Fireside Chats With Clarissa Pinkola Estes: Hardening the Heartwood

There is something special about feeling transported by an amazing story. The art of complex storytelling is nearly lost in our society. We are used to such pre-packaged entertainment.
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Ever watch the spring flowers bloom really closely? I think they are a lesson in overcoming fear and demonstrating resilience. Think of those bulbs -- sitting dormant for nine or 10 months, crushed under rock hard earth and icy cold snow.

Yet, somehow, the urge to grow is too powerful, Mother Nature's call too pervasive, and up they come. It doesn't matter if there is an occasional frost, hail storm, snow squall or arctic breeze. Somehow they grow strong enough to withstand and survive. Those tiny little flowers are strong indeed.

As I wrote in a previous post, life is like that. The warm weather of Spring often heats up our inner desire to burst forth with new color and growth, and overcome obstacles. But, how do we access that inner call, and how do we protect ourselves from the harsh elements of rejection, pain, suffering and change?

I have been listening to a wonderful series by Clarissa Pinkola Estes, who wrote Women Who Run With the Wolves in 1992, which was a best seller for 145 weeks, and has essentially been hidden under the covers of life for quite some time. Estes is an American poet, psychoanalyst and post-trauma specialist who was raised in a now nearly vanished oral and ethnic tradition. She grew up in a rural village, population 600, near the Great Lakes. Three decades in the making, The Dangerous Old Woman is offered by Sounds True, and presents her masterwork in a series of six interactive online sessions filled with her signature stories, myths, and poetry--many told for the first time. Estes calls her group of listeners, "the Tribe of the Sacred Heart."

There is something special about feeling transported by an amazing story. The art of complex storytelling is nearly lost in our society. We are used to such pre-packaged entertainment, that the ability to simply sit and be catapulted away by a lyrical, lilting and provocative voice is deeply nourishing. Listening to her stories rather than reading them is rather sublime. In her first storytelling session, Estes described what it takes to grow and gather wisdom, in spite of life's obstacles. She spoke of many archetypes and stories, but an image that has stayed with me is the growth process of a young sapling tree as a metaphor for our own process of moving through innocence to wisdom.

When a young tree grows, it has a lot of moisture around the center of its trunk, or the 'heartwood.' This makes the new tree very flexible. It can bend in the wind and twist every which way without breaking. I can easily see my young children as toddlers bending both their minds and bodies every which way in the same manner, and I remember the idealism I had in my youth.

However, if the tree does not harden itself on the outside, the moisture will freeze the inner heartwood, and the tree will die. Does that sound familiar? If we remain ultra-sensitive to the whims of life, and do not harden off a part of ourselves, we will become vulnerable to every gust of wind, snow squall and bump in the road. Hardening is never easy. As parents, we want so much to protect our children -- to keep them pliable and innocent and free of trauma or hardship. Yet are we doing them any favors keeping them so soft?

My husband is the child of Holocaust survivors. His life growing up in post-war Europe was filled with anti-Semitism and violence. His parents fled Poland under duress and immigrated to the United States in 1960 with a total of $20. His young sapling tree was hardened early, and despite the horror stories and nightmares he has to live with he grew strong, driven and successful in the world.

His dear friend and colleague is also very successful, but grew up in a very different world of comfort and luxury. His father tried to artificially harden his son -- by forcing him to work as a teenager in a dingy restaurant kitchen, washing dishes until the wee hours of the morning. One day the parents decided to visit their hardworking son, and drove up to the greasy spoon in a Bentley. Word soon flew around the staff as busboys and waiters went outside to admire the car, and the jig was up.

I see my husband struggle watching our children grow up. They have everything. They have never seen a war, never gone without a meal and have essentially wanted for nothing. He worries: will they be able to effectively harden their exterior, so they don't die in the winter? How do we balance the desire to make life comfortable and yet also instill a will to survive and a layer of protection? Taking away their laptop is not necessarily going to cut it.

Regardless if your heartwood is protected early or late in life, eventually, the tree does grow, and those who are very lucky become wise elders like ancient Redwoods: fierce, strong, fiery, soft and resilient all at once. The Dangerous Old Woman archetype is like an ancient tree who has gathered years, has many branches, bears fruit, shows off her flowers in the Spring, and sheds her leaves in the Fall. The rings of her trunk bear the marks of years of fighting to survive, and the texture of her bark is rough yet comforting.

How have you learned to harden yourself off so you can grow and survive? How do you find ways to remain flexible in the wind and not break under pressure? I hope to continue sharing installments of this series, and hope you will join us in the Tribe of the Sacred Heart.