During menopause we often experience a calling up of our past selves and old stories. Our hearts are looking to resolve and make peace with old wounds, while also assimilating our varied selves and personas into a whole. While it’s hard to not wince and turn away from reminders of pain and failure, we are also now at a stage where we can begin to consider the sutures and the scars. We have survived so much! Isn’t it breathtaking? And so much good has happened, too! We bear the marks of love as well as loss.
When you consider your heart, does the word courageous come to mind?
I love the word courage. I love it so much that it’s tattooed in script across my breastbone, with an arrow going through. All of my tattoos (three script and one larger botanical that’s still in process) were chosen carefully and to memorialize parts of my story that I feel ready to own and wear visibly. But the smallest one might hold the biggest meaning for me. This arrowed etch of calligraphy sits right over the bones shielding my heart and I am probably asked about it more than my other, more visible ink. I chose this tattoo several years ago to honor an incredibly painful experience which ended up becoming the seed of a key life transformation. The worst thing I could have imagined happened to me. I lost the one thing I had spent my entire life longing for, something so foundational to my view of the world and myself (and to any child’s) that when it was finally forever gone I had a physical sensation of my heart breaking. The experience took me on the most difficult inward journey I could have imagined.
I make allusions often in my writing to the experiences I had as a child and the things I’ve lived through. It’s impossible for me to separate out who I am from the things that created and changed me. Isn’t it that way with all of us? My life has a steady theme, with movements and interludes that add color and shape and particulars, but always it returns to the larger, quieter theme. My heart broke and I survived. I wanted the word courage forever labeling my heart so every single day I would remember that not only did I survive, but somehow my heart was capable of more than I had ever imagined. My heart broke and then my heart healed. I can still feel the break lines and I probably always will. Now the maze of lines has become a map for me, a way of recalling and remembering a different sort of bravery than I’d ever considered before.
It’s easy to think of courage in terms of brave actions and risky physical stunts. It seems easy to assign courage to someone who scales high mountains or walks into a burning building to save others. But courage doesn’t begin and end with heroic deeds. Not long after I felt my heart break, I heard Dr. Brene Brown’s talk on shame and vulnerability. She mentioned that the root of the word courage comes from the Latin word for heart and that originally the word meant something along these lines: to tell the story of you who are with your whole heart. This was one of those life experiences I liken to someone walking into a dark room and opening all the windows. I finally knew what to do next. As I’ve sat with that definition the past few years, turning it over and over in the back of my head at night and subconsciously considering its many meanings, I’ve come to understand that telling my story with my whole heart is not a command to be transparent or raw, in a masochistic or bloody way. Not everyone in my life will earn the right to hear my stories. Instead I hear the call to wholeness–to live and move in a way that doesn’t leave pieces of myself behind or alienated. To me it means refusing to divorce the parts of my heart that I’m afraid of. Letting my story be complicated, flawed, and completely inclusive. When I look in the mirror at the word courage reflected back at me, it’s not only a reminder that I survived, but a reminder that all the experiences I’ve had, all the people I’ve been, matter.
What about you? What has your heart lived through? What shape, what strength does it know because of the twists and turns of your own story? Remember that being courageous doesn’t mean everything is perfect or simple. It doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done anything heroic by anyone else’s standards. In the simplest sense, it just means that you’re attempting to live from a place of wholeness and acceptance. All the women you have been and all the things you have had to do or wanted to do are important pieces of your story. The love and loss that is traced around your heart is your own particular map of courage.
Would you like to practice seeing yourself as courageous today? With pen, body paint, eye pencil, or whatever you have nearby, write the word courage on yourself. Small or large, faint or dark, see if you can put it somewhere you’ll see it throughout the day (wrist, heart, arm, hand, etc.) Whenever you see it, acknowledge the ways you are living courageously today.