Marilyn Kay Hagar
A Different Kind of Wild Inside: Confronting My Health Crisis
Updated: May 18, 2021
I’ve been arrogant about my good health. I didn’t realize it, of course, but all it took was a confrontation with ill health to expose my arrogance and blow it to smithereens. That is what has been happening to me as I've struggled to accept a recent diagnosis that has left me with surgery and valiant attempts to reimagine my future.
In Finding the Wild Inside, I tell the story of how I came to embrace my belonging in the circle of life. That necessitated understanding that life's endings are absolutely as important as life's beginnings, but as with so many other things in life, understanding only takes us so far. It is our concrete lived experience that is the real teacher. As I recount in my book, caring for my elderly parents taught me oodles about life's declining phase. Those years of caregiving left me reflecting on death and dying, but I hadn't yet bumped up against something that fully awakened my own mortality from its slumber in the background of my life. My recent diagnosis is doing just that.
While blessed with good health, we all know that death is somewhere in our future but when and how we die remains a great mystery. I don’t yet know my actual situation, because no one can predict the future, but I feel I've been given a notice that removes some of that mystery. This diagnosis has left me with a cascade of new experiences relating to my own mortality. Though my demise may not be immanent, I am left wondering if the end of my days might be coming sooner rather than later.
My parents lived far into old age. When people learn that my mother lived to almost 102, they tell me what good genes I have and predict that I'll live a long life. When that happens, inside, I hear myself shouting to the powers that be, “I’m not saying that! They are! I know my place in the order of things. I’m just a creature here like everyone else." Meanwhile, I look those fortune tellers in the eye and reply, “None of us knows how long we are going to live.” As those words fall out of my mouth, I know I'm trying to block a jinx.
Clearly, I must be superstitious. When the salt shaker tips over, I still shake it over my shoulder, a response my mother taught me years ago. It’s a physical reflex at this point. Now as I flip that salt over my shoulder, I don’t even remember what I’m saving myself from. Maybe I’m just always unconsciously looking for ways to ward off the evil eye, bad luck, the boogie man.
It seems now, that the boogie man has arrived on my doorstep. Just before Christmas a symptom took me to the doctor. Tests were ordered. As I waited for results, I was certain I would breeze through into the land of the healthy, once again. Oh, the folly of our unconscious assumptions! When the results came, I learned that in spite of my protests, I evidently did hold good health as my birthright.
In the end, the symptom that sent me to the doctor was not threatening but in the exploration that followed, they found something else that was. As each test came back indicating something a little bit off, I was referred to one doctor after another, ending up at UCSF, with a hysterectomy, removal of my appendix and a diagnosis that isn’t cancer but something that acts like cancer in that it grows tumors in the body.
It is not lost on me that I titled my book, Finding the Wild Inside, a title I have loved from the moment it came to me. But now, like the sun going behind a rain cloud, the words twist with a darker meaning. I have literally found something growing wild inside me and on the physical level, that isn’t necessarily a good thing.
I’m healing well from my surgery and was relieved to hear that nothing else needs to happen at this time. I will be carefully followed for signs that something has gone awry necessitating further treatment. Hopefully it will be some years before that happens as these tumors remain local and grow slowly. In the meantime, I’m turning to my dreams, making art and looking inside for inner guidance as I navigate this new terrain.
My painting above, was the first art I made after my surgery. It depicts that empty space in my abdomen, that was once home to those parts of my body that made the miracle of birth possible. At 75 years old, a hysterectomy is not a tragedy. As one of my sons said to the doctor, "Those parts did their job. They served me very well." "Yes, look what they produced," I said, pointing to my three sons on the screen, where they were joining my appointment remotely.
In my painting, the empty space left by my surgery depicts the peace of the universal night with the full moon shining brightly. In spite of the loss of those organs so essential to my womanhood, my art declared my undisturbed connection to the universal energy of the deep feminine, expressing itself here in the mystery of the night sky.
Looking to my dreams for guidance has been a bit more challenging since my surgery, as I’ve had some trouble remembering them. When I do remember, they are compact, more often a single image rather than a story. One of those images was particularly impactful. It spoke loudly about the ultimate materiality of our human existence, a sobering fact that I found hilariously funny on waking.
Dreams often pick up fragments of our waking life experiences and use them as fodder to communicate deeper meaning in the dreamworld. This dream did just that so I'd like to explain that waking life connection. To reduce odors and discourage the raccoons, foxes and yes, even bears from getting into my garbage, I freeze all my food waste in a bag and put it in my garbage can, frozen, on pickup day. My dreamworld surprised me by using this part of my day world to communicate with me..
In my dream I find that I, myself, am a bag of frozen compost! In the dream world we can sometimes find ourselves in two places at once. In this dream, I am both inside and outside of this image. I can feel what it feels like to be the compost but I can also see the mish-mash of colors in the bag from the outside, the orange of citrus peels, the green of kale stems, the brown of onion skins, etc. This image came just as I was about to wake up. As I rose out of a deep sleep toward waking, I felt/saw the bag beginning to defrost with all the frozen pieces coming apart. I opened my eyes with a startle. All in all, my dream made waking up feel like a movie with visuals, movement and a felt sense.
I often marvel at the brilliance of the imagination and its ability to present a complex, deeply felt truth in a single image. This dream was a perfect example of that as in spite of everything we humans think we are, on the material plane, we are in the end, compost! While I might have had a more somber reflection at some other time, awakening in the vitality of my dream, all I could do was laugh, not just a giggle, but a big deep belly laugh. I titled the dream, My Awakening.
I immediately felt called to do some art about this experience. I was led to do a series of paper collages. The first one, Frozen Compost Marilyn, is pictured under the night sky. It expresses how I felt as the frozen bag of compost. The puzzle that is me is made up of many different parts but they all work together to hold shape and form, as me. When I imagine myself there in that shape, I feel my stiffness, a bit like The Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz.
My awareness of so much stiffness made me anxious to express myself thawing. Melting Compost Marilyn below, is pictured under the moon and the sun, that magical time when day and night exist at one. I walk at dawn on the Mendocino headlands and marvel on those days when the full moon lays itself down into the ocean in the west, just as the sun is rising in the east. Symbolically it is a reminder that the rational me (Sun Marilyn) and the non-rational me (Moon Marilyn) can access the wisdom of each of these spheres. When those energies find balance with one another, all things seem possible.
In my collage, I see that the colors have shattered and are mixing as energy moves in my body. The blank space of my hysterectomy is framed by the movement, now a mysterious inner space, still healing and not yet ready to be filled with something new. When I felt into this picture, I could feel the movement, the freedom, and the possibility embodied here. But as I allowed myself to surrender to that much disintegration, I became deeply concerned that my form would not hold. Could I handle that much breaking apart?
I left my art pieces out on the table so I could walk by them each day. I was wondering if more wanted to be expressed and was waiting for further inspiration. A friend who looked at my art suggested that I enter my imagination and play with that edge where so much movement left me concerned about my form holding. Experimenting, I was able to let the movement increase, exaggerate it even, and what I found was even more freedom and vitality. I wanted to express that in my art.
When I began working on this piece, the only thing I knew was that the colors needed to be circles. I found my hole punch and set to work. As I was finishing, I decided to put the old angular shards around the edges. Looking now, I see them as falling away, being pushed out by the new energy of the circles. I am only partly recognizable here, certainly a far cry from Frozen Compost Marilyn. My collage brought thoughts of metamorphosis. If it were possible to depict what happens in the cocoon as the caterpillar turns into butterfly, I imagine that this is what it might look like. I titled this collage, Transforming Marilyn. She dances under a spotted sun.
I was puzzled for some time about why I felt called to cut away at the background in my collages. I don't remember doing that before in my art, though I may have. As I sat with my pieces, it came to me that perhaps I was expressing the feeling that my future is being whittled away by my health crisis. I shared this with a friend, who not liking that thought, told me she saw my cutting as carving away my past. "Hmm...something to consider," I thought. Another friend offered that my experience was bringing things down to what is essential. I liked that thought too. How grateful I am to have friends who widen my perspective so!
As I lived with my collages, I noticed how my head remained a constant in each one. My gut began telling me that I needed to let my head go. That was disturbing because my head holds all the stories about who I think I am, all the patterns that make me, me. More than any where else in my body, my head is where my ego resides. If my goal was to surrender to the transformation that was trying to take place inside me, my head had to go. It took me a while to gather the courage to make my next collage.
I started This collage by tipping my yellow head sideways on an empty sheet of black paper. Now, falling like Humpty Dumpty off the wall, I suddenly saw its egg shape. Quickly, as I glued, the nest and the tree formed around the egg. The tree spilling itself down from the sky world made a bridge between heaven and earth. I realized that I had unconsciously created an image of the axis mundi, a place imagined the world over as center of it all. In my collage, the energy that was my body, is now part of the tree. I recognized that tree as the Tree of Life. That is the title I gave to my collage.
My creative expression was not planned with my mind but fell onto the paper from a deeper place inside of me. Placing my little life with all of its earthly concerns in this larger perspective brought a deep sigh of relief. I could feel my surrender to the larger forces in which my little life is held. In that surrender, I found a place of peace for the first time since I entered the rough seas of my medical diagnosis.
My personal health predicament seems mirrored in our larger world as we live through these pandemic times. Everything has been tossed up in the air and we are not yet sure how things will come down again. We have been forced from our comfortable routines and expected outcomes into a time of deep unknowing. Our sense of time has been altered. In the face of the pandemic, even our medical experts are left guessing, as they wait for data they can rely on, to make their predictions about when some sense of normalcy might return.
I have said from the beginning that I hope we don't just return to normal when this pandemic winds down. We have spent a good long time now with the chaos it has wrought, long enough that there is a chance for many things to transform. Creation comes out of chaos. Rather than nibbling around the edges of stability to bring about change, radical change is more likely to manifest when the old patterns have been shattered. I hope that kind of change for our world and I hope that for myself as I live with my new reality.
As I see it now, if I am letting go of my past and feel my future being carved away, what is essential in my life might become more obvious. Certainly, the present moment, a place I struggle to live from, might not be so illusive either. The present moment opens the door to the eternal now, a place outside of time, where like in dream time, past present and future exist as one.
In a recent podcast Michael Meade, who has been a been a tremendous inspiration to me of late, noted that we struggle with time, the loss of it or the lack of it, because what we long for is a connection to things outside of time, the eternal truths at the heart of our human existence. Those truths are what make our suffering truly meaningful. They are also what makes genuine change possible.
These deeper truths are there inside of us all along. They are just waiting for us to discover them. My collage series showed me this. Trusting into my intuition, my art process urged me to let my head fall as only then could I come to a new understanding of the deeper truth about this moment in my life.
I don't see the timeless realm of the eternal now as a destination but rather as a doorway to participation. Our creative potential requires the dissolution of life as we know it, in order for something new to be born. We must let go of what we think we know and open ourselves to the power of not knowing. Our uncertainty brings us closer to the life/death/life door, and that place at the center of it all, where all things begin and all things end in the never ending circle of life. As I wrote in Finding the Wild Inside, no one is excluded from that circle and in it, we find our deepest belonging.
The creative power of the universe is available to each one of us. All we need to do is to embrace our power as co-creators. To do that, we can't hold on to a frozen notion of who we think we are or how we think things should be. Better to open to the creative powers deep inside, and listen to our instincts and intuitions about what is trying to emerge. In the heat of the creative fire, there is no going back to normalcy. Having entered into the process of metamorphosis, who among us, would want emerge from the cocoon as a caterpillar rather than a butterfly?
My frozen compost dream has marked a path for me, a path on which I hope to walk as an ever-changing Marilyn, authentically following my heart and my dreams to my last days. In that way, no matter how much time I have left on this earth, I know I will find my way to a life fully lived. That is what I most hope for. It is what is most essential. I wish that for all of us as we emerge from this pandemic. May the changes stirring in our hearts find their way to their fullest manifestation.