This past week we hosted my aunt and cousin at our home, who came to visit from Ohio. We hadn’t since them since the end of 2019, and for five days we laughed, talked, and ate meals together.
It felt like a holiday, and our hearts filled and filled with that feeling of belongingness and togetherness that comes when we’re with those we love.
They flew home yesterday afternoon, and today I feel the emptiness of their departure. One of my teachers Stephen Jenkinson says you can feel ‘the absence of the presence of a thing,’ and I’ve been feeling that absence today. It aches, like a hole.
As I put my house back to normal, I notice the souvenirs from their visit: the ironing board that I set up for my aunt to iron her clothes, the extra towels I laid out for them, and an empty bag from a bar of lemongrass and mint soap that they gave me.
These things may seem inconsequential, but the empty soap bag and ironing board remind me of my time with them, where I can still feel the tendrils of their presence.
In the same way, when my parents leave after coming to visit, my dad’s tea bags and my mom’s salad dressing continue to live with me in my kitchen. In this way, I have a piece of them with me.
For human beings, belonging and togetherness are an essential form of nourishment; as neuroscientist Stephen Porges says, ‘they’re a biological imperitive.’
I think we’ve all been aching from a lack of nourishment these past two years of pandemic living, which is one of the reasons why there have been so many jokes about snacking and Netflix: we’re seeking some sort of connective care.
When we come together with another person, we create a field of between, a field of togetherness between us. You can feel this field – it’s one of the reasons why being with one person or another can feel so different than being with someone else. And this field is part of what we feel and what we can miss when we’re no longer with someone we love.
While I don’t have any research to back it up, I have a hunch that sensitive people can be more sensitive to these fields. To me they have a physical presence, as palpable as the chair upon which I’m sitting.
Sometimes these fields feel full of warmth, laughter or connection. Sometimes these fields feel full of misunderstanding, fear or disconnection. I think of people with whom I’ve been in conflict, and how we can shy away from one another. Perhaps the field between us is feeling jagged and incoherent, filled with discord or misattunement.
And I wonder if things like forgiveness, understanding, empathy and love – when we set aside our judgments, and try to imagine and feel into another’s experience so as to understand them better – begin to change the field, and soften the edges of incoherence. Both people can feel this softening. Both can feel the difference in the field.
It can be what melts the edges between us so we can find each other again.
This coming weekend marks Mother’s Day. I know this can be a complex and challenging holiday, for it can bring up many deep emotions: grief and missing of our mothers and the other mothers in our lives; anger and hurt for the pain and wounding in our mothering; our longings for mothering, care and nourishment; and more.
When we feel the absence of something we love, when we feel the incoherence in the relational field with a loved one, or even when we long for contact and closeness, we feel painful feelings like longing and emptiness. We feel the holes, and we feel the difference in what had once been filled.
Many times we use entertainment, food and other comforts to fill up this feeling of emptiness. It’s so human, isn’t it?
And yet learning how to be with emptiness and longing is one of the tasks life asks of us, over and over again.
It’s a striking paradox, because while love is our deepest need, we can’t cling to the form of love – we can’t make it last or permanent in the physical world in the way we’d like. Love flows and moves and changes form. At some point, my aunt and cousin needed to return home to their daily lives, as I needed to return to mine.
We are always grieving and letting go, and learning how to feel how love is close even when we’re physically apart. We are always learning how to flow with love.
This task of ours – to abide within the flow of love – is one that we will do our whole lives: To abide in love when we miss our dear ones. To abide in love when those we love are on the other side of the veil. To abide in love, when all we feel is emptiness. To abide in love when we meet such suffering.
This coming weekend, as we honor all the mothers in our lives – for there are so many way we are mothered, and by so many – I hope that you may abide in love.
May you feel that there is love even in feelings and places of emptiness, may you feel the love present when you find yourself in pain, may you feel the love that holds you in hunger, may you feel the love that holds you, a love so much greater than any hole, any craving, or any absence.