

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Interview with Many Rivers, Dr. Lorri J. Santamaría, Ph.D.

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Mini bio: 

Dr. Lorri Johnson Santamaria has her doctoral degree in Special Education, Rehabilitation, and School Psychology from the University of Arizona. She is a seasoned and accomplished academic in the fields of multicultural/multilingual education, social justice and equity in education, and educational leadership. She has worked as a university professor in Cal State San Marcos in Southern California and currently still works as a Professor of Educational Leadership in New Zealand. She has authored and edited several books in educational leadership and developed the theoretical framework, Applied Critical Leadership.

In the past year, Lorri’s life has taken an interesting and dynamic turn. Part of this story today is to capture Lorri’s unique, challenging, and rewarding journey with cancer.

We start today’s conversation, asking Lorri to share how her recent journey has shaped her views of spirituality, wholeness, and heart-centered approaches to healing. Then we ask her to extend the conversation to how what she has learned from her personal journey can be applied to transforming education and educational spaces. 

Links and Resources:

Many Rivers II Wellness  – This is a link to Lorri’s business website.

Newsletter 1: MRIIW Newsletter Spring2017

Academic Profile including publications.

Applied Critical Leadership_book