Saturday, November 21, 2015

Home, Exile, and the Teeth of the Shark: A Meditation by Ruth Krall

Today, I want to share with you a meditaiton that Ruth Krall recently shared with a number of friends by email. It strikes me as such a powerful statement as the global community talks about issues of exile, mass migration, violent expulsion of people from their homelands, and the struggle to exercise hospitality. As I've told you previously when I've posted essays by Ruth, she's a mental health clinician and pastoral theologian who has done a tremendous amount to call the Mennonite church to accountability around issues of sexual abuse. Ruth's series of books Elephants in God's Living Room, which she's generously made available for downloading at her Enduring Space blog site, focuses on this and other issues of importance to the discussion of abuse matters in religious communities. 

Here's Ruth's meditation (and I'm very grateful to her for permission to share it here):

No one leaves home unless home is the jaws of a shark. 
Warsan Shire 
You do not need a pope, a bishop, a priest, or the Catholic Church to heal. 
Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea 
No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.You must learn to see the world anew. 
Albert Einstein

I’ve been thinking a lot about these issues of leaving home under duress – because home is an abusive, and therefore, intolerable place. I tend to look at this through the lens of a person who made the decision to live in a second country for a short period of my life. I was not an exile in any way – having chosen to work for Goshen College in Costa Rica as its faculty director of studies abroad there. It was an opportunity for me to engage myself directly with Latin America – a region whose theology I'd studied at Claremont with Mortimer Arias. I was, therefore, not running from something but was more moving slowly towards something I valued – becoming a cross-cultural person.  

Nevertheless, culture shock was not just a fantasy. There were days of longing for home. Knowing the people; knowing the routines; knowing the language; knowing the expectations: all of this and more were stripped the moment I got my visa to live in Costa Rica. I was now defined by the word expatriate. I was a non-native. I was a temporary emigrant from my homeland. I was a foreigner. The language was a second language for me.The ordinary social customs that we use to make friends were new to me. Foods tasted different and some were unknown to me. Even polite ways to use the toilet were different. There were days in which I thought I was insane to have left the security of North America for the insecurities of each day in Central America. But I was not a refugee. I was not in involuntary exile. I was not an illegal immigrant. I was not a permanent resident of a strange land. I was not impoverished. I had not needed to flee the shark's mouth.  

I know, however, the deep longing to return home. I know the homesickness for the foods of my nation's daily table. I know how much I wanted to see someone who shared my life history. I know how much I comforted myself with the oceans on both coasts of Costa Rica. Their waters welcomed me and I felt at utterly at home as I walked their edges beachcombing for shells. Every time I found an empty cowry shell I felt I had discovered gold. The cowry shells with hermit crabs were already occupadas; they could not provide me with a spirit home. I carefully placed them back where I had seen them.  

One day as I walked my favorite Pacific Coast Beach, it was as if I heard the ocean speak directly to me. Trust, it whispered, this new culture to support you just as I, the ocean, support you when you swim. Immerse yourself in it and it will sustain you. 

There were days when I still longed for a North American hamburger but I learned to love Costa Rican style rice and beans (gallo pinto) and ate that dish for breakfast as well as for lunch. I learned to carry an umbrella even when the sun was shining, for it was the rainy season. I learned to watch the blooming flowers all over the countryside to tell me about subtle season changes. Slowly, I learned to talk the vernacular Costa Rican (Tico) Spanish and even be understood. I even learned to swear and talk dirty in my new language. I began to understand the ubiquitous Tico phrase pura vida beyond its dictionary definitions. I made friends and found people I could talk to and be heard at a deeper level than the limited vocabulary I had would indicate as possible. I even found a vibrant expatriate community of social justice workers. Eventually, I even found a beauty shop esthetician who could cut my fine German-genes hair the way I wanted it cut. There were so many gifts to me and my life during that year – once I could stop clutching my homesickness to me as a self-definer. My life has been so very blessed by those fourteen months abroad as an expatriate in voluntary exile.  

The ordinary routines of my life became my customs. I made the transition. I became bi-cultural. Returning home, I was overwhelmed by many things which I’d taken for granted fourteens months earlier. I acutely missed some realities from my daily Costa Rican life.  

Eventually as I re-integrated, I adopted a certain philosophy. Wherever I was – this was my home – my inner home. Thus, I needed to protect my inner home from abuse and from hostility. I would look for people wherever I found myself – people to share my very ordinary life with. But I would not tolerate abusive relationships – they were poisonous to my spirit and to my body and to my work in the world. I could not stop anyone from choosing to hate me, but I could work very hard at not hating in return. That said, I felt no obligation to hang out with people who hated me, despised me, or thought bad things about me. I began to be more and more careful about the internal psychic barrier I call wisdom that admits experiences and that denies experiences entrance.   

I have known the experience of living in a home where the front door was made of my mother's shark's teeth. I still carry the residual wounds of that home and its door. But the moment I left that home for my own independent life, I began the life-long journey of understanding the wounds and the fault lines that I carry as a result of living there. I know what it is to love the hands that hurt you. I know what it means to trust the violence one knows more than the calm one wants to know. I know how hard it is to trust when all of one's bones scream the world of women is totally fucked and untrustworthy. At least some of my fault lines are also gift lines – they help me to understand other people and their unique fault lines. They have taught me compassion for others and for myself.  

That said, I also know the healing power of ordinary human relationships where one is loved for who and what one is. I know what it is to be loved for myself as myself – flaws and fault lines and strengths all rolled into one human being. I am so grateful to a series of older women who took me into their emotional embrace and, without knowing why they did it, sought to re-mother me. I am in their debt and I try to pass their gifts on to other women and even men. With them I learned to trust women as trustworthy.  

I believe, along with Mary Gail Frawley-O'Dea, that healing is possible. We can find our way back into life after being assaulted by hostile beings who do not see us for ourselves but only as the projected other. I also believe what she may not believe. The gods are optional. We do not need the religious hierarchy for a rich spiritual life. In fact, the religious hierarchy may be counter-productive to the inner spiritual life. But we do need human wisdom about the spiritual life. So my life has been a continual search for teachers and wise ones – those the Jewish people know as the wisdom ones who keep the world alive.  

Living in involuntary exile is, therefore, a totally different reality. Yet, I believe there are some similarities. Culture shock is inevitable. One eventually has to learn to trust, to serve, and then to enrich the culture where one actually lives. One needs to look for a way to sustain the self that has integrity inside a community. We human beings are not meant to be totally alone. Even the most spiritually advanced hermit is not totally alone. Once basic safety needs for physical shelter, food, and life itself are met, we human beings begin to look for relationality to sustain us and to heal us of the wounds of exile. I really believe this can happen. We may, however, need to deal with the inner reality that we can never again return home to our original home. Whether like Paul Tillich we fled Hitler’s Germany and came to the United States with no ability to speak the common language of this country, or like Thich Nhat Hanh we were politically and coercively exiled from our home land, or like Tom Doyle, the bishops despise and actively abuse us so that we must leave for our spiritual safety and our work in the world, we must make accommodations.  

It is no good to have temper tantrums expecting our new homeland and our new language to become just like our idealized home. It won't be just like the home we think we need.  

We have, therefore, to open the inner self and seek to explore the new interior spaces which open to us as we begin to explore our new home. There will be loving people to care for us and to provide shelter for us – if we can trust ourselves enough to let this happen.  

The photo of fossilized shark teeth from southern Israel is by Mark A. Wilson of the geology department of the College of Wooster (Ohio). He has generously uploaded the photo to Wikimedia Commons for sharing.

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