Early summer means carnival season – homemade food served from pavilions by church folk and firemen, amusement park rides set up in fields, hucksters selling a chance to win a stuffed animal, an inflatable sword, a goldfish, or even a gecko.
Bells ringing, lights flashing, the smell of crab cakes and hot dogs, homemade French fries and funnel cakes, and kids of all ages spinning and whirling in every direction.
Every weekend another fire department opens its local carnival grounds to feed and entertain more people than the town holds. My husband jokes that the food is always better the closer you stay to the farming towns — farm folk know how to cook for hundreds of people at a time, and they do it well.
Our parents came from those farming families. All four of them joined the white collar world, but still live close to that life, in body and soul.
We take our kids to the local carnivals when we can, even though they are eleven and fifteen. We see people who knew us when we were that age (and younger), people who know our parents through blood, marriage, or church. We see cousins, childhood friends, friends of cousins, cousins of friends. We live in that kind of place.
Last week, after stuffing myself with hot dogs and French fries and playing rounds of Skee-ball with my family, I found myself strapped into the swinging seat of the Ferris wheel at the New Windsor carnival.
Gabriel, my youngest son, sat next to me. He was still talking about food, and teasing me about going to the top. Gabriel loves everything about the carnival.
The people. The sounds. The smells. The lights, and the rides. He wants to play all the games, and he wants to eat all the food. He never seems overwhelmed. He’s quick with an opinion, and speaks up, even with people he’s just met.
Gabriel’s dark eyes light up as we start moving, the swinging car pulling upward toward the sky. I’m glad I agreed to ride with him, even though my body vibrates with overstimulation and my breathing quickens as we rise.
We arrive at the top of the Ferris wheel, and the car swings to a stop. “Whoa,” Gabriel says, his eyes wide but smiling. “We are really high, Mom.”
Instead of tensing my body like I usually do, I breathe deeply and relax, listening to his voice.
Ever since giving birth to his brother, I’ve lost my stomach on swing sets and car rides. It’s like my insides came unmoored from me as soon as I had children.
Maybe that’s what happens to every mother, no matter how her children come to her; they hollow out her insides. Clear out things that need healing. Fill it up with something new. Make room for all that deep love. You have to be willing to lose your stomach. You have to be willing to feel the ride.
In “The Highly Sensitive Person,” Elaine Aron has a whole chapter on “Healing the Deeper Wounds.” In it, the oldest HSP she interviewed had “come to believe that difficult childhoods are chosen by souls destined for a spiritual life. It keeps them working on their inner life while others are settling down to a more ordinary existence.” (pg.173)
When I read that passage, I remember exhaling loudly. “Whoa.”
At that point, I had already gone through years of therapy talking about my own childhood. I had gotten married, and gone through some marriage counseling along the way, learning how to be better at it than my own parents.
I had doubted myself, questioned myself, and spent years trying to make things better for me, and for my own family. I worried over my kids and my parenting. The years felt like a roller coaster sometimes, and I had lost my stomach more times than I could count. Sometimes, I wondered if my life was destined to be one long struggle.
Now, here I was, sitting beside Gabriel at the top of the Ferris wheel, looking out over the carnival, over the lights and the sounds — and the town I grew up in. And finally I found myself able to exhale.
In this place, Gabriel is my teacher, one of the clearest lessons in how to take joy in life as it comes, with all its vibrating, pulsating, colorful noise. And tonight, with that deep breath, I decide to put Gabriel’s lesson into practice. Breathe deeply. Unclench my muscles. Appreciate the hard work. Recognize this spiritual journey, this long hollowing out, and the filing up. Enjoy the ride.
As we start our descent, the car swings again.
“Next time around, raise your arms, Mom!” Gabriel grins.
“Come on, Mom!”
I raise both arms, just a few inches off the rail, take another breath. Nothing but easy air. No falling. No lost stomach. No hollow place to fill right now.
Just that connection. Gabriel.
My older son far off on the ground, holding an inflatable bat, grinning. My husband stands beside him, the one who paid for the tickets and threw dozens of Skee-balls to win silly prizes.
For the first time in a long time, even in the midst of being overwhelmed, I sank into my highly sensitive self, felt all the sounds, the lights, the smells, the deep sadness, the longing, the pain and the joy, the struggle and the peace, and even the flight and the descent of the Ferris wheel, all while staying present. All while enjoying Gabriel, my family, and the ride. And all without losing anything.
Our car comes back to earth, swinging slightly. The bar lifts and we step off the Ferris wheel into the chaos of the carnival.
Gabriel runs ahead, joining the rest of the family. And I hold back a moment. I realise that I will write about this.
In that small moment at the top of the Ferris wheel, I was fully myself — fully my highly sensitive, multi-layered, pain-with-joy self.
And when I remembered to breathe in that moment, I could enjoy the entire ride, realise how far I’d risen, how much I may fall, and what it all means. And I realized, too: the same thing happens when I’m writing. I understand. I am fully myself. I lose nothing and gain everything.
But I can only do that — understand fully, be myself, AND write — if I breathe.
Lao-tzu said: “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.”
I had always pictured my spiritual journey — and my HSP journey — as a hard and steep climb, a journey of a thousand miles (or in my worst moments, a never-ending death march).
But sometimes, I am reminded of the sacredness and the joy of one step. One breath. The ride.
And I am reminded, too, that everything that hollows you out can also fill you up.
That Ferris wheels always rise after the descent.
That life is like a carnival, sometimes. Things that Gabriel already knows, somehow.
How has being an HSP colored your spiritual journey? Have you had moments when you’ve seen yourself clearly for all that you are, including the struggles (and joys) of being on this path? How can you cultivate more of those?