My mother used to say I was born with my head in the clouds. She also said that if it wasn’t stuck onto me, my head that is, I’d leave it behind. Perhaps as a result of these comments, I spent too many years navigating the challenge of living using only my head, as if my body were some kind of strange appendage with a habit of getting in the way. For years I focused on changing the world without ever looking at changing myself. For years I worked to support women to develop their own voice, to live from a sense of their own value and power, without ever examining how much I needed those very things myself.
I was raised in a culture infected with a rabid and religiously backed misogyny, infused with the demand that one’s own self be sublimated to the service of others. Deep down I was a poet, an artist, and a Romantic, all of which were judged selfish and unworthy. I rejected them early. Then I committed what was then regarded as the worst kind of sin: I became pregnant outside of marriage. My son was taken and given for adoption. I buried the pain and spent the next almost thirty years as an organizer, activist, educator, community worker, fundraiser, program director, social researcher and policy report writer, working for women’s rights. Though it was satisfying and valuable work, I see now that I was “driven” by my need to escape rather than include my own experience, and my old habit of drowning out the true callings of my heart and soul.
Approaching forty and apparently neither wife nor mother, I was the kind of woman who, even then – as late as the early eighties in Ireland – invited distrust and suspicion. Miraculously, Life intervened and offered me the chance to let my head be “in the clouds” once more. I allowed myself to be carried on the winds of mystery to the western states of America. I went for a year. I have stayed for more than twenty.
For the first ten of those years, I immersed myself in the wild beauty of Montana, wandering the wilderness, romping with buffalo and wolves, grizzly bears and raptors, hiking through mountains raw and rough as my numbed heart. Living far from the jangle of towns and human company, in the maw of a Silence vast as my own inner emptiness, I found a solace and a sense of home that I had forgotten I once knew when, as a child and teenager, I would wander the hills and coastlines of Kerry.
When eventually I had to find work, I went back to social service, working with Native children and with homeless and poor women. Then I was pushed again, this time without choice, into the kind of disintegration that can so often be the deepest opportunity for healing. I received a diagnosis of breast cancer. With it, everything I’d built to keep me from the pain I carried cracked wide open and fell away. Like bones ground to dust, then blown by wind back to the desert of their origin, I was returned to my essence.
I’m not the first person to have been turned around by cancer, turned back to face everything I had not examined, turned around again to face into a new, more expanded and authentic life. I began to write: first poetry, then fiction. At last, the story I had run from all my life, the story of my pregnancy and the loss of the son, the story I most needed to tell, began to emerge.
At first, I wrote for him…and for myself, the farthest thing from my mind being publication. Yet, when the writing did its work of healing, when it succeeded in generating a new relationship between myself and my newly reunited son, I began to think it might have something to offer others…not least the countless other women who shared my experience.
Now I am in the process of finishing a novel, an altogether more enjoyable and pleasure-filled enterprise than the memoir. And I’m studying Qi Gong, learning the preciousness and the importance of including my body, this body that has taught me so much, this body that refused to allow me to ignore my soul, this body that has guided me, despite my head, into a deeper and deeper ability to embody and to express who I truly am.