Monday, July 29, 2013

Sacred Spaces: When my heart is in a holy place

Want to hear a weird story?

On Friday, I got out of work early, and I went to one of my "special places."  Everywhere I have lived, I have found one or two of these spots.  Places where I can reconnect and slow down.  I even took pictures, planning on writing about this place.  Then there was drama, my sister came to stay with me, and my plans were sidetracked. 
Taken at my "Sacred Space"
on Friday

Last night, I was going to write again about these special places, and about the importance of finding those spaces, and about how I need that space.  When I sat to write it, though, I got anxious and bothered, decided it wasn't the time, and wrote about the process of writing instead and how, sometimes, I just get anxious about topics I want to write about and can't write.  (Yeah...okay...busted). 

Tonight, I just had no idea about what to write.  I looked through my pictures from Friday, posted a couple to Facebook, decided I wasn't going to write about that, and then asked my FB friends (okay, maybe I pleaded...) for inspiration as to what I should write about.  I mean, I've been writing for 28 days straight.  I need a little inspiration here.
So my wonderful, beautiful friend responds: "Sacred spaces.  Holy ground.  Love in an elevator..."  (and then recants the last suggestion, citing the Aerosmith song). 

*shivers*  That gives me goosebumps.  (Not the Aerosmith song.  Steven Tyler does NOT give me goosebumps). 

So here we are, then.  I think I need to write about sacred spaces. 
Picture taken at my "sacred space"
on Friday
(This may be a wild ride.  My heart is saying "NO!" to writing about this, but my head is saying "yes," and I'm not entirely sure why they're in such disagreement.  Hold on tight, okay?).

A used bookstore/junk shop called "Off the Deep End" was the first place I remember identifying as a place I held sacred.  I have difficulty saying it was a "holy" or "sacred" place, seeing as it housed novelties like whoppie cushions, plastic flamingos, and fake dog poop...but the basement was awesome.  It smelled old and moldy, and was literally filled from floor to ceiling with books.  When I was a kid, this was our "go to" place on rainy days, days when we weren't getting along, bad homeschooling days...if something was awry, we went to "Off the Deep End," and spent $25 on armfulls of books.  The best part about it was that the young adult/poetry/fiction sections were on the complete opposite side of the basement from the kids section/nonfiction section that my mother and sisters liked to visit.  The young adult section was literally just a tiny little nook under the stairs.  There was never anyone else there, and no one would bother me.  I could sit there and go through books for a little bit and then, because I was a fast reader, I would pick up one that looked interesting -- but not interesting enough to pay for -- and I would read it, cover to cover, while everybody else was on the other side of the store.  If I was at home, even in my bedroom, I was always being bothered.  The space never felt like mine.  I was always waiting for the next interruption.  But in the nook under the stairs, I had at least a good solid hour when nobody would bother me.  I never saw anyone else there, so the space was essentially mine.  For 11 year old was pretty much heaven.  It's funny that this is the first place I think of when I think about my "sacred places," but it is--it's the first time I remember having the sacred place feeling about.  Not the sacred place feeling you get when you walk into a beautiful place of worship.  I'm talking about the comfortable sacred place feeling, where you can just be.  The feeling of fully embodying your true self and being able to just truly live in your skin, even if just for a moment.  The feeling of finally getting true solitude to unpack your soul and leave the messy pieces out to dry in the sunshine while you bask in the glorious weightlessness of setting everything down outside of yourself and letting yourself just be.
Am I the only one who knows this feeling?

I had other sacred places, too.  The little place past the blackberry bushes that you had to fight
The butterfly bush was COVERED
with butterflies.  If that's not sacred,
I'm not sure what is.
through near the stream in the woods next to our house.  There was nothing special about this place, other than the fact that I claimed it and I went there to think and to be alone.  The thinking and writing that happened there made it sacred.

When I went to college, the introvert in me required several sacred places: the bench by the duck pond.  The desk in the way way way back of the back of the library.  The computer lab at 2AM.  I needed those quiet places where I could open my heart onto paper, or lose myself in a book, or find myself walking through my thoughts.  Once I had a car, I drove out to the park near my school and sat on the grass between the geese poop, watching the geese, and listening to the rush of traffic on the highway.  My last year of college was complicated by innumerable difficult, painful, and traumatic family situations.  Everything about the process of going to the park became sacred: the drive to and from the park.  The ritual of parking and walking to my favorite spot.  The setting down and picking up of thoughts and burdens.  It was during this time that finding sacred places became not just important -- it was essential.

Taken at my "Sacred Space" on Friday
Moving to Ohio for grad school was challenging.  Starting over in a new city, in an entirely new have to find all new special places.  I did, though.  Quickly.  That one specific study room in the basement of the library.  The woods behind campus.  The arboretum not far from me.  The village not too far in the other direction.  The glen near the village.  Grad school was also the first time I felt like my space truly belonged to me.  I began creating little alters, and I made the space my own.  I made my tiny apartment a holy space.

I learned in my 2nd year of grad school how easily sacred places can be uprooted.  One Saturday night, I was cooking in the tiny kitchen of my on-campus apartment.  I had burned incense several hours earlier with some new incense I had gotten from my birthday, my windows were open, I had music playing, I was taking a break from studying, and my heart was at peace.  Suddenly, around 10:30PM there was a banging on my door, and a deep male voice announced that it was the campus police.  Frightened, I opened the door to find 4 cops and 2 RAs standing outside my door.  They asked me if there was illegal drug activity going on in my apartment -- to which I replied no (it was just me, cooking couscous in my kitchen).  They asked to search my apartment.  Not wanting to seem suspicious, and having nothing to hide, I said yes (not knowing I could say no).  Three of the cops went into my bedroom and bathroom, while the fourth and the 2 RAs stood by the door, watching me.  They asked me for my license and university ID, which I provided.  In the end, they determined I was "clean" and unsuspicious, and they left.  I went into my bedroom and found that they had not just looked in my room -- they had opened every drawer of my desk and dresser, had pushed things aside, and left everything looking messed up and gone through.  In relating the story to people afterwards, I could never quite put my finger on why it was so devastating.  It was because it was mine: it was my holy and sacred place, and suddenly, it reeked of someone loud and aggressive I had not wanted to let in.  It took me completely rearranging the apartment -- and several weeks -- before it felt sacred and mine again.
In my third year of grad school, I learned that when your body is violated, it's impossible to find a place that feels sacred.  For a while, I stopped trying to find sacred, holy places.  I wanted only to find a place that felt safe.  But when your body is not a safe place to reside, how can anything external be safe?  Books, learning, and academia were always safe places for me.  No longer.  Even my own apartment could not feel safe enough, secure enough, because even my own skin did not feel big enough or strong enough to contain what was coursing through my veins.  I wanted, needed, craved, even, to find a place where I could feel safe and feel some sort of connection with myself.  As time went on, I thought I would never find it again.  It got to be that I couldn't even imagine a place where this could be a reality.

It was after church one Sunday.  I was sitting in the back of a Borders bookstore working on my dissertation, surrounded by the smell of coffee and new books.  I had covered a table with all of my articles and books, had my computer open, and Pandora radio playing through my headphones.  I
The labyrinth at the Sisters of Bon Secours
was completely immersed in writing my discussion section and trying to understand my data, when I felt it.  I hit that point of safety and holiness, and although it lasted only a few moments, it gave me hope that I could find those places again.  The back of Borders became a safe place.  It wasn't QUITE as awesome as my cubby at "Off the Deep End," but it worked.  And I was grateful.

I slowly --slowly -- tried to rebuild my network of sacred places.  The Women's Center on campus became one sanctuary.  A coffee shop.  My church.  It was still hard, though, to try to identify that one place I could go when I needed to unpack my heart.  I never did find the sacred places there again.  Safe places, yes.  But not sacred.  Not holy.  There was nowhere I could consistently go to unpack my mind and heart and connect with something greater.
One of my altars
 And then I moved -- again -- to Maryland.  I was -- again --starting over, but this time, with much more baggage than before.  I started making altars again.  I bought a statue of Durga, who embodied the strength I wanted, and I made her a centerpiece in my home.  I created a sanctuary for myself. 

Then one day, I had to do something that was difficult, and frightening, and overwhelming.  It was something I had to do by myself, and I was scared.  I called in sick to work, got in my car, and started driving.  While traveling some back roads, I saw a sign for the "Sisters of Bon Secours."  I drove up a big hill, saw what looked like a well manicured convention center, and a large, beautiful, deserted labyrinth.  It was quiet.  There was no one around.  I didn't know what a sister of Bon Secours was, but it didn't sound like someone that would yell at me for walking a labyrinth.
I parked and spent the next hour walking the labyrinth.  I cried, and I unpacked my heart, and I examined all the pieces, and one by one, I put them back in.  Even the broken ones.  And then I sat, feeling everything that was beautiful and sacred and holy around me--and that's all.  I just sat there.  After another hour had passed, I stood up, gathered my belongings, and drove home.  I did the scary, difficult, and overwhelming thing that day.  I never would have been able to do it if it weren't for that sacred space.

I still don't know what or who the sisters of Bon Secours really are.  I never see anyone there.  But it is my spot.  I went there on Friday to clear my head and walk the labyrinth.  I spent 20 minutes just watching the butterflies on the butterfly bush.  Just the process of driving there makes my breath go deeper into my chest in anticipation. 
Another Sacred Space
I have many sacred spaces now.  My house with my Durga altar is one.  The labyrinth at the Sisters of Bon Secours is another.  The spot under the railroad tracks off the trail behind my house is a third.  These days, I seem to collect these sacred spaces like rocks in my pocket.  I sometimes bring them out and hold them in my hands, just to remember.  The sacred spaces bring my heart into a holy place: a place of gratitude and joy and pain and suffering and compassion.  I am always grateful for those moments.
Another one of my favorite hymns has a chorus that goes like this:

"When our heart is in a holy place
when our heart is in a holy place
we are blessed with love and amazing grace
when our heart is in a holy place."

 I could not agree more.

(And a video of kids singing this hymn...because nothing is more adorable than kids singing, right?).

What about you?  Where are your sacred spaces?  How do you find them?  How do you know they're sacred?
Final butterfly from Friday

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