Living The Journey - Everyday Heroes Tell Their Story
Author: Bridget McKern

Chapter 4
Releasing the Caged Bird




Releasing the Caged Bird



The cleansing of the dark spaces of the Heart goes on.

The leaves still fall while fruit is thickening on the bough.

                                                                                       - Edwin Markham  (1852 – 1940)


I have run away from home.  Up and left, after years of marriage.  Leaving the detritus of thirty-three years behind, I have taken only what is important to my spirit.  Those things that comfort and remind me of what I most value.  The little silver box my mother gave me when I left home as a twenty-year-old.  Photos of my girls.  My favourite holy books.  A picture I prophetically painted of the Eagle helping Psyche to draw a goblet of water from the dangerous banks of the River Styx that was said to flow between Life and Death.  The Eagle, my totem.

            Looking back, all the signs of the ‘breakout’ were there.  I knew I needed to escape.  With the desperation of a Lifer, I had been coming to this point for some weeks, or even months (or was it years?) before I made the break.  One day, alone at home, quietly reading by myself on the back veranda, the dam broke unexpectedly.  I found myself in torrents of tears, sobbing and saying to myself, ‘Oh no.  Not THAT!  Do I really need to go?’  It was as if my spirit guides had risen up as one and made this strong undeniable demand on me that NOW was the time to leave, and I should not delay.  It felt like a life and death decision.  If I delayed, I would never be given another chance.  It was urgent.  This was it.

            How could I explain to my husband what was happening to me?  He wanted to know, was it him?  ‘No, NO.  If I was going to leave because of you I would have left years ago,’  I told him truthfully.  ‘My spirit feels like a caged bird.  It needs to be set free, allowed to fly.’ 

            This was hardly consolation to the man I had stuck to through thick and thin for the last thirty years.  However, it was the nearest I could get to explaining the absolute insistence of my soul to leave him and go and live alone.  He suffered terrible pangs of rejection, but in his goodness, he let me go, just as I had had to do for him, all those years before, when he was dying of alcoholism.

            ‘Where will I go?’ I asked my guides.  ‘To the ocean,’ they said as one.  So I searched for a room at Bondi. 

*          *          *

Yesterday, the Estate Agent showed me The Room.  He took me up two flights of stairs of an old thirties-style brick building perched on the north end of Campbell Parade, opposite the beach.  He opened the door and the windows immediately flooded me with The View.  The whole coast was spread out below us, curving away into the hazy distance in successive lines of beaches and headlands all the way to the south.  The frilled edges of the tide decorated the beach like some gorgeous flamenco skirt.  Over the kitchen bench was another view of the beach to the north and east.  “The morning sun will come in here,” I thought to myself and  I loved it immediately.

             I go into the bare bathroom with a deep old-fashioned bath and old green wall tiles and there, hanging in the cupboard is a crystal heart, left behind, like some good omen, by the previous tenant.

            ‘You are here to heal your heart,’ sang my Soul.  And I knew it to be true.  Ah!  This is so right for me.  Yes.  Here, I can rest and recover and regain my strength.  Here I can heal and make peace with my soul from the long years of struggle.  Here I can come to terms with the difficult things of long-term relationship – all the compromises and adaptations that I have made in order to fit in with those I have chosen to live with and give birth to.  Oh, Aie!  A Room for my Soul!


            ‘I’ll take it,’ I said to the Agent.



The View

Psyche searches for the Sacred Marriage


‘To become whole, body and soul, we need to depart from the safety of the childhood house of beliefs, into the wilderness, into the cave, with only the psychic necessities.  We rarely have the safety of leaving one house of beliefs when we can clearly see the new house ahead, lighted and warm.  More often, we need to leave the old without any promise of the new, need to spend time as forest dwellers, just surviving.  If we do survive, we find that we are no longer handmaidens to an outer authority that rules by principle rather than loving mutuality.  We have reached a new cycle of maturity where we are consciously connected to our hearts, our bodies, our deepest values, and the people we love … Each journey has it’s gifts.  Not all of the gifts are welcome but each does indeed, carry the potential for quiet transformations.

                                                                 - Marion Woodman and Jill Mellick. Coming Home to Myself 



Women get worn down.  Probably men get worn down too, but she can only speak from the experience of being a worn-down woman.  Many times in her childhood, Bridget saw her mother getting worn down year after year, looking after her sick father and experienced holding her own mother in her arms as she cried and sighed with exhaustion saying that she could not cope any more.  That memory was deeply ingrained in her psyche.

            Do we have to tread the way our parents have trodden, she asked herself?  Is there something inevitable about the way history tends to be repeated, even though we swear we will not be like our parents, or do as our parents did?

            As a young woman, Bridget had been brought up with the ideal of the one-partner-for-life marriage.  She had submerged her personal life into her husband’s almost as soon as they moved in together.  She suspected that many women have trodden this same path.  And many have been through the experience of the disappointment and shame, when the reality did not work out to match the original dream

            There is something relentless in long-term relationships, she told herself later.  Perhaps it is the unspoken, unreal expectations that we bring into them.  It is really a terrible risk to think that the person you have chosen to be with in a long-term relationship, is always going to be there, be loving, be honest, be well, be-have honourably at all times, be an income-bearing deposit, be an answer to all problems, be unchanged by all that life dishes out.

*          *          *

When Bridget left her husband, a good friend who had two failed marriages under his belt, sent her a cryptic postcard which said, Blessed are the disillusioned …  for they have no illusions.  She really liked the feel of that message.  It was meeting her exactly where she found herself, in some sort of rock bottom reality.  When disillusion begins to sink in, she realised, it takes a good deal of courage not to get caught up in the blame game but to find the right sort of help … and then to follow up with the hard work of continual self-examination.  However, disillusion, like anger, can be a mighty force for change.

            Some of the most difficult lessons of her life had been around the two “B’s” – Balance and Boundaries.  Knowing how far to go, when to stop, what was her business, her responsibility, and what was not.  These had been tough assignments at times. 

            Nowadays, she thought of marriage as the Monastery of Long Term Relationships.  For when we get married, she mused, whether we know it or not, we are entering Holy Orders of the strictest kind.  It is a risky discipline to live with the same person for years and years, growing incrementally … but not necessarily at the same pace.

            Perhaps I never will understand what is happening, she told herself, but I just have to go through it to get my bearings again.

            All she really knew was that it was a psycho-spiritual crisis brought on by a combination of things – as sudden and irrational as falling in love.  Perhaps she had to ‘fall in love’ with herself in order to find herself again?

            Also she had never lived solely on her own before.  She had always lived with others, going from a sheltered home life, to communal boarding school and then to an equally sheltered nursing community.  She had been catapulted into pregnancy, marriage from expediency, and motherhood, far before she had had time to choose these things for herself.  Perhaps, she was doing some long-overdue maturing work that she had missed out on in her early life? 

            In spite of her efforts to recover from the years of alcoholism in her husband and some of the shock revelations that came with it, she had become co-dependent in the typical pattern of those who live with an addict.  She knew she needed to be weaned off the harmful effects of this primary relationship, just as if it was a drug of addiction itself.  Total abstinence from any relationship outside that of herself with her God, was the answer for her now, she felt.

            Later, she wondered if she would have done this running away differently if she had to do it again.  Should she have sought more help from counsellors who understood the spiritual nature of her pain and insisted that her husband too, have counselling?  She had gone down that path many years before and nothing had changed in the fundamental nature of the relationship or her wellbeing within it.  In the past her husband had always resisted counselling for himself and resented the times she had insisted he come with her.  So inevitably it seemed that there was nothing left but the ‘shock treatment’ of leaving him now … and suddenly.

            She only knew that it was a profound relief to be alone, in that little room above the sea, totally freed up from all the day-to-day relating that had somehow worn her down to such an extent that she was feeling life-threatened.  She only had herself to care and somehow, she sensed, that was all she needed for now.

            The feeling of being alone, solely responsible for when and what she ate, when she slept or got up in the morning, her daily routine, her wellbeing and happiness, was a wonderful feeling of calm revelation to her.  She was slightly surprised that she never once missed having the ‘significant other’ in her bed, her home or her heart and mind.  She really needed the break. 

            Later, when she returned to the marriage, with a wry humour she called it, “My Long-Service Leave”.  Indeed it was a long-overdue sabbatical of great refreshment for her.  Her spirit was very happy … but her body had gone into shock.


*          *          *

What she didn’t expect now, was the sudden breakdown of her immune system, and the added unseen danger of a severe anaemia which left her very weak and in need of urgent blood transfusions.  This happened almost as soon as she left home.  Within a week of being on her own, she could scarcely walk down stairs to the ground floor of her new flat for fear of not making it up the stairs again. 

            In her first few days of freedom, she experienced an enormous loss of energy and breathlessness with intermittent high temperatures and night sweats, resulting in a rapid loss of weight and strength.  She could scarcely drag herself to the bathroom.  When she realised she couldn’t go on living like this and needed help, she called a nurse friend who took her gingerly to the Emergency Department of one of Sydney’s biggest teaching hospitals.

            There, after blood tests and Chest X Rays, she was given immediate blood transfusions and assigned to a Haematology physician.  After many more tests, still no diagnosis could be found for her depleted condition.  At least, she was gratefully aware, no cancer or internal bleeding could be blamed.  She tried to be honest with the various medical people who came to see her and told them that she was at a critical point in her life having left home and husband only ten days before.  Perhaps this had something to do with it?  They looked at her in disbelief and went on analysing their chemical tests.

            As physical medicine does not have a diagnostic category for personal spiritual crisis, or the effects of long term loss, grief or shock on the physical body, the doctors were silent at her suggestions and put her in the too-hard basket. 

            She was fully aware that she was healing on a profoundly deep level … the level of the wounded heart and emotions.  Trust the process, said the voice in her head that kept quietly giving her directions all through the uncertainty of this period.  She asked for non-religious Pastoral care and was assigned a kindly Social Worker who gave her an hour of his time, good listening skills and his understanding of addictions.  Later he helped her to navigate the welfare net as she was unable to work for many months and needed an income.

            The lady in the bed next to hers was in dire straits.  She had only recently been diagnosed with the most ferocious leukaemia and was obviously losing the battle as she could not eat and was visibly wasting away.  Bridget realised how fortunate she was that she herself still had some choices about life and death that this woman did not seem to have.  So she accepted, albeit reluctantly, the large doses of Prednisone which were prescribed for her as the catch-all drug of choice when all else fails. 

            She had been on and off the drug over the last twenty years with recurring respiratory problems, so resigned herself once again, to it’s magical powers, determined this time, to resolve the old love-hate relationship she had with it.  Indeed, it took the next three years for her to wean herself off the drug once and for all.  With the help of an understanding Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioner, herbs and acupuncture, she supported her body in the long drawn-out withdrawal period.

            Her journal entries at this time were very revealing:  The loss of her youngest daughter’s pregnancy at this time was the catalyst to release the years of unaddressed grieving that she had habitually put on hold while she attended to everyone else’s needs. She wrote in her journal:

I have wells of untapped grieving to do.   Layers and layers of grief going back and back.  My work of this next period is true mourning work.  Grief of the lost grandchild.   Grief around the wounds of our marriage.  Grief around my sick parents, my brother and godson/nephew who are both schizophrenic.  Above all, loss of myself somewhere along the way.


I see a correlation between unspoken, unattended grief and the chronic respiratory problem I have battled for years.  These are my ‘Wounded Healer’ wounds.  The naming of them is important and will make a difference to how I heal now.  I must now recognise how stuck in grief I have been in order to survive all these years.


Thinking I have addressed the griefs as they came, I have really only touched the tip of the iceberg, and then hurried on and frozen over in order to get on with living.  Each time I did not allow myself to dive deep enough, a part of my heart has had to freeze over again.  Other people have often remarked on my underlying sadness but I have never seen it so clearly for myself until now – how I avoided my own work by learning about grieving intellectually to enable others to grieve.  I have NEVER, EVER, allowed myself enough space to grieve.  This is how I have sabotaged myself again and again.


In the early morning of her last day in hospital, Bridget sat by a window at the end of the ward looking out over the sleeping city and an amazing poetic surge came over her.

Her soul was singing to her again.  A long poem flowed off the end of her pen and to her, it was a profound sign of healing:  She called it Transition Tide: (see end of chapter)

*          *          *


And so, with the help of many good friends and counsellors, she did, at last, tap into the well of grieving that had been untapped for so long.  Alongside the grief was extreme joy – not about anything in particular, but just the freeing up of the heart spaces.

            What a period of sacred inner time it was!  Each morning she would go down to that lovely beach and walk alongside the singing surf.  When it got warmer she threw herself into the waves in gay abandon and felt the goodness of the salt water washing her through and through.  She would go to the far end of the beach to a rocky headland and sit and meditate with a family of crabs for company.  As a Cancerian, that suited her well.  She felt the crabs understood her way of being – they too scuttled for cover as soon as danger approached.  And then the tentative nosing out from under the sheltering rocks when the coast was clear, to forage on the side walk and down beside the tide.  This has been my way too, she thought.

             One day as she walked back along the beach she found a piece of driftwood which looked as if it had been washed up from a shipwreck.  On it she was amazed to find these words written in large dark letters:





            It seemed to her that some wise guide had placed this especially for her to find – a sort of *Koan – a spiritual lesson in a nutshell, written on a wooden board and washed clean by the sea. She went home and wrote it out and pondered on it for many days trying to understand what it meant.  The general message was to be content to rest into quietness and leave off too much striving.

            So many things helped.  Sometimes, it was just watching nature unfolding before her that helped to heal the rawness of leaving her marriage.  Watching the sea breaking over huge rocks at the end of the beach, or watching the waves as they rolled in, each one different from the last.  Seeing the sea birds gathering in groups on the beach to catch their breath before diving for fish again. 

            Just to be anonymous and a bystander in life was a help.  She could watch the passing parade and not feel she had to be a part of it, and yet be comforted by the presence of other humans all going about their business.  She did not have to do anything in particular, but just practice being, without any conditions attached.  This was a hard thing for her to do, but such a lesson that never seemed to end.  Her poems of this period were extremely helpful and comforting.  They were the language of her soul:

* Koan is a Zen Buddhist riddle used to focus the mind during meditation and to develop intuitive thinking.


Starting Again


Make of thy daily way, a pilgrimage.  For through small joys and griefs thou movest towards God. 

Break the moulds of the past, but keep safe its genius and its spirit or else thou hast no future.- Sri Aurobindo


Many months passed.  She negotiated a property settlement with her husband and it really did feel as if this was the end of their time together.  There were no recriminations, but he expressed great sadness that they were parted.  She could not afford to deal with his sadness –  she knew now that she had to concentrate only on her own deep wells of grief that needed cleaning out completely.

            She did not foresee that the final mourning period would hit her like a ton of bricks, and that she was mourning for her marriage partner and the man who had, when all was said and done, been her best friend, companion and supporter for thirty years and the father of her children.  He was not dead – nor was their relationship.  Was she mourning in vain?

            Suddenly she knew that she had the choice of trying again to re-unite with him, but this time with much more awareness of herself and her own needs coming high on the priority list.  Never again would she sell her soul for the sake of another’s comfort, she told herself.  Mutuality without domination was what she was seeking.  But could she maintain her sense of integrity by going back?  Would her husband dare to risk coming back into the relationship with the fear that he might lose her again?  These questions troubled her deeply and kept her awake at nights as she struggled to find the true answers. 

            Eventually, she decided to follow her heart.  After all, it was her heart that had been the focus for her healing.  A few days before their thirty-third wedding anniversary, she calmly packed her things and moved back home.  It was time.

*          *          *


The rebuilding of trust was arduous and needed much patience and the freedom to express their doubts and fears to each other.  There were many months of adjustment for both of them, sometimes even more difficult than when they had been parted.  This time, good counselling helped them both, in the form of non-directive group counselling on improving communication in marriage.  (

            One of the things that helped her most was the rebuilding of the garden.  Just before she had left home, a large patch of bamboo had been razed, leaving a bare stretch of ground.  Now, back home, she spent many early mornings sieving out the roots and preparing the soil for a fresh planting of native shrubs and trees. There is something very therapeutic to the soul when we get our hands dirty and our backs bent in hard physical labour, especially when the end product is a lovely garden.  She realised that this was a metaphor for the replanting of their common life together again.

            Even though this was a very difficult time for both of them, and neither of them really knew if they could work it out together again satisfactorily, she had been asking in her prayers that they would be shown in some special way whether they were to stay together.  She wanted a mystical sign. 

            They had met as travellers, and travel had helped them in the past to get a clearer perspective, so they decided to take a three-week coach tour from Darwin to Perth.  Halfway down the West Australian coast, they stopped at Monkey Mia on Shark Bay.  This remote and beautiful place is famous for the wild dolphins that come into shallow water on the beach each day to see the humans.  She had read about this many years before and had often said that, ‘Before I die, I want to go to Monkey Mia’.

            All that long road south from Carnarvon, she was sitting on the edge of her seat in anticipation of seeing the dolphins, praying that they would be there.  It was against the odds, the tour guide had said, as the dolphins usually visited the shore in the mornings and may have gone out to sea by the time the bus arrived.  The bus tour was only staying one night.

            She raced down to the beach as soon as the bus stopped.  There were a few people standing on the shoreline, and yes, the dolphins, or the remnant of the tribe, were still there.  She felt her prayers had been answered.  They had waited for her!  There were about four or five dolphins resting lazily in the shallow water.  As the crowd of onlookers stood in knee-deep water, these amazing creatures came right up close, lazily drifting around the shallows in front of them. 

            One matriarch dolphin, in particular, came really close to Bridget, almost onto her feet.  The dolphin lay on her side, half in and half out of the water, her tail resting quietly on the bottom, with one large, liquid, dark eye gazing, as if she was gazing straight into Bridget’s soul.  At least that is what it felt like to her.  She was deeply touched and had tears rolling down her cheeks.  The dolphin stayed looking intently at her for some time, and then, very suddenly, darted across the crowd straight to the feet of her husband who had placed himself strategically at the other end of the group to take photos of them.  The dolphin touched his feet with her rostrum, and if she could have spoken, it was clear body language for, ‘You … and You.  Go together with my blessing’.  Bridget’s prayer had been answered.

            Both were deeply touched by this demonstration of unity, and felt it was, indeed, confirmation, that in spite of their doubts and difficulties, they were meant to be together.  They walked to the camp gift shop, both still in awe of the event, and together chose a silver ring with two dolphins on it for Bridget to wear as a re-wedding ring.

            Even so, one new ring was not enough.

            They talked about making an act of renewal for their relationship and came up with the idea of a marriage re-commitment ceremony.  A week or so later, in their home, with their daughters present and one dear friend for a celebrant, they said their vows together and renewed their commitment to each other. This short ritual in the privacy of their own home made a world of difference to them both, and helped them to move on freely without the burdens of the past.  The power of meaningful ritual is not to be ignored.

            Marriage is no easy task.  Sometimes, she thinks, it becomes more like serial monotony and she longs to be free again.  Then they recoup their losses and review the situation.  They have found a deep and trusting friendship, strengthened by a shared life history and loyalty which has carried them through the difficult times of lost perspective.  They start again to express their love and care for each other and respect the years of shared living and achieving. 

            She says now, “If I look at my husband as a teacher and friend, I can always learn something from him.  If I look on him as the romantic lover I once knew and fell for, I am disappointed that we are not young and foolish anymore.  But I am glad we ended up together again.  Each day brings new perspective and another challenge.  Life goes on, with or without us.  This time it is my choice to join it all together.”






I am learning to live in a new country

Like a traveller far from home

I have sacrificed the easy, the comfortable, the automatic

Have packed my bag

And gone into a world of the new, the different, the unknown

Living as one instead of two

Experiencing many new things

A pension, a bus route, a flat, an ever-changing community

A new dependence on all the skills of selfhood

Learned – and yet to be learned

Learning friendliness from strangers

The shy smiles of shared humanness and frailty



All my life I have been at sea

Not that I can swim

It just seems I’ve been

Keeping my head above water


At times I’ve wondered where the next breath would come from

Or if it would come at all.


This is not living.

This has been surviving.

The shocks, the waves, the calms,

The deeps, the roaring in my ears

The warning bells from the deep.

Always there was some excuse

To put off the drowning.


The children – I must not let them drown

They must be held above the waves

Until they can swim by themselves

Even now, I wonder and worry at times

How could a mother who could not swim

Teach her children how to swim?

Doing the impossible – again!


Then my husband –

Keeping his head above water

Was a mammoth task.

Every time he came up

I would go down

My lungs filled with pneumonic mouthfuls

And who was there to rescue me?


After many drownings,

My heart and lungs got leathery

Toughened, hardened,

Like a turtle’s carapace.

Sometimes, I’d cry out with the pain between my shoulders

But when pain goes unrelieved

You just stop feeling

It becomes too dangerous to really feel your own stuff

So you stuff pillows in the mouth of your crying

And go on surviving and smiling

And making the best of it.

On and on.


Who needs help?  Who needs comfort?

Who needs deep listening? 

If I can’t get it I’ll give it

In abundance to anyone who looks at all needy.


My whole career

Built on this premise

Go rescue the dying

In case you notice your own slow dying


What a hide!  What a charade!

What a magnificent cover-up!

But truly done.

Maybe all those dead and dying people

Actually kept me alive

Just enough to keep breathing

They were wonderful friends

I thank them

And one day, I hope,

We can all joyfully dance and laugh and sing and rejoice together.


But for now

The time of healing of my heart has come.

There is no holding back the tide this time.

I have been washed up on the shore of my own destiny.

I am stunned and weak and shocked

At how close a rescue this has been.


At last, at last

I hear the message of my heart and lungs.

Now I can start to truly breathe

To breathe in life

Short tentative breaths at first

My lungs have yet to learn their full capacity.

It feels strange to breathe without a price

Very strange

Who am I breathing for?

What, just me?

So strange.


I pick myself up off the sandy shore

And begin to look around.

There is debris from the tempest

Lying all around me

Proof that this has really happened

I need this proof – this reality.

No more masks, or martyrdom

Or making do.  Any more.

Now I welcome the flotsam and jetsam

So I can piece together the real story

And see where I am.


The tears of my heart can only come slowly

If we took the cork out to soon

The vessel may break

Slowly, slowly – small releases

Each one precious in its insight

A cameo of more to follow.


Underneath my weakness

I feel a tide of strength carrying me

So firm and sure

I feel like a seal

Rolled in a raft of giant kelp

Safe, secure, awaiting the right time

Awaiting the spring thaw

Gradually the icebergs are melting

And becoming one with the ocean again

A natural ebb and flow is taking place.

I do not need to try

Even the need to understand is fading into insignificance.


‘Just be, just live, just breathe, just feel,’ sings my heart

Yes.  There is a song –

Its been there always

But now it is becoming a chorus


The joy is breaking through the sadness.

It can no longer be denied.

The tides of my soul are on the move again.








Yesterday, in gale force winds,

Over Bondi Beach

I watched an amazing bird


Perfectly poised

With wings outstretched

Tail a-quiver

She played on the wind

Stillness in motion

Then, having secured her goal

With long and concentrated gaze

She folded her wings behind her

And, fearless, dived into infinity.

I need such signs

To live my life cleanly

And dive into the future.







I love this little haven of my soul.

This white-washed room with its view of the sea

The table altar with cloth of gold and blue

Quan Yin and the Dancing Goddess

My symbols of Beauty and Compassion

The sound of the sea and the swishing of traffic

My bed with Ted and the rainbow rug

The pictures on the walls that help me to be holy

The angel presence around and within me.


Must these be dismantled when I go?

The outward form of course

But the inward is the patina of the soul

And only adds to its healing.

Am I ready, yet, to ‘rejoin the human race’?

Not quite.

Some more inner connecting to be done

The path of healing is circuitous - a spiral

And does not obey the laws of time

I am following the labyrinth of my heart

It takes me to the depths of my underworld

But just as truly will it lead me out again

To spring and new life.





How do I know when I am healed?

When I can live within my being

Without a doubt

And enjoy each moment

Each sweet and ordinary thing

Without a why or wherefore

When I can know

Without a doubt

That the NOW is holy ground

And look at the past and the future

Without regret

Or heavy anticipation

When each day is a new adventure

Waiting to be discovered

And those who share it with me

Are God’s Shadow.







On Bondi Beach





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