We humans like our circles. We have circles of friends. Our stories and films take the shape of a circle in which the end refers back to the beginning. We talk about how the aged among us grow more and more childlike, closing the circle of life.
The most powerful circles are the circles within circles in which we grow ever closer to the center. Like peeling an onion, or a mystery. That is the magic of the spiral, a form so ancient you find it carved on cave walls and buried in tombs, a form so elemental it’s found in the vastness of space.
Labyrinths are human-created spirals designed to encourage mediation, to bring one closer to one’s self, one’s center, one’s truth. I walked one a few days ago, on the Summer Solstice, as it happened.
As a delayed birthday present, my friend Alex took me to Rolling Ridge Retreat Center in North Andover, MA, a place that offers not one but two outdoor labyrinths.
Both were built by Lesley University student Dot Irwin in 2002. The stones were brought by her classmates and friends from their homes and travels all around the world. She dedicated the labyrinths, “to all those seeking peace. May we take the peace that we find here into our daily lives, then out into the world.”
Thank you, Dot. I certainly felt more peaceful after walking your labyrinths. Moving slowly in a meditation that felt like prayer, in a place as sacred as a cathedral, I appreciated the site you chose, the woods by the shore of Lake Cochichewick.
Alex and I touched the trees and the stones, mingled with the wildflowers, reflected on the beauty that surrounded us. We looked up at the tall straight pines and marveled at the clump of birch trees standing whitely amidst the leafy green. We went deep within and felt connected to all the earthly elements outside of us.
What a special birthday celebration. Thank you, Alex; you’re the woman!
Wherever you are, reader, I urge you to find the labyrinth nearest you. Refresh yourself. Take a spiral walk and see what it brings you.
Mounds of ashy grey snow halve overnight. Birds recount their sojourns south, chatter about mating and nests. Putting away the warble of winter, the chickadee sings out the signature of spring: chicka-dee-dee-dee.
Walking this morning, I saw helleborus, purple heads tucked chin-down amongst dark green leaves tattered by winter storms. In warm, south-facing places, the naked neon tips of what may become tulips or daffodils showed their tender selves, grassy crocus close beside.
Humans discard their heavy plumage, smile more in their lighter bodies.
This is a subject, especially among women, that needs a lot of fresh air and discussion. Since my best friend of 27 years said our relationship wasn’t working for her anymore, I’ve been grieving. There’s a hole in my life and in my heart.
Similar sudden break-ups have happened to other women I know. “M” lost her closest friend of 40 years over what sounds like one exchange of angry words, an exchange that, to my ears, wasn’t even nasty. “D” lost her best friend because they couldn’t work through what made them mad at each other ten years before.
The loss still hurts.
Can Women Friends Manage Anger?
I don’t know. If you’d asked me last year, I’d have said, “Of course they can!” Now I think I don’t know anything at all. It’s ten months since my long-time friend has spoken to me.
Men seem able to get furious with each other, maybe even get physical—certainly they can play hard against each other in sports—and later, shake hands and remain friends. Or is this not really true?
Our culture certainly does not make room for women to express our anger. Research with babies has shown that when they cry, if people think the baby is a girl they’ll say something’s upsetting her or she’s afraid. If you take the same baby and wrap it in a blue blanket, people mostly say he’s angry about something. Men are allowed, expected even, to show anger, but not fear. For women, it’s the reverse.
When I get angry, my face flushes, my heart hammers, and my throat gets tight. Afterward, or even while I’m livid, my breath comes faster. Maybe we women are less used to these physical responses and find them scary? I know it’s hard for me to get over my getting furious; I mean I have to go over and over it in my mind, trying to understand it, trying to let loose of it.
Humans Are Herd Animals
Recently, Dr. Judith Jordan from the Wellesley Centers for Women spoke on the subject of “Change, Power and Resilience” at TOP, a series of lectures I attend in the fall and spring. She said the human brain is hard-wired to connect with other humans; that when we are dis-connected, the same part of the brain lights up as when we experience physical pain. “Social pain is real pain, people. We need to get that message out,” she told us.
Jordan explained that compassion is a natural response that our culture trains out of us. I’ve noticed this with toddlers. Their immediate response is to either cry when someone else cries, or to go comfort the weeper. A few years later children have learned that such a response is considered “babyish” (which, in the best sense, it is) and have stopped responding to another child’s tears.
In the US, the myth persists that individuals achieve success on their own. We laud independence as if it’s the best thing going. But when I quit being a partner in a large firm and started my own business, I counted up. I knew I had lots of help, but I didn’t realize how much help until I didn’t have it anymore. No fewer than 100 people had made me look good.
There’s no such thing as achieving anything all by yourself. Think about it. We all have support in the workplace, from families, friends, spouses, organizations, laws, the government that builds the infrastructure all around us, the farms that feed us, the companies that make our clothes, the people who write books we learn from, the teachers who teach us, the doctors and acupuncturists and therapists who heal us and so on. Humans are herd animals, after all, despite the fact some of us like our alone time. The true hermit is a rare creature for a reason.
I asked Dr. Jordan about anger. She understood that women’s anger is frequently suppressed and women who show their anger are often punished for it. She agreed that women need to be able to get angry, to understand anger, and to discuss their anger in order to avoid living as if we were invisible, second-class citizens.
“First off,” Dr. Jordan claimed, “anger a signal that someone is aggressing against you.”
I was stunned. I’d never thought about it that way. Even after being a feminist for decades, I had not validated my own anger.
Jordan continued, exhorting us to follow our anger to point us in the direction of something we know isn’t right. The anger is a signpost to something important.
Anger can also be harnessed. It can be a great energizer. I’ve used my anger to keep me working on getting a great person elected to office despite sexist, racist, ageist, homophobic or other attitudes and tactics.
Secondly, she said, she wasn’t saying to swallow or suppress one’s anger. What was crucial was what one did with the anger. Do you use it to aggress against someone else? To name-call, blame, suppress?
Yeah, I’ve done that.
Not so good. Allowing anger to surface is good; letting it lead us into aggressive, inflammatory behavior doesn’t help resolve what’s wrong and may even escalate the problem.
The Amygdala Hijack
The amygdala, Jordan explained, is part of the brain that deals with memories and emotions, especially when they are combined. So if someone “makes” me angry, I may immediately associate it with other times that people have aggressed against me and gear myself up to fight or flee. These memories can trigger fear reactions, too, like freezing or rapid heartbeat, sweating, and the release of stress hormones.
The amygdala also is associated with binge drinking and processes our reactions to the invasion of our personal space, just so you get a sense of how primitive it can get.
What happens is that when we feel sufficiently under threat, our brains don’t waste time sending a message through the cortex, or thinking part of the brain. Instead, the message leaps right to the amygdala and triggers the fight-flight reflex in men or the tend-mend reflex in women. This can happen in a millisecond.
The amygdala literally hijacks the rest of the brain and we stop thinking and start reacting. For me that usually means either freezing or erupting angrily. How about you?
Can We Talk When We’re Angry?
I worried that Jordan was saying we always had to hide away when we were angry, think everything through and come back when we were all rational. “Cool, calm and collected” is the cultural wisdom. That feels like oppression to me. Our American culture says we should all behave like men who show no emotion except anger—except that no one but men should get angry.
Not so, Jordan responded. Women need to express their anger and our culture will benefit from their doing so. On the other hand, letting the amygdala rule when our lives or physical beings aren’t in danger—when we’re fighting with a friend, for example, not a foe—isn’t wise. She advised saying something like, “I’m so angry right now I can’t talk to you, but I’m coming back when I can.”
Then, after getting over the fear of being eaten or mauled (the great fears of our ancestors), we can talk about the problem. We can still be angry. We can still sound angry. But we don’t need to “go nuclear” as my husband calls it when things ratchet up to bashing the other person or issuing an ultimatum.
Back to the Question
So, can women friends get angry with each other and still remain friends?
Sometimes. Once I told a hiking friend I found her pretty controlling. She surprised me by responding, “That’s funny. I find you pretty controlling, too!” I think the shock pried loose the clutches of my amygdala and intrigued my cortex. What on earth could she mean?
We had a great talk about it. Notice I didn’t say it was lighthearted or easy. It wasn’t. But it was immensely fruitful and today, nine years later, we are closer, better friends. We’ve talked since about getting angry with each other and how to handle it, what would scare or irritate each of us, and how we’d react best to the other’s anger and why. It helps.
A writing buddy of mine and I had a tense conversation in which I said it drove me crazy when she went off on long tangents in the middle of a subject. She said she thought I didn’t listen well enough, that she often had to stop what she was saying because I interrupted her. I said, “Hold on, that’s just how I feel about you!” We created a code word, a ridiculous, silly word that signaled one of us was about to drive the other over the edge. Saying our special code word made us stop and laugh, and kept our amygdalas firmly in place. (And, no, I won’t tell you our code word; it’s ours. You can make up your own. Trust me, it will work better anyway.)
How have you navigated a friend’s anger, or your own toward her? I hope you’ll share your experiences, successful or otherwise. I hope men will chime in, too. The more we talk about this, the more we’ll learn from each other and, hopefully, the less we’ll suffer from abrupt endings to treasured relationships.
Okay, my money was on Lucy next, but it was the runt of the litter who made it out of the nest after Larry. I’m not sure Lucky meant to fly. I think he was practicing, flapping his wings, “helicoptering,” when a gust of wind took him and off the little guy went.
He did pretty well, but got stuck and cried a lot for Dad to rescue or feed him, since Buzz was the one in hearing distance, but neither happened. Now we don’t know where he is exactly.
Through this now famous red-winged hawk family, I have met the nicest man named Andy. I first met him when I walked up to a guy looking into a big black camera with a telephoto lens longer than my leg. He kindly offered to lower the tripod so I could see, and when I peered in it was as if I’d dropped into the hawks’ nest to say howdy.
I raved so much Andy volunteered to snail mail me some of his better pictures. I gave him my address, thinking he probably, like the rest of us, would get too busy and forget or not have the time. But here they are: fabulous pictures!
The littlest chick ,born several days after the second and perhaps ten or more days after the first, has had us worrying, would the baby survive? By now s/he’s been named, as have all the chicks, in a naming contest held by Ernie Sarro on his CCTV station. Here is beautiful, undaunted Lucky in profile.
Here s/he is showing his mettle, testing her wings by pumping iron, so to speak, as all the chicks have been doing preparatory to the day, perhaps this very weekend, when they will need those muscles to take their first flights.
Lucky still has a lot more baby down than siblings Lucy and Larry. Behind them all appears the watchful momma, Ruby. Poppa Buzz is probably off hunting to help feed the ravenous brood.
Speaking of food, here goes Ruby, most likely in search of food herself. She and Buzz have worked hard and faithfully to bring in enough food that the little ones seem not to have to fight over morsels. In this incredible picture you can clearly see the light glowing through the auburn feathers that earned this type of hawk its name.
If you’re enjoying these updates, or getting sick of them, please comment and let me know. Meantime, you can see Ernie’s latest video of the family at Red-tail Chicks Ready to Fly.
And Andy Provost, thank you, thank you, thank you!
Our local red-tailed hawk family of my previous post have made it onto local news stations and now regularly draw a crowd. People stand in the parking lot of the shopping center with their binoculars, kids and curiosity to watch the comings and goings of this new family.
I’ve been aware of hawks, especially red-tailed hawks, since my tenth wedding anniversary when we celebrated with a trip to Sedona, Arizona. We signed up for a day trip to a “vortex” where the meridians of the earth come together and one feels a special energy conducive to meditation and the like. This is the sort of thing, besides hiking in gorgeous red rock country, that one does in Sedona, and I didn’t want to miss it. On the way to the place, the guide leaned out of the Jeep window and pointed out to us a hawk circling above us. “Red-tail,” he said. “See the flash of red?”
I didn’t see a flash of red no matter how hard I tried, but I’ve been alert to red-tailed hawks ever since. At my daughter’s grade school, a group from a bird sanctuary came to give a special presentation, bringing in birds of prey of all kinds. There I learned that red-tailed hawks are often called “highway hawks” because of their propensity to circle above highways looking for road kill.
So they’re smart, I figure. Perhaps a bit lazy? Or maybe that’s just easy for an animal who finds food at a grocery store to say.
What is true is that you will find red-tails in desert, grasslands, cities and parks, even, says the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, in the rainforests of Mexico. Being able to adapt to such varied terrain sounds pretty smart to me.
The Meaning of Hawk
In Native American and Wiccan traditions, Hawk is known as a messenger from Spirit. The message Hawk brings to those whom she visits is: be aware. “Watch,” she tells us. Perceive with that wonderful vision that lets Hawk see both the big picture and the minutest mouse in the grass. There is a signal intended for the person who sees hawk, a signal only s/he can intuit. Unraveling the message, as is true for all portents, tends to be an idiosyncratic task.
The general message of Hawk is live your life with a keen eye and be ready to dive upon an opportunity in an instant. I also understand it to suggest soaring—to get a different, wider perspective on events in one’s life. And maybe this is just my own interpretation, but Hawk instructs me in the twin arts of joy and rest. What could be more jubilant than flying? What could be more clever than using air currents to keep one airborne, gliding and resting while waiting for the moment of action to come?
For me, red-tailed hawks also symbolize friendship and partnering. I often, at least when they’re hunting, see a pair of hawks circling. Four eyes are better than two, apparently. The father of a brood also helps build the nest, find food and even sit on the eggs or the nestlings when necessary. Mated pairs typically stay together until death does them part.
Red-tailed hawks are also remarkably lightweight. Despite a wingspan of between three-and-a-half feet and nearly five feet, even the biggest females rarely weigh more than three pounds. Perhaps there’s a message here, too. If we want to fly, to soar, to move with the wind, we need to lighten up. Perhaps we are meant to reduce the burden of what we carry with us, be it physical, mental or emotional.
Watch a Red-Tailed Family Grow
One of the things I like best about these amazing birds is that they frequent the city. In Cambridge, Massachusetts, I’ve seen them perched high up in a tree in my neighbor’s yard or at Fresh Pond Reservoir. Or on top of a flagpole or the roof of a tall building.
Right now you can watch, close up and personal, an amazing daily miracle: two red-tailed parents raising a brood. Their nest is in a building (185 Alewife Brook Parkway) opposite a shopping center. You can see pictures of them from eggs to nestlings to fledglings, at Cambridge Community Television. Ernie Sarro who produces “The Expert Series” for CCTV, has a contest going to name the baby birds. He’s already christened the parents Ruby and Buzz. Check out his amazing videos of the red-tailed family!
It’s not always easy to find beauty during a walk at the tag end of winter in New England. As Juniper, an intrepid 11-year-old Bichon Frisee, and I walked around Fresh Pond, our local reservoir and a place we love, I struggled to notice something other than dry dead leaves, bare branches in a grey sky, and dark tree trunks and shrubbery. No birds sang yet. People I passed were dressed just as drably as the scenery. The picture here from February of a prior year looks positively gaudy by comparison.
Babies helped. Babies are always an easy uplift, and I was lucky enough to see two of them. I also got a boost from passing one of those triangular running strollers in which lolled a girl of about three, sound asleep with her head crooked against the side of the stroller as her dad jogged along behind. For no particular reason, I remembered learning in years ago that French people, some of them at least, believed in putting a baby in her/his pram outside on the porch or balcony at night in the winter to build up their strength, a practice I could never have made myself follow with my own tiny daughter.
A Great Sleeping Eye
Coming back to the moment, I began to notice the water. Not the water held in softened slops of snow that littered the macadam path and woodsy ground, but what I know as “the duck pond.” This small body of water lies opposite the path from the vastly larger reservoir and is filled with yellow water lilies in the summer. It’s petite, yet large enough for a handful of retrievers to have plenty of room to chase sticks in warmer weather. When not iced over as the duck pond was today, Juniper herself always enjoyed a dip, wading in stately fashion up to her chest whenever there were not too many big dogs splashing in and out or barking at the ducks.
No splashing today, of course, and no ducks. The pond was still frozen. What I appreciated as we paused on our walk, was the way the sable cattails stood out against the background of glittering grey ice, reminiscent of long lashes on a great, sleeping eye.
The image made me smile. And drew my attention across the way to the 155-acre reservoir from which Cambridge, Massachusetts draws much of its drinking water. What beauty would I see there?
The Winter Shawl
Most of the reservoir still wore a winter shawl of ice, but in what a variety of stitch and shade! At the west end of the pond, the ice against the shore glinted pewter but thinned out as it approached the center and where it thinned, took on tints of green, as if fresher yarn had been dredged up from the depths and added to soften the silvery mantle. Toward the southern end, a large pool of deep green water rippled, free already from the winter’s covering, like arms bared for Spring. Long strands of slushy ice pushed toward the open space in shades of blue, as the ends of the shawl unraveled.
Now I’m thinking ahead, and betting that all the ice will be gone by the ides of March—and I have a process to watch that will bring me back, daily I hope, to catalogue the progressive changes of thickness, texture and hue while I await the greening of spring.