It was twilight by the time the entire group had assembled in my Brooklyn Heights apartment. We sat in a circle on the floor of my candle-lit living room and held hands in silence in order to create the perfect atmosphere for sharing. Then Melissa produced her Talking Stick and a mantle of awe fell upon us—for the polished wooden rod really did seem to exude a magical aura all of its own.
As hostess, I explained how we were going to use the stick to explore the concept of Unconditional Love. A few groans were uttered, which subsided under a volley of glares from those who took our sharing mucho seriously. Briefly I spoke of the high ceremonial and spiritual value of such a stick in the context of aboriginal democracy—that a Talking Stick is passed around in a group, or used by a leader as a symbol of his/her authority. Only the person holding the stick is allowed to speak—a wise custom that allows all participants to be heard, including introverts. Consensus can force the stick to move along to assure that the pedantic and long-winded don’t dominate the discussion, while the person holding the stick may allow others to interject.
Melissa began the group share. She spoke about being an only child who’d struggled against the demons of addiction that had gripped her in early teenage soon after her mother’s suicide. Her father had remarried and her step-mother, an alcoholic with bipolar disorder, had treated Melissa like she was poison—but only when her father was not around. Her busy father had dismissed Melissa’s complaints about her step-mom as stemming from a morbid imagination, whereupon Melissa had begun slugging booze right out of her stepmother’s bottles. Simultaneously, she’d begun to smoke ciggies and pot, then graduated to coke in her twenties. She’d entered the 12-step rooms thoroughly vanquished; seven years later, she was still getting her life in order. Unconditional love? Heh heh heh…nice phrase, Melissa ended her share drily, but sorry, she’d never experienced it except in the merest of flashes. Still, she concluded, grinning her charming lopsided grin, as long as she was alive, there was hope.
There was silence after she spoke; then Natalie raised her hand and Melissa passed her the stick. Natalie spoke of being one of the few biracial kids in her posh school—her father was a white lawyer who’d married his black secretary. Like Melissa, she too had finally sought solace in drugs and alcohol. Unconditional love? No luck so far, except for what she suspected might have been a trace of it, experienced while caring for a kitten she’d adopted from the local animal shelter after she’d gotten sober, three years ago.
The stick moved on, and the sharing intensified. Chloe told us about the child she’d lost to leukaemia; she’d loved her little girl so deeply she’d have given her life to save her. Ah! Finally! Wasn’t this unconditional love? Or was it just the excessive love of a mother for her own flesh and blood? Chloe continued her tragic tale—Amelia had died, despite all their efforts to save her; unable to bear Chloe’s thickening depression, her husband had asked for a divorce. Alone, Chloe had begun to drink heavily until she too had finally found her way into AA.
When my turn came to share, I found myself unexpectedly paralyzed. It struck me with all the force of a hammer blow that I’d never been able to love, or been loved, without a slew of conditions. I began to sob, huge racking sobs that shocked me more than anyone else. Other women had cried as they had shared as well, but my sobs shook the bloody roof. I bet my neighbors wondered what was going on in my apartment, because my weeping spread around the circle like a contagion, and soon we were all reduced to blubbering wailing wrecks. Then someone emitted a weak giggle, the crying turned into raucous laughter, and Delia piped up to say the smell of the dhal had made her ravenous, and when the hell were we going to eat, for heaven’s sake?