Last night I was in darkness. It was the pitch black kind, the haunting void that stifles the breath. Turns the air cold. I don’t know if you know this darkness, friends, but I pray you don’t.
The truth? It’s been night like that for several days--thick, like winter molasses--but it’s been darkish for months now, and longer still.
I reached a tipping point a few days ago. More aptly put, someone added to my already full cup, and I wasn’t able to contain the spill of myself over the edges. I’ve been on a careful balance longer than I’d like to admit. And there you have it.
What do you think of when you hear the word “bully”? A beach scene? Sand kicked in a weakling’s face? Being teased about glasses or weight or a lispy s-sound? Maybe it’s Marc Anthony, the dog from Looney Toons whose bulldog heart melts when he meets Pussyfoot, the itsy-bitsy black and white kitten. That’s the story of a bully reformed, the hope.
Would it surprise you that I am being bullied? Presently, not past tense. And it’s a person I see often enough to make my life uncomfortable. Just thinking of it makes my skin hot and prickly. I feel my breath grow shallow, and my guts turn to jelly. For others, I am a stalwart anti-bullying advocate. Mine is a zero tolerance policy, and when I see it, I say something. I speak to both the bullied and bully, but I do so with compassion and a full heart. It’s difficult to be a human being. No qualifiers. It can be hard to be a kind person when we see such cruelty and indifference in the world around us. But we can start somewhere. We can help each other see a different way of being in the world.
All of this is hogwash, as my mother would say, when it comes to how I am with myself. I was bullied as a child. Terribly. And I was really good about hiding it. Maybe this is why I speak out on behalf of others. Maybe it's because I know how it feels, and hiding in the midst of such pain and embarrassment is exhausting. It’s like your skin doesn’t fit.
I am evolving. You see, the bully pushed me a few days ago, and I budged. Ordinarily, when I feel this kind of energy directed at me, I falter. The defense walls go up, but never fast enough. The birds let loose in my rib cage and something like static electricity builds on the surface of my skin. As panic sets in, I begin to doubt my abilities and myself. I crack and crumble, and then time tumbles backward. Middle school. Grade school. Earlier.
Somehow, I managed to hold on this time, but it wasn’t easy. I wrapped my arms around myself and kept the pieces of me together. Mid-slip, that’s how I caught myself. “Feel yourself, Piper. Close your eyes and remember who you are.” I couldn’t even speak this aloud. I had to swallow the words to fully absorb them. Yet the darkness came.
* * *
She appeared to me in a dream.
Sitting in the void, cold and black-on-black, I felt something shift. A freshness to the air, perhaps. A warming movement. I stood and squinted into the darkness, I saw a shimmer of light moving towards me. It was diffuse at first, growing sharper as it neared. Lighter, and lighter still.
And then I saw her, an armored woman approaching on foot. It was Joan of Arc, most certainly, and still off in the distance.
In her right hand, she held a brilliant, glowing sword, which she pointed up against the heaven or hell of black that hung above us. Joan of Arc, a woman of faith who fought for herself and others. Joan of Arc, a witch warrior who was initially dismissed for her sex. Joan of Arc, a woman who stood up and was burned at the stake for heresy. For having a voice. For refusing to recant her own lived experience.
Dream me stood, waiting in the shifting darkness. The goddess approached--a silent, full-bodied halo of light--and when she was near, she lowered her sword. The pointing wasn’t menacing, but rather, an invitation. She stepped forward, closing the final gap between us, and touched the golden tip to my solar plexus. I stood still, not sure if the sword would pierce my now glowing chest or not. The feeling I can’t quite describe other than oneness, like coming home. Equanimity, resolve, and something else: courage.
When I looked up, the warrior and her sword disappeared in a sudden burst of light, dissolving like champagne bubbles. Stardust to Dawndust. My eyes fluttered open to a pale morning light. I lay in bed, sad at the sudden parting. I thought we might go for a chat somewhere, Joan and me. We’d have tea and scones at the 24-hour coffee shop I sometimes visit in lucid dreams. Maybe I’ll see her again. I’d like that.
I’m not sure what it was I experienced last night. A dream? A visitation? A reach-through between worlds? I’m still stirring with memory and feeling my way through the message. What I’m left with today is a warmth in my chest. Such beauty. Such grace. Such divine-heartedness. I feel honored to have been in the presence of such a powerful woman, just 19-years-old when she was killed. Because she stood up. She stood up for what she believed was right. Calm, strong, defiant against injustice. Courage does not happen in the absence of fear. It happens in the face of it. Courage is strength through grief and pain.
I told a friend today that I think a lot about the darkness of spirit. It might be people, our own carried darkness, our anger and fears. It feels so… much sometimes. Like too much. Too much for people who feel deeply. And then I remembered something Martin Luther King Jr. once said, and it filled me with absolute hope:
Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. --MLK, Strength to Love
I want to gift this message to you today because love is vast. There is an infinite supply, even if it feels measured. It isn’t. Love is expansive. It is ease and flow. And today it feels like a humming, golden sternum.
That’s where I am, embracing the archetypal energy of Joan of Arc: living and loving, standing up for myself and my beliefs, knowing this might bring pain, discomfort, perhaps even flames.
Thank you, Joan. Thank you for reminding me that love is the strongest form of magic there is.