The cold mountain air hit the back of my lungs with a sharp gust as my feet carried me swiftly toward the summit.
Breath hot. Face cold. Heart pounding.
The crystals of fresh snow shimmered with the mid-afternoon sunlight.
It was Christmas Day 2011, and I was waiting for a phone call—a phone call from my doctor.
The previous six months had brought an onslaught of peculiar physical symptoms. Dozens of medical appointments and blood draws later had led me to the dark basement of my local hospital and into the dreaded MRI machine.
I remember the metallic chill that entered through the vein on my left arm and how it instantaneously filled my whole body. How my breath quickened as the beeping started and the bed moved me slowly into the dark tube.
As the snow fell silently, I was waiting for the phone call with that MRI result. Waiting for the call that would tell me what they found.
“Hi Emma, It’s Dr. Jean,” I could tell by his soft and caring tone that this was not a call to congratulate me on everything being okay. I felt the nauseating churn as my heart dropped into my stomach.
There comes a time in every woman’s life when she must turn and face the truth of her own becoming. It may enter in a soft whisper or a painstaking loss. It may arrive on your doorstep with a newfound spiritual insight or brilliant accomplishment. Or it might crash down on you with a shocking, rug-pulled-out-from-under-you sort of surprise.
However the material of your life comes packaged, not one of us is immune to the most primal vulnerability of our humanity.
“We’ve found a tumor on your pituitary gland,” he said. “We’ll need to first determine if it is benign, and then swiftly begin treatment accordingly.”
Burn, blossom, sparkle, repeat, I whispered softly to myself as I began to feel an inner shake. I was simultaneously hot and cold as I stood there looking at the frozen lake and the snow fell softly around me. In that moment, I did not know where my health journey would lead, but I knew it was my time to burn.
The sheen of the sunlight as it pierced the white blanket of snow seemed ironic as I felt myself slipping down into the underworld.
As women, our initiations come in a wide range of forms. There are experiences that we categorize as positive and others that we label negative—and yet ultimately, regardless of the flavor, all of these major life passages have the potential to lead us to the same place, that is: deeper into ourselves and our personal power.
Here are three of the innumerable ways that I personally navigated a time of great uncertainty in my life. I have found in my own life and also in the lives of the women that I serve, that these principles can be utilized in times of good fortune, as well as great suffering.
1. Steep yourself in contemplation.
Regardless of your religious or spiritual orientation—atheist, agnostic, or otherwise, a primary aspect of human life is the process of meaning-making. Sometimes religion or spirituality can provide us with a map or set of teachings that resonate with our own sense of truth. Other times, we may feel as if there is no clear understanding and it is important to seek out solace, inspiration and reflection with regard to meaning.
Contemplating the material of your life, whether it appears “positive” or “negative,” can be supported by books, meditation, a local teacher, counsel from a wise friend, a therapist or mentor. Allow your personal style to shape the kind of reflection that you do, but please don’t turn your back on the process of meaning-making, for it is one of the most fruitful opportunities on a woman’s path of growth. It is here where we are empowered to shape the stories that we tell. These stories often become a primary backbone of our self-concept and self-worth.
2. Ask for help.
When I was facing the throes of my illness, I felt as if I were asking for help all day long. I asked for witness, feedback, reflection, advice, medical practitioners, time off from work, space, connection, food, patience, love and so much more.
Like many women, it can feel really difficult for me to ask for help because I am more comfortable providing support to others than I am receiving it for myself. Allowing friends, family, health providers, colleagues and strangers to help me was incredibly healing. I saw up close and personal how the act of reaching for support and acknowledging my vulnerability gave people around me the opportunity to show up and give. Ultimately this web of reciprocity was fulfilling and enlivening not only for me, but also for others.
It is easy to think we can only ask for help when things are difficult, but reaching out when things are going well is actually equally as powerful and beneficial for both giver and receiver.
3. Gift yourself with reminders of life’s cycles.
When we are in the throes of a particularly challenging period of time, I notice that most people start to feel as if this is how life is going to be forever. Certainly there is devastation or experiences of adversity that can last for multiple years without a clear end in sight. If we are paying attention, however, most hardship will morph and at some point come to an end or at least change significantly.
Looking at photos of yourself from a period when things felt different, spending time observing nature and the inevitable shifts that the earth goes through or consciously noticing when something feels different, lighter or more in flow are all wonderful ways of supporting your mind to know that your life is not perpetually stagnant. Something will shift and change at some point, even if it is not clear when or how.
Whether it is the courage to stand up, start treatment, raise your hand, give that speech, say your last good-bye, birth the baby, leave the marriage, take that trip, risk the words, “I love you,” turn off the phone, get out of bed or do it all again—this is the audacity of womanhood.
I see you, whether you’re shining in the limelight or cowering in the corner praying for invisibility. Either way, that purple badge of honor—the emblem of your womanhood—is a testament to the holiest of grace.
Maybe it’s your time to face the burn and let things crumble as I did in the years following my diagnosis. Or perhaps it’s the season to welcome in the scent of your fresh and fragrant blossoms.
Or maybe today’s the day to give full reign to your most incandescent sparkle, without shirking away.
Wherever you are on the wheel of your womanhood, the invisible fabric of sisterhood is here to hold you. We are pulling out all the stops, raising up our white flags, putting out the soft pillows and pouring you a hot cup of tea.
You’ve got this.
Step two feet into whatever is true for you right now. Do it. We’ve got your hand.
This is your life.
Author: Emma Derman Teitel
Image: McKinley Law/Unsplash
Editor: Catherine Monkman