Over the last six weeks, I have been writing with my non-dominant hand—which for me is the left. It began with a decision to give my frozen right shoulder a break from long-hand writing and using the computer keyboard and the mouse, but now I confess I am still writing with my left hand. It has been an altering experience.
For one thing, the non-dominant hand has a different pace. You can’t rush. Every letter and word must be carefully formed in order to be legible, which makes the experience more like drawing than writing. I find it meditative, pleasurable, actually—an antidote to the hurried, “white rabbit” mind. And, because I do not have the time or space for writing out worries or ranting about all that is not right with the world, my subject seems to be changing. Only the essentials get written down. New ideas filter in, one word at a time.
I find that between the letters we write and the thoughts we think, there are worlds of knowing. Writing with my left hand is inviting those other, left-out worlds in.
To illustrate what I mean, I’m compelled to share an experience that I would normally not share on the basis that it’s too personal, and perhaps doesn’t fit squarely into the WonderLit hole. Nonetheless, here it is, fresh from the pages of my left-hand journal.
I have come to spend a few days of quiet time at my favorite country retreat: Ste. Anne’s Spa in Grafton. It is a beautiful place, situated on 300 acres of hilly green land overlooking Lake Ontario to the south. The rooms are beautiful. The beds are comfortable. The gardens are lush, the pool is refreshing, and the food is light and delicious. (It’s a bit costly to stay there, but it’s an all-inclusive. You get your meals, spa credits, and accommodation altogether in the fee.)
On the first afternoon of my visit, I am wandering along a sheltered, quiet path. It is easily accessible to visitors, but it doesn’t proclaim itself in any way. Those who wish to sit and meditate will find a silence here that prevails even over the people gleefully enjoying the nearby pool. As I come along the path, I stop at a wooden, life-sized statue of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. She stands to my right, in a leafy grotto. Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré is the guardian spirit of Saint Anne’s Spa. She is holding her infant son and might easily be taken as a statue of Mary with the baby Jesus.
While I stop to take her in, I find that I can’t make the ninety-degree turn to face her. I feel compelled to look at her sideways, over my shoulder. Over the years, I have passed her before, reverently, but somewhat anxiously. As a mother with a child, she is a figure of adoration, but I have resisted meeting her. Why? Is it her expression? She holds her child too tightly. There’s a tinge of self-importance in the line of her mouth that makes me feel outside, a stranger. I feel the way I’ve felt thousands of times in the presence of mothers holding their babies.
My mother once said, “Pray for a miracle.”
It didn’t happen. So forgive me if I don’t quite turn to face you directly, I murmur silently, walking on.
Funny thing is, though, as I carry on up the path I am aware that everything I have just felt about the statue, the saint, my mother, my shut-outedness—it isn’t RIGHT. It isn’t appropriate to have those feelings. Then I see that there is a whole field of response to the LEFT of me that I don’t allow myself to experience because it doesn’t feel RIGHT.
Who is this “anonymous authority” as Erich Fromm called it, who swoops in and carves out a huge swath of felt experience, because it doesn’t accord with some sort of preordained law about how I should conduct myself in the world, even when it’s just me and the Holy Mother?
More importantly, why does this editor exist? What purpose does it serve to disallow our authentic responses to the world around us? We seem to be able to allow ourselves certain kinds of feelings. Men often get angry instead of admitting their sadness. I get angry too, but sadness fills in for many other feelings, turning whole fields of response blue.
As I walk on up the hill toward the beautiful stone building that overlooks the rolling countryside, I realize how natural it is to be having all these feelings about motherhood. After all, my mother has only recently left this world. She and I had our own experiences at Ste. Anne’s in the early days of my journey with chronic pain. One night, we sat across the table from one another at dinner and compared notes on the Holy Mother. As a Catholic, my mother addressed her as the Virgin Mary. I addressed her as the Mother Goddess. We ended up agreeing that we would call her Our Lady—hers and mine—Catholic, and whatever the heck I am. Laughing and drinking wine, we spoke openly about our different ways of life. My mother considered me a messy child, although that evening she might have used the word “free” to describe me. It didn’t matter. I could be messy. And I could free. I was in pain: broken-hearted, and broken open. My mother looked at me with a bewildered expression. She was orderly. She wanted a secure environment around her, a predictable day ahead of her. She managed her life. She did not careen through it, running wildly up hills with her arms flung open like Maria in “The Sound of Music.”
I never felt quite right in the presence of my mother, or any mother, for that matter. Even the Holy Mother. I have lived, in every way, on the left. I’m on the left of the political spectrum. I’m out in left field. I care about people who are left out and left behind.
And now, somehow, writing on the left feels like coming home. I’m integrating what has been left out, and slowing down to experience responses that can get all-too quickly erased in the rush to be right.
I loved my mother and I know she loved me, and at the same time, we had very different experiences of motherhood. Few people speak about the mothering that you need to do for yourself when you’re hurting and there isn’t anyone who is with you inside. You have to become your own mother, your own counsel, your own cheering squad, your own kick in the pants. In this materially-oriented culture, we tend to think that the only mothers are those around us who are raising little ones. But we are our own little ones, always, and we need that nourishment that only mother love can give. A loving mother is first and foremost, compassionate, and willing to listen to everything, good and bad. You don’t have pretend to respond in a way that will meet her approval, or perform to spec so that you don’t get tossed out of her cramped heart. There is an opening to fields, especially left fields, in a loving mother.
My mind wanders back to Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré. Her name rings a bell. A few years ago, I went to Quebec with my mother, my Aunt Pauline and cousin Monique. The women, all Catholic, and all mothers, were eager to visit the Basilica of Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré—a pilgrimage site in Quebec which has become extremely popular since it was first established by settlers in 1650. As soon as the site for the chapel had been chosen, according to legend, the miracles started happening. The first to be healed by Ste. Anne was a fellow named Louis Guimont, one of the locals of Beaupré. He placed three stones in the foundation of the chapel building and found himself suddenly and entirely healed of his excruciating rheumatism. By the time the Catholic Church built the Basilica in 1876, so many miracles had happened that on either side of the doorway, there were stacks of crutches, walking sticks, bandages, and other appliances that the ill and the disabled had apparently abandoned.
A staff member at Ste. Anne’s spent a long time this morning sweeping the quiet stone path by the grotto. Her sweeping was slow and methodical. She didn’t seem to wish to leave the place until every pine needle and leaf had been swept off the flagstone.
Lying nearby in a hammock, I wondered: is it possible that Lady Anne of miracles has extended her graces to Northumberland, and furthermore, that I keep coming back because she is here? I was staggered by the thought.
When I was first taken down by chronic back pain, I came here.
When I started limping, I came here. Then I came here with my husband and we stayed in a cottage near the pond. Ste. Anne’s inspired us to look for a country place in Northumberland.
When the blue spruce that towered in front of our farmhouse was exploded by a lightning bolt, I took my stricken sister here.
I was here with my mother when she came to visit me, at a time in my life when I felt broken in every way and I needed to know that I was worthy of mother love.
I came here by myself, in the middle of winter, when I was contacting my spirit mother in the character of the fairy godmother in Perrault’s Cinderella. The waitress led me to a table where I sat under a huge, ornamental clock, permanently set to midnight.
Ste. Anne’s keeps drawing me back.
The abundant, generous land, the cheerful gardens, teeming with poppies, pink roses, black-eyed susan, buttery daylilies and daisies, and the meadows fragrant with sweet clover and purple vetch have calmed my frazzled nervous system and soothed me in my sorrows.
“There is nothing wrong with how you feel,” I hear Her whisper. “Nothing at all is wrong, only the suffering, and even that isn’t wrong. It just hurts. And I know how it hurts to be outside because I am inside, feeling with you, learning with you what it is like to feel left out. How good of you to extend your compassion to this experience, to feel what others feel who are also left out and caused to feel wrong about themselves. You know so much better now, having put yourself on the other side.”
My first response to that quiet voice in my heart was to think, “I really should go back and see that statue. I haven’t greeted her as a saint ought to be greeted. I should have gone to see her at the Basilica.
But it didn’t feel right. And about that she is pleased. “You can put that need for approval down, now,” she whispers. “It’s an old crutch.”
Painting by Vincent van Gogh