Big Stuff

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley

There is something at work in my soul, which I do not understand.
Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein

Two words in particular that Karen Rose used in her blog “Falling from Grace” caught my attention. Soul work. It was only two little words, dropped into a sentence, yet they seemed to pulse on the page, written exclusively to me. I went to bed wondering how much soul work I really do. I woke up admitting that I probably have not been doing much, at least consciously, because I’ve rationalized to myself that I did all the soul work I needed when my second, beloved husband, Gary, died. But are we ever really through?

Mark Nepo notes: Life takes time. It takes time to unfold its more lasting truths. . .” The more I sat with the idea of soul work, the more I realized I’d put it on hold. So I tried an experiment—giving the day in front of me to soul work. Ignoring my list of things to get done and becoming the young girl I once was who used to let the day unfold (borrowing from Nepo) as it inevitably would.

My first thought was something I’d thought about earlier in the week, taking a quiche to a good friend whose husband had been quite sick for the last few months, after years of surgeries to address a bad back. A private and self-sufficient person, she has been his caretaker through it all. I decided that if I followed my heart, or soul, rather than reading the papers for my class, I’d finally get around to taking that quiche to her. Mind you, it took me some time to get to this, as I kept prevaricating around items that had been on my agenda, thinking about how I’d still work them in—old habits are hard to break.

After breakfast, without showering or getting my daily exercise, I threw on some jeans and headed to Turtle Bread, a Minneapolis restaurant that has some of the best quiche I’ve ever eaten.  It was March 30th and we were having an early spring in Minnesota after a classic winter of snow and even a couple days of a polar vortex with temperatures at -34. The sky was bright blue and most of the snow was gone, although the temperature was just above freezing and a chilly breeze was blowing.

Soul work is the process of bringing the essential self – the soul – out of hiding. It’s a fundamental shift away from occupying the constructed self, and toward the art of living our soul.

As I drove to Turtle Bread I thought about soul work and what the term actually refers to. I realized I had no solid “definition,” rather an association with faith and authenticity. Doing this, getting the quiche for our friend, felt like soul work. And suddenly, I teared up. I wanted to cry, but I had no idea what I might be crying about.  Was it the parallel with taking care of my second husband when he was dying of pancreatic cancer? The realization that it’s the two of you, husband and wife, in this dance with a human body that’s lost its homeostasis and is on a course all its own, dragging you with? Or was it simply my soul being let out to breathe, unearthed from the lists and agendas and obligations that cover it. I wasn’t sure, but there I was at the restaurant.

I ordered the quiche, and as the young man packed it up, I knew I was about to cry in earnest. Soul work is big stuff, I thought, as I rushed out to the car. Big stuff. I challenged myself to sit with it, sort it out if I could, realizing that the sorting out might take the rest of my life.

I dropped off the quiche. My friend was clearly touched, and I had that incredible feeling we get when we do something nice for someone, when we put everything aside and reach out in love and support. I hugged her and told her how much the Karens’ love her, and we laughed. Back to the car and more big stuff, soul work, in this case, being mainly crying. I’d always thought that soul work involved reading and studying spiritual texts, but now I see that it’s much bigger than that. To borrow from Mary Shelley, there is always something at work in my soul, and I often do not understand it. What I do know is that for me the work begins with opening my heart, giving and receiving kindness. In this new life of retiring, it’s turning away from whatever door is closing, be it work or some other door—as described by Parker Palmer—and being willing to open that other door into your heart and your essence, your soul. I also suspect that soul work involves looking back through that door over and over, seeing one’s life through your soul. And coming to a place, dare I say, when you live through your soul.