On illness, 3: Wild Snails, Shadows, and Grown-Upness 101
Tunes for a Monday Morning

On illness, 4: Emerging from the Forest

Crumbs by Jeanie Tomanek

For the final post in this series on illness, I'd like to look at illness's aftermath: that tricky transition from the slow, deep work of recuperation back to the bustling workaday world, the final part of the fairy tale journey when we emerge from the forest at last. In mythic terms, the end of shamanic initiation is not the ascent from the Underworld, re-born and carrying new knowledge and skills from the spirit realm; it's the return to the tribe and the use of those skills in the service of community.  

"Contact with the mythic realm, and the knowing that that imparts, changes the very being of the initiate," writes Kat Duff (in The Achemy of Illness); "he or she is never the same again. Perhaps that is why so many sick people come to divide their lives in two: before and after getting sick."

Since You've Been Gone by Jeanie Tomanek

Duff continues: "The final phase of initation -- emergence from the underworld, return, and reintegration into the community -- is a very delicate one, for the incessant activity of the mundane world can be painful, even devastatig to the initiate so sensitized by contact with the mythic realm. Many do not make it. Since I have been getting better in recent months, I have dreamed more than once that I am a bear coming out of hibernation, all groggy and clumsy -- and blinded by the light of day; in the first two dreams I just crawled back into my hole.

Beginnings by Jeanie Tomanek"Newly 'hatched' initiates are often protected for a short while , sometimes rocked or suckled like newborns, to help orient them to their new lives. Similarly, people recovering from serious illnesses need a quiet place, a safe haven, where they can gradually recollect themselves and establish a new center of gravity."

I couldn't agree more, and yet our modern society -- obsessed with youth, speed, perfectionist ideals and relentless productivity -- rarely permits the time and practical support for our slow re-orientation to lives that have been profoundly changed by the enormity of what we've just been through.

"Unfortunately," Duff laments, "few of us get that support, as we are pushed by the demands of contemporary living back into the hustle and bustle as soon as we are able. There are debts to be paid, children to be attended to, and jobs that will not wait forever."

In initiatory rites around the world, the initiates return not only schooled in new spiritual knowledge but also carrying sacred gifts, like the tobacco seeds in Tuesday's story. Duff notes that in traditional society these gifts often took the form of new songs or dances. "I suspect," she says, "that these gifts actually ease and ensure a successful reentry by calling forth the body's memory, which is so much more detailed and accurate than words or ideas, of the mythic realities encountered during initiation. Of course, these gifts are also responsibilities; initiates are often required to perform their songs or dances at later dates, for the continued well-being of the community of life. We too need to carry something of what we've experienced back into the world of the living, to remember the dreams, follow the imperatives, or use the powers we have been given by our sojourns in the underworld. That takes courage, clarity of mind, and the willingness to follow one's truth even if others cannot affirm it, especially in our culture, which does not recognize the initiatory role of illness, in fact actively resists it by encouraging us to 'get back to normal.' "

Forget-me-not by Jeanie Tomanek

"If we do not carry what we have learned back into the world," Duff  continues, "we risk getting sick again, for the energies unused can revert into their destructive forms, in what I consider to be one of the hidden cruelties of illness.  It has happened to many people -- including [the great Lakota Sioux medicine man] Black Elk. When Black Elk first received his great vision at the ripe age of nine, he knew it was meant to be shared, but he could not figure out how to do that, and so he did not; eight years later he got sick again and was tormented with fears until finally an old medicine man told him that he must do what his vision wanted him to do -- enact the horse dance for his people to see -- and helped him to do it.

The Return by Jeanie Tomanek"When initiations are successful, the survivors slowly return to their communities with new eyes to see, new ears to hear, and the courage to act upon those perceptions. [After recovering from a heart attack,] Carl Jung went on to do his most important work, explaining that 'the insight I had had, the vision of the end of all things, gave me the courage to undertake new formulations.' [In The Cancer Journals,] poet Audre Lord spoke of feeling 'another kind of power' growing within her, one that was 'tempered and enduring, grounded in the realities of what I am,' with the determination to 'save my life by using my life in the service of what must be done.' Just as girls are 'grown' into women through their puberty initiation rites, many people who have been seriously ill become what they must become, what they are meant to be, whether that occurs through death or recovery."

The Contract by Jeanie Tomanek

"And so, through processes well described by alchemical formulas and initiation rites," Duff concludes, "we are both diminished and enlarged by the agency of our illnesses, and so opened to the possibility of new life. The losses are many and visible; the harvest grain is smaller than the standing stalks, but so much more useful. So Nietzsche observed: 'I doubt that such pain makes us "better"; but I know it makes us more profound...from such abysses, from such severe sickness, one returns newborn, having shed one's skin.' "

The Rising by Jeanie Tomanek

"Cancer changes people," writes Doris Brett (in Eating the Underworld). "It is one of those marker events that delineates a 'before' and 'after' in our lives. It forces us to define and redefine ourselves. And then, because the experience of cancer is an extended process and not a static event, it forces us to do it again and again.

"And it is right that we are changed. As with any descent into a feared and terrifying country -- whether it the country of illness or the country of a grieving heart -- we have entered the underworld. And we have eaten its fruit. I remember all the mythical stories of those frightening journeys, and with each one the rule is inviolate. Those who ingest the food of the underworld are bound to it in some way. It is not the binding of instruments of torture and the roastings of hell. Instead, it is the binding of that terrible, clear sight that can only be gained in the depths. The knowledge of ourselves, the knowledge of others. We cannot remain unchanged."

Eve Does Take Out by Jeanie Tomanek

"The end point of the cancer survivor's narrative," writes Brett at the close of her luminous book, "is inevitably the 'what I learned from cancer' finale. We expect it in the way we expect swelling music as the movie ends. It is more than expectation, it is a need. And we need what is learned to be good: 'I learned how loved I am,' 'I learned I am a survivor.' It is a way of waving away the dark; a way of reassuring ourselves; a way of saying that even though it was hard and punishing, it was worth it. It meets our deep and often unspoken need to complete the story; the familiar bedtime story that tells us that everything will be alright in the end.

Moon of the Long Nights & Kindling by Jeanie Tomanek

"When I began my dance with cancer," Brett admits, "I imagined that this is what I would emerge with. That when it was ended, what I would hold in my hand was the silver lining. I imagined that I would be changed, but that was the point at which my imagination failed. All I could imagine was a better, brighter me -- the steel that is finer for having been tempered in the fire.

"What I learned is very different from what I expected to learn. I have learned that I am loved. I learned it from old friends who stood by me, and new friends who helped in unexpected and touching ways....But I have also learned from others that where I thought I was loved, I was not. I have been attacked when I was most vulnerable. I was deserted by those I thought would gladly stay with me.

Bye Bye by Jeanie Tomanek"I have learned that things turn out well. And that they don't. I have had moments when I thought I would die from the sheer physical beauty of the world. And moments when it merely seemed to mock what was happening to me. I have had wonderful things happen and terrifying things too.

"My journey through cancer was supposed to be a simple one, along the lines of St. George fighting the dragon. Instead, it led me to revelations about the underside, the flawedness, of all things -- myself, my family, my friends, my world. Recognizing and accepting these has required far more courage than facing cancer. It is what I never expected; fought hardest to avoid -- and yet perhaps it has been the truest gift to come out of all of this.

"In many ways, it is hard to live in the real world with its lack of delineations, in inequities, its ambiguities. How do you keep going in the face of uncertainty? Not just the uncertainty of mortality, but the day-to-day slogging on your dreams, unsure they will ever come to fruition; the investment in relationships, unsure of what they will turn out to be; the tender nurturing of hopes, aware they may be shattered; the knowledge that nothing is purely one thing or another.

"But it is only by emerging from the shimmering world of make-believe that we have a chance at finding our true lives -- our strength, and with it, our authentic capacity to love. Because love must be about seeing the shadow as well as the light, otherwise it is merely the love of a fantasy, an image created to soothe the wounds in our soul. And strength must involve recognizing one's own fear and vulnerability, but standing up anyway."

Blessing by Jeanie Tomanek

Though we are talking here about the end of the journey, the "before" and "after" of a serious illness, for many of us there is no clear "after," but, rather, the ups and downs of a recurring condition, or the slow deterioration of a progressive one, or an illness marked "cured" in a medical file that nonetheless leaves one weakened and vulnerable to others, debilitating in their own right. Each flare up, each descent, is another mythic journey, and it rarely gets any easier with repetition or familiarity. But still we go on. We ascend from the depths. We emerge from the forest. We return to the world with tobacco seeds in our pockets, with a new role to play, with new stories to tell.

This one's mine. And Kat Duff's. And Doris Brett's.

It may be your story too. If so, I wish you well. Be safe. Be strong. Perhaps we'll meet somewhere in the dark woods, and we'll find the path out together.

Answered Prayers by Jeanie Tomanek

Words: The long passages quoted above are from Eating the Underworld by Doris Brett (Random House Australia, 2001), and The Alchemy of Illness by Kat Duff (Pantheon, 1993); all rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: The heart-rendingly beautiful paintings above are by Jeanie Tomanek, an America artist based near Atlanta. The titles can be found in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) To learn more about Jeanie's work, visit her website, her Facebook page, or read my article about her here.

A related post on returning to a creative life after illness or trauma: "Re-kinding the Fire Within."


Hi Terri

Your posts on illness and the accompanying descent and ascent have been so illuminating, not in a way that shows me anything I didn't know, but in the revelation that the nature of suffering is a well trodden path through the archetypal forest. That the human experience in descent is not the lonely plunge into the black abyss, but feathers and stones, depressions in the grass and broken twigs left as signposts from of all those that have recently passed this way. Emerging as I am from a strangely repetitive end of summer depression, your posts have mirrored my return and your gentle bravery has encouraged me to not feel shame in my dysfunction but to have more courage in charting through my written and visual art the truth of my journey through the woods.



I have been a witness,
An acolyte in your illness.
I served as best
As a teenage boy could
And of course I failed,
But I went on serving.

Once I told you a joke
(filthy it was)
That made you laugh
So much you cried,
This time, I’m glad to say
With joy, rather than pain or fear.

But eventually the ritual
Came to an end
And you,
the celebrant,
Were taken away.

The house felt so empty
Like a church after mass

Like a clearing in the woods
After the dancing has stopped.

But your presence echoes
faintly on,
Like a resonance
That fades to slow calm
After a bell has been struck.

Oh, Terri. Good to hear that you're emerging, once again, from the forest. Wishing you all that you need for this time of re-orientation. x

Beautiful. As someone with a chronic illness, the idea of initiation coming out of the forest could be useful as a reminder, at times when I start to feel I may be getting better, to go through some sort of ritual which slows down my impatience. Maybe by doing this, eventually I might fully leave the forest.

This is about my last year's seven-hour back operation.

The Long Walk

After the long cut, the long walk,
seeing the world anew, and old.
Speaking and not speaking
to the heavy sunflowers, heads
bent over as if too much sun
no longer serves them well.

After the long cut, the long walk,
listening and not listening
to the crows scolding, voices
in harmony yet unharmonious,
like my body and my soul
now in constant argument.

After the long cut, the long walk,
touching and not touching
the hidden no-see-ums
to make them pop open,
showering the green below
with their seedy, unwelcome gifts.

After the long cut, the long walk,
tasting and not tasting
a pocketfull of nuts and dried fruit
that taste different after the chemistry
of medicines that flooded my body,
taking away my old presents.

After the long cut, the long walk
back into my life, back into yours,
forgive me the length of my steps,
my distance; becoming again
is the hardest part it seems
of being gone.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Lovely Stuart. Thank you.

Many thanks Terri for your gifts of emergence, and reminders of the responsibilities. This summer of illness for me another episode in living with a sensitive Nature, one more opportunity to feel the reality of Trees who burned and continue to burn ... because we, Humans, ask so much of Mother Earth and her Nature.

Mine is a recurring illness not separate from soul sickness the physical is the part that separates me from others. The ash of Old Growth Forests send the torment into the skies where the God Lono blows them to be breathed. Those sensitive to the sorrow will have to sacrifice performance for life. It's a small price, really.

Your posts have reassured me of the work, the gifts that must be exchanged as part and parcel of living with illness. The stories. The oral tradition based on breath ... the Trees, oxygen-makers that they are, they wait for their story to be told. "Yes, the stories come," I say. "Slowly, they string together." "Promise?" asks the Ash. "Yes," I answer. "I am happy to pay the price."

Hi Terri

This week's journey through the forest, the dark wood of illness and back again has been remarkable, touching and insightful!!! I have been mesmerized by the power of these writings and pictures as well as enlightened.

Presently, my mom is suffering through the progressive stages of Alzheimer's. There are days when she barely knows who she is or those around her. She is lost in that wilderness and then come the rare days when her energy levels seem higher and her spirits heightened. During those times, she and I both emerge from the desert, closer and more human, perhaps. regarding our awareness of love, human vulnerability and mortality. Here's a poem I wrote some time ago on that same subject

Back East

I always took the grass for granted
ungroomed and growing long
from weekly rain. A harp
of wild strains I never heard
but unconsciously felt. The soft fox tail, the raw
lace, the caravan of pebbles hidden within. Those
pink swabs of clover.

Your field was full of its tangled hush
and we stepped through hurriedly
trampling stems and leaves, anxious to reach
flatter terrain. We may have caught the moth, a stray note
landing on thistle or thorn -- but still

we neglected to listen. Now in a field
of chaparral and dust, I think of you
back home in a home. Your mind
on most days like the desert, desolate
and brusquely swept with a gust
of thoughts you cannot gather. Yet
there is that rare conversation
when words grow high into sentences
and shine green in the morning light.
Your inflections – a harmonic blend
that strikes deeply. A day when my breath
migrates into wonder.
Again many thanks for these postings!!
Take care,
My Best

Hi Jane

my distance; becoming again
is the hardest part it seems
of being gone.

What a brilliant ending to a very insightful and personal poem. I think you describe the journey of evolving back into health and its reality so beautifully in this peace. The insight in this poem is breathtaking. Thank you so much for sharing it. I pray you continue to feel well and enjoy many walks and creative days ahead!

My Best

Hi Stuart

A most beautiful and poignant poem. I love the ending
and how the person's "presence echoes/faintly on". I know that feeling, it is very familiar to me. Thank you so much for posting this one, it touches deeply.

My Best

we meet again & then again out here... out past the crossroads...

Those final lines are so powerful, Stuart. Thank you.

I like the fourth stanza best, Jane. Such a true experience. And frustrating.

Wendy, I'm sorry to hear about your mother. This poem is beautiful and poignant, particularly the image of a field once green, now dust, and then the words growing high into green sentences... lovely.

Thank you So Much Edith

for your kind words and empathy. I deeply appreciate them. She has been in this state for three years now and like I said in the prelude, she has good days and not so good. But she still knows me and some other members of our family.

Again Thank you!

Beauty is this poem, love never said out loud. House empty like a church after mass, and -presence echoes faintly on....a miracle of a poem. I never quite got losing my mother right in a poem. But at least she too chose and those who say they have lost what their loved one's voice was lost, hers is still there.

Very like walking again after I had a new fake knee. Much like a strange dream for a while.
Now joy that the pain is gone and I can walk up San Francisco hills.

Somehow my comment was whooshed away to nowhere land. I did feel so much love in this. The field and her diminishing that would sometimes miraculously mend fora while. A dear aunt of mine could not remember who I was but accepted a gift, a little silk purse from Chinatown with smiles and a thank you. She was always so welcoming.

Terri you amaze me again. The art of Jeanie Tomanek is so well matched with the sorrows and surprises of illness. It even looked like she was in the far side of the forest. Fairy-like and much like the strange lack of borders in the mind when in deep density. Does she know Tilly? Is that the black dog blessing her?

Thank you so much Phyllis
for your understanding and beautiful comment. I deeply appreciate it as well as your kind empathy!!

Take care,

Just wanting to say Terri that what you offer here is, to me, the single best offering of regular words anywhere on this wild web, and I am so grateful to you for sharing, again and again and again, such thoughtful, profound, moving and mythic beauty. Truly, it is always astounding & a deep inspiration. Love S.

Last three lines especially, Stuart. Yes.


Thanks all.

Always grateful for feedback.


that rare conversation
when words grow high into sentences
and shine green in the morning light.

Wow wow wow!


Hi Jane

Thanks so much for your commenting; I so deeply appreciate it and am glad those lines resonated with you --- because today when I talked with my mother, it was one of those rare days, rare conversations. She was quite alert and her spirits rather buoyant. What a gift even if it is only momentary!!

Thank you!

Nothing about me and my various discontents over seven decades, nor that I am almost always at the edge if not wandering the paths of that dark forest, but about you and this entire series, which I have just re-read in it's entirety......isn't this the new book that will go to the typesetters some day so that others can hold it and touch it in their sickness or health? You lack not talented choice despite the dark journey. But slowly, ever so tenderly now and forever more.

Most beautiful other, I have come to treasure you from a distance, and to love your Tilly too. Goodnight then, until we meet again.

Hello Jane, Mokihana, Edith, Phyllis and Wendy. Thank you all for your comments. As Jane says it's always good to get feedback and I'm really grateful to you all for taking time to say what you think.

I've been a bit absent from the comments over the last few days, not because I haven't been moved by the power of the postings, but because I'm so busy. Of course after reading Terri's blog and all of the reactions to it, I'm fully aware of how fortunate I am to be busy and to have the good health to be so.

The power of the human spirit in the face of adversity never fails to impress, and there are some exceptionally impressive people who both write this blog and read it!

"and much like the strange lack of borders in the mind when in deep density" ... beautiful! And I too named the black dog "Tilly".

These posts have been so amazing and so beautifully illustrated. Thank you. I am thinking of so many I'd like to share these with. You have created a gift for many. Again, thank you very much.

I don't have much to say about your last posts, lacking personal experience with serious illness. But I would like to thank you anyway, it gave me much to think about.

Overwhelmed with all this. I definitely need to purchase some of the books you have listed in all the posts on illness. Insightful. Painful at times. But so very helpful.

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