May 17, 2010
by Jude Rittenhouse
Hope and hopelessness. Feel these in your body: hope’s light, airy, winged, lifting, just-out-of-reach qualities juxtaposed with the heavy, muffling, iron, tugging-down-into-blackness of hopelessness. If these were the only options, who among us wouldn’t choose hope, as long as we were able to choose? Yet, having struggled mightily with depression in the past, I’m quite aware that choosing hope isn’t as simple as it sounds. Now, on this soft overcast spring day, having clung to and released many ropes of tangled hopes and having learned to weather desolation turns out to have prepared me for this next phase of the journey.
After decades of doing the work depression called me to do on self-image and identity, now that relationships inside and out have shifted, blossoming into the intricate garden of an earth-bound life, depression’s black eyes again seemed to beckon as its mouth opened in a black cave and its finger curled like a mother calling her darling home. When this happened, what at first felt like that uncomfortably familiar gloom turned out to be a call to meet what waits beyond duality: beyond the opposites of a dreamed-up perfect future where others recognize and celebrate our magnificence, versus the heartbreaking hunger of a loneliness which whispers to us in our sleep and lies waiting until we get quiet enough to hear the discordant notes of our heartstrings.
Watching my mother descend into the final phase of Alzheimer’s while my great-niece blossoms into toddlerhood, I might be lured into the snares of old beliefs. That is, I might see these two as opposites—hopelessness and hope—playing out their quintessential natures like two children on a see-saw: one hitting painfully and breaking against hard earth, while the other soars to a giddy height. Yet when I look through eyes unobstructed by well-scratched habits, I know life at any age can seem a roller-coaster ride of exhilarating climbs followed by wild weightless flight followed by nauseating plummets into hard landings. Attending to the journeys of my ninety-three year-old mother and my two year-old great niece shifted my focus to an invisible fulcrum. This child of two addicts and my mother’s final journey opened my ears-eyes-skin-blood-heart-soul-mind to a third place that is neither hope nor hopelessness.
We don’t have a word for it, but I need one now. Now that I have followed that curling finger down into tunnels beyond depression’s hollow and hungry belly. Now that I find myself no longer able to believe in anything I don’t absolutely know. Now that I know: hope and hopelessness are illusions. Think of ocean’s surface reflecting a distorted version of sky, and that same surface hiding all the life going on in water’s belly below. So let’s call this third place the Water of Truth or the Depths of Reality. We could even call it by any of the genderless names that mean All That Is and I Am. Here, in this placeless place, we find so much more life than our bodies are accustomed to receiving, feeling, carrying into and through the world. Proximity to this third thing can at first feel far more disconcerting than any theme park ride we might contrive. Yet this enlivening intensity calls persistently, whether or not we listen.
Soon I’ll say goodbye to what little remains of the woman who was once my mother and, later this week, a court will decide the future of my fragile blooming two-year-old great-niece. At any moment, I could so easily shift into swimming furiously on the surface, the way I was taught—the way that comes most naturally, unnatural as it may be. Or I could panic, fight, feel like I’m drowning, like the world as we know it is ending.
The world as we know it is always ending. Allowing the teeming water and its real depths to hold me and do with me what they will—that is now my hopeless hope. Writing today took me back to revisit a poem begun over a decade ago during my sojourn at an artists’ retreat center in northern New England. The first two stanzas were inspired by an etching and a collage I saw there. The final stanza was beyond my ken and vision back then. I offer this as my open hand receiving yours, inviting you to travel this territory with me, learning to live:
I have known hope
to seem an abandoned endangered thing:
an iron wedge misplaced in a cave
at the edge of a vast blackness. Possibility
lost inside walls tunneled deep
beneath a rock-cold fastness: an avalanche
of disastrous desires.
I have known hope
to leap out of these caverns and arrest me
like the red of a Cardinal’s crest or the swirl
of a shell—a sea-castle shining on fresh
wet sand, immersed in fecund smells.
like a dragonfly humming above summer’s
fading voluptuous fields,
then landing at dusk on the rail of a porch to be
stopped and caught by a thoughtless child.
I have wanted
lungs abundant with laughter. Instead I have
skin’s slackening grip teaching me, like water,
to sing and weep simultaneously. ____________________________________________________________________
Jude Rittenhouse has received a Writer’s Grant from the Vermont Studio Center, a first place short story award, and various poetry awards. In addition to her holistic practice, Integrated Healing Services, Jude teaches at conferences, retreats, schools, hospitals, alternative health centers, and domestic violence shelters. She is also an inspirational speaker and presenter for literary audiences, cancer survivors, spiritual gatherings, high school and college students, and other groups. In all of her endeavors, she strives to empower others as they explore their unique journeys toward wholeness.
To learn more about her holistic practice or to inquire about her poetry chapbook, Living In Skin, contact: Jude@JudeRittenhouse.com or call (401) 348-8079.
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The journeys that life takes us on. . . thank you for your words.