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Monk in the World Guest Post: Michelle Kobriger

I am delighted to share another beautiful submission to the Monk in the World guest post series from the community. Read on for Michelle Kobriger’s reflection, “A Reluctant Pilgrim.”

On Sunday mornings, I look forward to the Abbey of the Arts weekly email and its serendipitous bits of wisdom. Last October’s post describing the spiritual practice of peregrinatio was exceptionally timely— days earlier I’d been diagnosed with endometrial cancer.

Peregrinatio is a pilgrimage made for the love of God with no set destination. Celtic monks set out alone in small boats called coracles. Without rudder or oar, the monks trusted the wisdom in the water to carry them to the place of their resurrection.

I don’t have the courage or conviction of the monks who willingly climbed into their little boats. I like maps and plans. Nevertheless there I was in roiling water, stripped of all illusion of control. Waves of fear rocked my fragile craft as it lurched toward uncertain destinations, but I had to trust a greater force was guiding my journey.

In Celtic lore, dolphins bring healing and rebirth. The night after my diagnosis, two of them came to me in dream: I sat on a boat launch beside a lake, and one wriggled up the concrete ramp to lie beside me. Stroking its sleek grey skin, I was filled with a sense of peace. The other dolphin stayed in the lake just beyond the launch. Swimming patiently. Waiting. For me? I’m never keen to jump into an unknown body of water.

I used to wonder how people persevered in the face of a frightening diagnosis. I learned that when you feel the most alone and afraid in your little boat, helpful creatures pop up from the murky water to swim beside you. They’ll nudge your boat to keep it off the rocks, maybe push you along when the current slows — another way to say people showed up with homemade casseroles and soup. Some sent cards, brought flowers, or sent gifts. They phoned, texted, and emailed assurances of their love and prayers. I relaxed into the current of grace they made; a current strong enough to carry me through medical tests and consultations with new doctors, move me through days of waiting for the next appointment, procedure, or test result with more equanimity than I possess.

Ten days after a hysterectomy, I thought I’d arrived at the place of resurrection: the pathology report was completely normal! I was cancer free, but my journey in the coracle was just beginning. Two days later, my digestive system shutdown like someone flipped its “off” switch. Emergency Room staff diagnosed a post-surgical, small-bowel obstruction. It was a miserable five-day hospital stay: IV fluids, an NG tube siphoning my stomach and nothing to eat or drink. With boatloads of prayer and patience, my digestive system finally rebooted.

Back home, there was culture shock over the mismatch between the food in our house and my newly-prescribed low-fiber diet. Most of the fresh, whole foods I enjoy were off the menu for awhile, but canned peaches and white bread are a big upgrade from IV’s and ice chips.

Landmarks of my old life fell away during the months of recovery. Care-givers were hired for the two days a week I babysat my twin grandbabies. The non-profit arts organization where I was president and a volunteer for more than a decade was closing, and an artist guild I helped to run faced an uncertain future. The journey seemed orchestrated to keep me off balance, unable to rely on old patterns and assumptions, clearing the way for new life to emerge.

There was plenty of time to recuperate and I didn’t mind so much; resting in winter while the trees were bare and the gardens slept beneath a blanket of snow. Then daffodils bloomed and goldfinches sported their yellow summer garb. I grew frustrated and annoyed with my lack of stamina and persistent symptoms of malaise, but as every traveler should know; frustration, impatience, and anger never hasten the journey. Best to take a deep breath, surrender to the pace, and find something to appreciate.

I try to appreciate my body — scarred, road weary, and missing a few not absolutely essential parts — it held cancer at bay, ran a rigorous medical gauntlet, and still gets me where I need to go. Doctors prescribed “extreme self-care” for my recovery. According to folk-lore, dolphins come to teach lessons of self-love — lessons I need to embrace.

While scanning the horizon for my island of resurrection, I ponder radical questions: If I loved myself, what would I do right now? Can I nourish and support my body with love and compassion rather than resenting it for its frailty? Where do I lack appropriate boundaries? And — How do I resurrect my creative practice from a tomb of neglect — buried under the weight of everyone’s needs but my own?

Perhaps resurrection springs from the place where my needs intersect with the needs of others; the crossroads of service and deepest joy. The point of authentic “sacred yes.”

In this new, ever-shifting landscape, I have a clean slate upon which to reinvent my creative life. I listen for guidance in the songs of birds, the breath of wind in the trees, and the words of loved ones. I seek inspiration from the fresh blooms in my garden. I challenge myself to practice less doing, more being. And I picture a pair of dolphins swimming nearby, chattering cheerful reminders: “Breathe. Embrace joy!”

Michelle Kobriger is a metalsmith and mixed-media artist. At her home in Waukesha, Wisconsin,  cooking, gardening, and homemaking offer constant opportunity for creative expression in the spirit of Oscar Wilde’s words: “Life has been your art. You have set yourself to music. Your days are your sonnets.”

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