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The crack in everything

Of broken hearts, angels and terrible knowledge

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It's been two months since my mother died on June 28.

Her death occurred while I was still impaired by the surgery I had on both my knees four months earlier. So the pain of grief compounded -- and still compounds -- the pain of my body. Sometimes it's hard to separate the two.

I'm lots of fun -- if you like insomnia, unpredictable tears and equally random outbursts of anger. I've listened to clients for years talk about the chilly way their grief has been met in the world. Now I, too, have heard all the bromides -- is she really in a better place? -- and I've seen people look askance when I dared to say how I was feeling.

I've watched a few friends run when I came unglued in anger or grief. Most have surprised me by putting a hand on my forearm, as one would during a rollercoaster ride. Then they confronted me, consoled me, forgave me. Grief will crack open your heart to receive love, but it hurts like hell.

It's usually scary, too, and, mainly, I have wanted to be alone. The more I humiliate myself around others with my anger and tears, the more broken my heart feels, no matter how much people give me their understanding.

Among all the fears that have plagued me is losing not just my biological mother, but the archetypal mother -- the very principle that there is always someone to whom you can turn for comfort, no matter what.

The death of anyone I love reminds me, too, of what immense blackness surrounds ordinary life. When I watched dozens of friends die of AIDS in the '80s, I saw them enter that blackness, come back and then, finally, give themselves to it. They always talked about things of that dark other world becoming visible to them.

"It's the morphine," we always said.

But long before my friends' deaths, my grandmother told me that my grandfather glimpsed angels in his dying days. I chalked this up to hallucination partly impelled by the doctrines of our religion, Swedenborgianism.

Emmanuel Swedenborg believed that all human beings occupy the spiritual world in this life and that angels, which the poet Rainer Maria Rilke called "terrible," are never far from us. I understand Rilke's use of the word "terrible" to describe the way the encounter with the angel rips away one's usual perception of the material world. This sudden crack, between the visible and the invisible worlds, replicates the crack in a broken heart.

The angel says: Your heart's breaking discloses the nature of being. "There is a crack in everything," sings Leonard Cohen. "That's how the light gets in."

People kept saying: Let the break in your heart widen. Your mother will let you know she is OK.

I kept thinking: I don't want to meet my mother as an angel.

So I could not sleep. My grandmother had told me my grandfather appeared to her after death. The thought of my mother appearing to me, with that sound of beating wings I heard a few years ago standing before a Botticelli painting in Florence, terrified me. Actually, the idea outraged me, too. Why would she, who was so estranged from me for most of my life, now step out of another world? Would it be to comfort me or to criticize me?

Last week, of course, it happened. Like most such experiences it happened relatively spontaneously. It didn't happen at night, in a dream, as I feared it would. And the most disturbing aspect was realizing how bereft my spiritual life has become. I can't describe what I experienced fully yet because, even though the encounter was "realer than real," it seems so ... "terrible," in Rilke's sense.

The encounter also evoked my former spiritual teacher, Mother Meera, an Indian woman who lives in Germany. Mother Meera is believed to be the direct incarnation of the archetypal principle of mothering, the divine mother, that I've felt has left. I've written a great deal, complimentary and critical, about Mother Meera in years past. Not surprisingly, my relationship with her has duplicated the ambivalent one with my mother, also ending in estrangement.

Synchronistically, Mother Meera is now touring America for the first time, so I decided to attend her darshan, the meeting with the guru, in Raleigh on Tuesday, Aug. 29, after this writing.

In the next few weeks, I will write about my experience with my mother and my meeting with Mother Meera after more than five years.

We are all eventually orphans, aren't we?

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology.

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