Cultivating Calm and Stillness – Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle
In 1962 my mother embarked on a one thousand kilometer journey on her own in a little VW beetle with a ten month old child through the heart of East Africa around Lake Victoria. Her husband, my father, had been sent to the mission station in Fort Portal, Uganda, in the shadow of the Ruwenzori Mountains to see if this would aid his recover, and she wanted to join him. The Ruwenzori are a glacial mountain range that connect Lake Albert with Lake Edward, of which the highest peak, Mount Stanley, now called Mount Ngaliema, rises more than 5000 meters above the plains before dropping off on the western side into the Greater Rift Valley. At the time they lived in Mwanza, Tanganyika (yet to become independent Tanzania) on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, while my father, an engineer, worked as part of the mission civil outreach programs developing and building roads, schools, and even buildings for the first university in Mwanza. Unfortunately he contracted bilharzia from swimming in the lake and became very ill which prompted the local parish community to recommend his retreat to the mountain air in the hope that this would aid his body recover from an illness for which no cure was yet available. A very simple cure was later developed by the US Military during the Vietnam war when many of it’s own troops were infected with Bilharzia while fighting in the watery trenches of that brutal conflict.
Initially when traveling to Fort Portal my dad left my mother and oldest brother, still a baby at the time, behind. Probably due to the fact that travel was expected to be long and arduous, along poorly developed roads, and he wanted to first assess how everything went. But after a few weeks, as the child grew, my mother packed the two of them up, loaded the VW beetle and set off on her journey north. These were not the days of disposable diapers, ready powdered milk, easy access to petrol or the consumables we now take for granted while traveling on the road. From Mwanza they would have to travel close to 1000 km around the lake, on yet to be tarred roads, along the developing landscape of the lake coastline, through the Serengeti plains where animals roamed freely, to a town on the western edge of the lake in Uganda. There they boarded a ferry with the car that took them the next distance across the northern reaches of the lake to Entebbe, and from there my mother drove the remaining distance west toward the Mountains of the Moon, as some call the Ruwenzori Mountain range.
On arrival my mother’s status became well known as the young French mother who traveled alone the full length of the lake with a young child in tow. She was guest of honor at the dinner table at the mission, seated next to the bishop, then still relatively new to Uganda, so that she could regale him with her stories. In company my mother was a vivacious woman who smiled and laughed a lot, told stories, and loved to be part of the group. A remarkable journey and story it was. What makes this story remarkable, however, is not that my mother made this journey alone through the Serengeti grasslands and across the largest lake in Africa, during the early years of the 1960’s, alone with a ten month old child; what makes this journey remarkable is that we imagine this woman to be strong willed, determined, perhaps a little naïve, but courageous to the core, and she certainly was all of these things and more; but what makes this journey truly remarkable, however, is that my mother embarked on this journey despite her constant encounter with significant levels of anxiety, at times to the point of panic. And in the story of this journey is cradled the realisation that one does not automatically cancel out the other. That they can co-exist as a non-dual dynamic in a way that allows the emergence of engaging with a life that builds greater resilience in the encountering and continuing to show up every day.
Only in the last few years have I begun to appreciate the significance of this story and have engaged with it at a deeper level within myself. As a child my default mantra, perhaps like many children, was that I did not want to grow up to be like my mother. The mother of my early childhood was governed by anxiety and fear, by boundaries and rules, by restricting my nascent stepping unfettered into a girl-power world through a lens of worry filtering “what will people thing?”. She was often in tears and at a loss at how to control my exuberant brothers and my own tentative disregard at times for the “what will people think?”. I grew up aloof from her suffering and thus from my own, unable to drill deeply into the turmoil of my own vulnerable unknowing. But as the peeling back process of these recent years has sunk itself ever deeper into the longing of my soul I have found myself almost drowning within a tsunami of anxiety, feeling anxious sensations arising at every turn of this unfolding blossoming life. To say I have been caught unawares and surprised might be an understatement. I have always expected and experienced myself to be calm and collected. Perhaps my family may attest otherwise. Anger – yes. Irritation – yes. Turmoil and discord- yes. But anxiety? That was reserved for my mother. And in the stepping into the meeting of this anxiety I have had to find a way to befriend the rising tides, to turn toward that which I never wanted but now know has always been here. Waiting for me to finally show up. And in the process I have paradoxically grown closer to my own mother, even though she passed away more than three years ago. I have been able to answer her plea for a greater intimate connection between us by learning to love my own shadows and the parts that she held unknowingly for me. There are still many long dusty roads to travel but I may be reaching the shoreline and the awaiting boat, and the distant promise of a place at the dinner table draws me ever on.
Perhaps returning metaphorically to the stillness and calm of the mission station at the base of Mountains of the Moon may finally allow me and the memory of my mother to let go of anxiety as a lifestyle, as a boundaried way of living, and allow the gentle falling into the heart’s longing for being home.
May you listen to your longing to be free.
May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams.
May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart.
May you find a harmony between your soul and your life.
May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted.
May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time
May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.
May you never place walls between the light and yourself.
May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you and embrace you in belonging.
From Benedictus, A Book of Blessings, by John O’Dohonhue