Jen, you talk about your life before you met your mentor 14 years ago. Can you tell us a little bit about that? What moved you to take a new path? Was it a gradual change or was there one particular moment when something clicked with you?
Before I met my mentor, a healer named Maria DeMarco, I was on a very destructive path, abusing myself with alcohol, drugs and food. I was traumatized from childhood sexual abuse and sought out abusive situations as an adult, constantly putting myself in risky situations with men that included being physically abused. I cycled in and out of extreme depression. If I was not really depressed, then I was just down. Most of my thoughts were negative and I didn’t have faith in anything or believe that life was worth living. I wasn’t exactly a sleepwalker, because I was aware of how bad things were, but I was floundering around in my own pain and unaware there was any way out of it. I believe there is a good chance I would have killed myself if I hadn’t changed course.
I met Maria a few days after the bombing of the World Trade Center at a ceremonial fire she was called to hold on Block Island, where she was visiting at the time. She spoke of thanking the souls of the people who had died in the planes and in the towers, including those of the attackers, saying that they had chosen to sacrifice themselves in order to awaken humanity. It was the first exposure I had to the idea that the soul has an agenda that is often not what a person would seek out for themselves because the ego is so invested in the body’s survival. It was a revolutionary moment that has stayed with me since. It was the first shift that opened me up to the possibility that we are never truly victims, that our soul chooses some situations for us because that is how we need to grow. Sometimes this growth will involve a sacrifice as great as death or in being the perpetrator of a crime for which we will be vilified, like the terrorists who perpetrated the World Trade Center bombing.
The big moment for me came a year into working with Maria. I was still drinking, still depressed, but the work with her was opening me up intellectually and energetically. I was still depressed and still felt an overwhelming unwillingness to be in my body that led to suicidal thoughts. One day driving down the road I was thinking “I just want out.” As I thought this, a deer dashed in front of my car. I saw another in the rearview window crossing the road behind me. I narrowly missed the one in front. They both disappeared into the graveyard to my left. I could have crashed into her, injuring, possibly killing, her or myself. I knew when I missed her that I had chosen to live on a soul level. I quit drinking and began the work of recovering my joy and seeking to fulfill my soul’s purpose at that moment.
When it comes to your mentoring practice, is there a common theme that you find in the clients that come to you for help?
I find that people are coming to me who want to learn how to connect with the natural and spirit world through their creativity. I began working with poets, but the work has been expanding to include many others who I am calling creative seekers-people who are looking for a different way to relate to themselves and our planet.
When you work with students, in your 30-Day Poetry Challenge for example, what advice do you give them to keep that inner critic quiet long enough for them to feel comfortable getting that first draft down on paper?
I really encourage people to connect with their body’s wisdom. In a concrete way, this involves not just reading what they’ve written aloud, but composing aloud. It is easy to get disembodied as a writer and imitate the voices we have in our heads as readers. I encourage people to walk, practice yoga, dance–all of these physical activities will help free the voice and quiet the inner critic. One other thing I do is tell people to write with their non-dominant hand. I learned this from the poet Marie Howe. It’s a wonderful way to bypass the intellect and go straight into the imaginal realms of intuition and body-knowledge that is difficult to access when we are trapped in our heads.
I understand the Medicine Wheel is a walking practice. How can we novices begin to incorporate that in our every day lives?
A simple way is to orient yourself according to the directions within the places you inhabit the most. Your home, your office, etc. For instance, do you where north is? Is there a lake to the south of you? What direction is the wind coming from? I lived many years on Block Island where the old timers knew out of necessity what a northeast wind would bring versus a southwesterly breeze. It was just a part of daily conversation to be aware of the weather, so I was lucky to have this early influence.
What advice would you give to the woman who may suddenly find herself with an empty-nest, a job she’s unhappy with and no idea what to do next?
My advice would be to cultivate the practice of surrender. It is easy to intellectualize your circumstances by looking at them through the lens of soul needs versus ego desires, but I found once I started to get really deep into the process of spiritual growth that I had to go through the emotional work required to open my heart that didn’t necessarily go along with the understanding that I was co-creating my circumstances with my soul in order to evolve. If you can surrender to feeling your emotions you will find that you will be more present with yourself and the moment. This will decrease anxiety that keeps us locked into a future scenario and help us receive guidance from a higher power as to what to do next. Again, I find that moving my body helps. Yoga has been invaluable for me and I recently underwent a course of underwater rebirthing sessions through a practice called janzu this past winter in Mexico that opened me up to a whole new level of self-acceptance of where I was. Before janzu, I was actually in yet another cycle of anxiety about where to go and what to do next. I was able to let go of that and opportunities presented themselves to me that I could never imagined before I allowed myself to surrender and trust.
What does your typical day look like?
In the past year I have made the shift to self-employment, so my typical day varies a good bit because I am not a person who gravitates toward routines. However, more days than not I find myself beginning the day with yoga, even just practicing a few sun salutations before I engage with others helps. I have had a long journey with physical illness, so I make a point of caring for my body with nourishing drink and food. I like to sip a cup of warm water and lemon, then drink some green tea. Then I begin reading and writing, corresponding with students and colleagues. In the late afternoon I usually get outside. For the past 6 months I was in Mexico, so I went to the beach. Now I am back in New England where this is not yet possible, so I go for a walk! I cook myself a nourishing meal, then sometimes write again or read, watch a movie. I spend most of my time alone. I enjoy it. It has taken me a long time to enjoy my own company and not constantly be seeking love and approval outside myself, so now I really revel in this time alone.
What’s next for you?
I have a lot of projects going right now! I have a chapbook coming out from Finishing Line Press. It’s called “Breaking Up With The Moon.” I’m not sure yet of the publication date. I am working on a full length poetry collection and on a book based on my 30 Day Poetry Challenge. I am currently without a fixed address and see a lot more travel in my future!
Jennifer Lighty is an award-winning poet and teacher whose work has been nominated for The Pushcart Prize, Best New Poets, and been published in The Beloit Poetry Journal, Verse Daily, Thrush Poetry Journal, Earthlines, The Island Review, The North American Review, Poet Lore, Off The Coast, Room, Bamboo Ridge and many other journals. In 2103, she received a grant from The Rhode Island State Council on the Arts. The focus of her work is to help creators develop more intimate connections with themselves and Earth. Her work is grounded in permaculture, deep ecology, and archetypal psychology. She is committed to helping others transform their wounds into gifts that can serve the world. Visit her online at walkingthemedicinewheel.com.