While having a soak in the tub this morning listening to a podcast with Desmond Tutu and Krista Tippet on her program, On Being, on NPR Radio–I listened in as Desmond Tutu wondered in sadness at the many angry, vocal Christians, who side-by-side with their fear mongering brothers-in-arms, seem presently possessed by a kind of mad ideology these days. He observed that having strayed so far from their original call to love “even the least of these”, they now appear to be singularly focused on the sexual orientation of others while at the same time painting “the least of these” with the brush of “not quite human”.
To be fair, however, I will add there is a silent majority of caring and compassionate individuals who do practice their faith in accordance with the original tenets of their faith. I am not talking about them.
The world is changing quickly. This we know. It is natural to resist change, to step outside the safety of our comfort zones. This is also known. Yet I cannot help but believe these same angry individuals act and believe as they do out of a deep fear of “the other”, those whom they perceive as different from themselves. Obviously, someone has to be at fault for the troubled world they see reflected back at them. Someone has to take the blame for the mess they think they are in. The fact is, the genie is out of the bottle, and they are working feverishly to stuff her back into that bottle. Their once secure landscape has changed, and they want it back.
Happily though, for many, the genie will never crawl back into her bottle. She has awoken from a long sleep and isn’t about to let anyone put her back in her place. She is finding her voice after being silenced for so long, and has she got a story to tell! The planet over, the genie is out. The time of secret holding and power mongering is being outed. Life everywhere is outing itself on streets and in homes in every nation, resisting the old ways of power gobbling systems that ultimately kill and keep people in shackles. People are talking to one another the world over, telling their stories, rising up, bringing in something new–a new way of showing up in the world, taking their power and dignity back along with their ability to think and decide for themselves what their lives should look like.
No one knows yet exactly what it will look like. We are making it up as we go. For sure, everything is made up in this life by someone or a committee of someones.
So while one system is being born, another is dying at the same time. It is most true that in order for something to live, something else has to die. This is the way of life, the natural order of how it is–but I’ll save that for another blog entry. Presently, chaos is at the helm while the adherents of fear in last stand attempt to stamp out anything they don’t yet understand.
Yet forces bigger than all of us–Life itself, is reworking itself into a higher order, and chaos is absolutely necessary at the same time while something else is arising, while the old system dies–and it will die. Here’s the thing–they might win some skirmishes, but eventually they will lose the war. A critical mass has been formed, and there is no stopping it now. And maybe, just maybe some of these same frightened individuals will discover love for the first time in the process with the realization you can’t authentically fix anything with hate, even if you believe God gave you license.
No matter how it looks, in the beginning, middle and end, love always has her way.
This poem, Kindness, by Naomi Shihab Nye, arrived in my inbox this morning. I have read it before, but now it seems especially appropriate after several years of deep loss. Anymore, nothing makes sense to me apart from kindness in the dealings of human relations, including the relationship I have with myself. I am learning more everyday what it means to be infinitely kind in this kind of exhaustion from loss, beginning here with my own body, emotions and self-care.
Evening on Puget Sound / Photo by S. Wolfington
Before you know what kindness really is
you must lose things,
feel the future dissolve in a moment
like salt in a weakened broth.
What you held in your hand,
what you counted and carefully saved,
all this must go so you know
how desolate the landscape can be
between the regions of kindness.
How you ride and ride
thinking the bus will never stop,
the passengers eating maize and chicken
will stare out the window forever.
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness,
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing
you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.
You must wake up with sorrow.
You must speak to it till your voice
catches the thread of all sorrows
and you see the size of the cloth.
Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore,
only kindness that ties your shoes
and sends you out into the day to mail letters and
Some years back, I attended a “Shamanism 101” weekend workshop. Among several things I learned was how to read a rock. Crazy, huh? That’s what I thought, too. Not having tried it since, I was curious to find out if it’s just the rocks talking in my head or if it’s for real, and so I have decided to have another go at sharpening my rock reading skills. From my garden, I’ve selected a quite ordinary, nondescript looking rock. (It’s the one in the center of the picture with the burnt-out eye sockets.) Sitting it on the table, I begin to examine its rugged exterior. Going so far as to get my magnifying glass out, squinty-eyed, I peer studiously at this triangular shaped rock. Hmm…what is this? Shapes start to form upon the rock. Am I seeing things? Have I officially lost it entirely? I laugh at what my family would think if they could see me now.
It’s as if there is a kind of alchemical force at work in this rock as it begins to shape shift right in front of me. Here buried into its craggy, triangular shaped face is a burnt out looking eye—could this be a kind of scorched All Seeing Eye from too much light pouring through? Now aligning in a place next to the first eye is another eye forming. Between there’s a hump nose, and below an inverted V shaped mouth. I can see there’s no easily winning over the affections of this rock as it seemingly studies me in return. Could there be some semblance of personality in this little craggy curmudgeon?
Ah, now redeeming itself, I see “two” cat heads with whiskers, no less, on the one side of its head; a tree on the top side; a kind of earth on the underside. Feminine wisdom, it says to me; there’s the masculine, too, yin and yang balancing in the number two. Could it be there is a need for more balance in my life? This unassuming and down-to-earth rock certainly has quite a bit to say.
Feeling silly, but after a bit, I think I’m forming a relationship with this rock—this rock that is born of great struggle from the Mother Earth herself. Disconcertingly, I also begin to feel as if I’m being scrutinized by the All Seeing Eye looking back at me. I look again—it’s been a long journey from where it began. There are gouges and scrapes dug deep in its skin; there is the complementary feminine and masculine energy and the tree of life as it reaches toward its divinity. There are roots and rocks, death and rebirth, and flecks of crystal like tiny stars that hint brightly of heaven buried inside.
Fitting so neatly in the palm of my hand, this crazy little rock must have a great many stories to tell. It’s weighty and in a moment, grounds me, ties me to the earth, then floats me to the stars. What has it seen? What does it know in its density? In geologic time, how old might it be? Born from erupting, spewing volcanoes from earth below, their red hot magma in long rivers cooling into wide corridors of land, shaped and shifted by ferocious winds, massive floods and so many cataclysmic things over millions of years? Full of gouges and scrapes, it’s been a long journey here to my hand.
In some crazy metaphorical sense, I see it kind of like my life. What wisdom or healing would surface while I in stillness sit? At what point would the primal soup of remembering my own divinity come forth? Gazing in gratitude at the miracle of my own midnight stars, might I find my heart giving up secrets of its own? Traveling past soil and skin, what discovery would I make about myself that is surprising or beautiful?
What privilege this life, this body and soul born of earth and stars, rooted deep in rock, infinite ray of light traveling far to be here now; this holy moment looking deep into this rock, looking into me, both so full of mystery, revealing the truth of my heart. Mystical and mysterious, question and answer, a cosmos of unfathomable nebulae of many colors, the DNA of the universe imprinted upon every particle that we are. A body formed, spit out from volcanoes, storm tossed on to many shores, the sun’s light encased in our cells. In time, I’m as old as this rock. Outside of time, I’ve no beginning or end. Amazing, this being-ness without end and what rock can teach you…when you listen.
She needed dream time. Life had felt like a whip at her back. Death had left its calling card—again and again, more than she cared to recall; and she was tired now, thought she might lie down though there was still a great deal more to do, even with the business of death being cleaned up.
She wasn’t sure if she should wade out into the water where everything was—a sea of possibility, laughter, work and friends. Was she ready to take her dreams and leave the shore of reasons why not? No, she was not, but who is? Sleep called her out quite a bit, and she didn’t know if that was just an excuse to stop or if she merely needed catching up, but giving into dreaming seemed good.
And honestly, who can sleep forever when dreams are burning holes in your head?
Dreams were in order then—a reordering of her days, a visioning, a new place to begin. There was something so right in this, so elemental when you break it down by task: Sleep well, eat whole foods, and walk a lot. Be good to herself, draw it out, breathe, draw it back in, connect with the ground, and write it all down. Say yes when one means yes; and know that saying “no” is not a dangling thread or frayed edge.
Dream on then. There’s time enough for it all in what would come; it was exactly perfect in its imperfection, she thought, while wading in.
Slicing open a lemon this morning, squeezing out all its sour essence, like I do every other morning, I felt myself suddenly overcome with gratitude. This simple small act of slipping the sharpened knife past the dimpled yellow skin of this brightly colored, tart flavored little fruit—feeling the sun’s warmth streaming through the window on my back, I give thanks. I give thanks for the earth, the sun and the rain that nourished the tree that it grew upon—from small bud to flower to this lovely little fruit that sits on my counter now in front of me, that has shown up to support and sustain my health and wellbeing. Grateful, I offer up a blessing of thank you again as I down the juice in a glass of sparkling filtered water.
It came to me how I too often forget to say thank you for so many simple things and how, conversely, I find myself grumbling and grousing over my long lists of overwhelm, things I need to accomplish. Life is so simple when we allow it to be so. I am working on remembering in all things that life can be so beautifully and elegantly simple, that I don’t have to complicate it in every minute by stressing out over what I don’t have or what remains to be done. I want to be done with the complaining of it all. Instead I want to celebrate my life, this gift given to me every single day I wake up. These little acts of self-care and gratitude say I value my life, bring me unexpected joy in the most difficult of circumstances and keep me resilient and moving forward.
I am reminded of the term “Pura Vida”. When visiting Costa Rica, a country that I hope to travel to one day very soon, I have heard many remark upon their return how the custom is to say at every opportunity, “Pura Vida!” No matter what is happening, “Pura Vida!” When exiting a cab, when paying for groceries or when sipping coffee or chatting with friends, people will call out “Pura Vida!” Rain leaking through the roof? Pura Vida! Flat tire? Pura Vida! Not enough money or food? Pura Vida!
In Costa Rica, Pura vida is less a motto and more a way of life. It is an expression of happiness and moving on no matter the flat tire or the spilled milk. It is good to remember that monotonous complaining is a waste of time and there are many among us who are far less fortunate. If we are here and healthy, and there are many ways to be healthy, then we can also remember that life is good and that we are exactly where we need to be no matter what it looks like from the outside.
Wakening this a.m., eyes first beginning to flutter open, I saw a clean white sheet of paper floating down in front of me. I heard inside, “Today is the first day of your life. What will you write on this new page?”
Today I choose to write kindness, to see through its eyes. I choose to take good care of myself today; and to notice with new eyes the perfection of life within me and around me.
Each morning when your soft sleepy eyelids flutter open, a clean white sheet of paper is given to you. This is the first day of your brand new life. What will you choose to write today on this new page? How will you choose to respond to the thousand and one little things that enter your day?
I’m no hero, and I’m no victim. I just want to start by saying that.
When it comes to what is going on with my mother’s slide into death, please do not overestimate what I have done or as the good and dutiful daughter my mind might want you to perceive me as in certain moments. Tonight I am feeling tired, and so because of this, I am stepping away from my mother’s bedside for a couple of days, knowing that sleep is the best meditation.
Having just said that, I also want to relate some intriguing and somewhat bizarre occurrences I’m experiencing recently, but I’ll get to that a little further down in the second part of the story.
What I write here for all the world to see can feel very private. So private in fact, that my own mother, were she aware of it, would probably be horrified by my disclosures. If I were twelve years old, more than likely, I wouldn’t be let out of my room for weeks. How do I know this? It happened when I was ten and twelve and fifteen—oh, the trouble I got in for my writing. It stopped me for a lot of years. Those were different times and that was before the internet.
I have taken all of this into consideration—a lifetime of consideration, because, inherently, I was born to write and this is what we do as collectors and chroniclers of stories. I had to make a decision to do what I what was born to do, and to hell with the consequences. I am totally alive when I write, when I let out all the secrets and mistaken truths of my life, when I am witness to the work and wisdom of both microcosm and macrocosm.
The reason I write this is to chronicle these precious days. I want to journal thoughts, emotions, insights and observations as they come up. If by doing so and making it public, only one person is encouraged or helped, even if it’s just me, then mission accomplished. This is my service in life, which is why we are gifted with talents and/or passionate interests, not to hoard for ourselves, but to give away.
We grieve and celebrate in community, the sorrows halved and the joys doubled by doing so. It is not my conscious wish to write in order to garner admiration or sympathy from you. Honestly, I cannot hold space for that because then I feel falsely obligated to somehow try to either live up to it or live it down. What I write is an intimate logging of experience with death and dying. Too often death and dying can be taboo subjects in a culture that has a difficult time facing its own mortality. We like to present ourselves as happy successful people all the time when inside we may feel quite different, while our emotions are begging for expression. Not an expert on this subject, it’s my desire to open the door to discussions about it.
There is a Buddhist meditation that calls for one to mediate on one’s own death, to envision oneself as already dead. Most assuredly, it is a reality check as we come to appreciate the brevity and impermanence of our life and material possessions and the true value of relationship. This practice has been helpful to me whenever I have practiced it over the years.
I have also discovered a Facebook page, well, several of them from different areas around the country called “Death Café”. I am considering starting one myself when I am a little more rested. In these death cafes around the country, people are gathering in homes and parks and restaurants to have intimate and heart felt discussions regarding death, and no, not in any morbid sense of the word, but an exploration towards wisdom and acceptance of letting go or surrendering that which needs surrendering or whose time has come to an end.
So this is why I write, and not to mention the fact that this is what I do: investigate my thoughts on the page, which is what good writing can be about in the hope of teasing out the curiosity of the reader, even as self, as to their own process of erroneous thoughts and belief system.
Changing gears, I have stories to tell. Things are going bump in the night.
I have been spending hours at my mom’s bedside. Saturday, I shed a few tears, no, they were more like sobs right at her bedside. I don’t know if you are supposed to do that in a dying person’s presence, but I did. So did the caregivers. I also talked to her a lot as she slept.
It’s no secret I believe there is Big Love that surrounds us at every moment if we are open to it. Some of you are familiar with the story of my Near Death Experience. Having traveled to the other side where I personally witnessed them, I felt strongly there were angelic forces or beings of light in her room, and so I quietly said a prayer to be able to hear some word of encouragement from them for my own grieving process. A few minutes later, I happened to look through her little bookshelf and discovered the book, Into the Light—Real Life Stories About Angelic Visits, Visions of the Afterlife, and Other Pre-Death Experiences, by John Lerma, M.D.. I couldn’t have received a better word of encouragement and comfort as I began to read, tears running down my face as I did, filling the trash can with snotty tissues as I read.
Mom looked so peaceful hour after hour. However, I had a difficult time leaving her and didn’t get home until 1 am and asleep until 3 am due to a situation. Sunday feeling tired to the bone, I went in to see her in the afternoon.
Walking in her door, there was something different about my time there on Sunday. Because I was so tired, I could not be as present for her as I had the day before. Not that she was able to talk to me or acknowledge my presence at any point, still I felt the duty to be there on Sunday whereas I stayed out of love on Saturday. Sunday, she was agitated and fretful, attempting to lift her head off the pillow, crying and moving her legs around. I tried to comfort her and stroke her hair, but nothing worked despite the meds she was receiving to calm her.
It is said that your loved one can still hear you even if they don’t appear to be all there or are comatose. So I continued to talk to her, and even played a recording from some family members she hadn’t heard from in a while. I was hoping for closure, and I thought she might need to hear their voices expressing their love for her. That only upset her more it seemed. Of course, these were my ideas mostly in my attempts to soothe her.
By 8 pm, watching her, I sat and meditated, asking whatever unseen benevolent forces that were in her room to please show me why she was so agitated. These are the words that immediately formed in my mind:
“Go home! You are exhausted and on a deep level, she is worried for you. You are keeping her from her rest.”
I knew this was correct. If you knew my mom, you would know that no matter what state of mind she is in, the first thoughts for her are the well being and safety of her kids. I immediately got up from the chair, gathered my things, kissed her on the cheek and went home.
Today, Monday, I awoke feeling not much more rested and wondering if I should attempt to go see her again. I sat in my chair and meditated for a long while, asking again if I should stay home or go see her. I mean what if I miss something or she passes and I am not there? What if she says something in a moment of lucid clarity just before crossing over and I miss it? What if she dies alone? I want no regrets.
My cell phone rang. I considered not answering it until realizing it was my youngest sister calling. Right away, she wanted to know how I was feeling. Living a state apart, we keep up with our lives by phone. I told her how tired I felt. She relayed the word “faith” to me. It was something I must hear, she said. It pertained to all of us in letting mom go. There was an urgency to tell me—that we must trust mom will pass as she needs to and if I am meant to be there when she does, I will be. If not, not. It will be perfect however it turns out. The more important thing needed was taking care of myself right now.
How did she know? I had not told her the events of the day before regarding Mom’s agitation and my prayer for guidance. She relayed how she was letting Mom go, too, sending her spirit to the arms of Love Itself. She prayed, and as she did, I actually saw Mom fly up in a beautiful quilt of memories to a whole happy crowd of people waiting to welcome her. I saw the light. There was a party waiting for her! I saw mom suddenly looking young and radiant as she dropped the quilt to look back down at us and say “Thank you!”
A bit later while paying her bills (see how I wasn’t resting?!), the phone rang again. Hospice calling to tell me she was very peaceful today, sleeping soundly. I had left an anxious message during the middle of my visit the day before with news of my mom’s agitation and what we might do about it. The hospice nurse bluntly told me that she believed my mom had most likely been triggered by my presence. I then told her of my tiredness and agreed. “Stay home and rest for a couple of days”, she said. They would let me know if something came up.
What happened next was most strange: Doing some work on my computer, I felt a sudden and unexpected gentle touch, like someone had softly stroked my shoulder. I felt it through the pajamas and fleece robe I was still in. I whipped around to see what or who was there or if something had fallen from the ceiling on me. Nothing. Empty space and nothing on the floor or me. What was that, or better yet, whom?
So what is the takeaway from all of this? You might call me crazy or foolish, but if you have read anything else I’ve written, I believe there answers out there we don’t even have questions for yet. I am learning to surrender, to let go, admit my vulnerability, my lack of answers–and it is perfect. Some habits die hard as the one who in another life always felt the compulsion to rescue everyone from everything. I don’t have to adjust or fix my mother’s road to the other side. Her death does not need my intervention. Life does not require for its existence that I fix or adjust or straighten everything, only leave much as I find it in its perfect imperfection.
Having said all that, I’m climbing back into my perfect rumpled, unmade bed where all my pillows are just right.
You have not heard from me lately due to one of the following reasons—pick one:
1. I have been seeing a great deal of this handsome frog.
2. I’ve been having delirium tremens from using the wrong detergent.
3. I have been spending a great deal of time with my mom who is getting ready to make her final transition into the great beyond.
If you picked 1 or 2, sorry! Door number 3 it is, but, hopefully, you already knew that, although I have dated a few handsome frogs in my time.
My mother is getting ready to walk or sail or fly, or whatever it is we do, through that big door called death. We all have to go through it sooner or later. However, as her daughter, it is extremely challenging to watch. Hospice tells me she is experiencing terminal agitation, which is a stage where the body has run its course but is still fighting to survive. There can be intense anxiousness, twitching, jerking, and an inability to lay still, odd body contortions, combativeness and anger. This can start from hours up to a couple of weeks preceding death. She is already a week into it, but had been declining somewhat dramatically the last several weeks before.
There is a beautiful resident cat in the cottage of the memory care facility where my mother lives. His name is Jasper, and he is a silken black very Zen like cat. I am told that when a resident is getting ready to pass, he will climb on their beds and stay there. He starts at the feet, and as it gets closer, he moves to the middle of the bed and at the end he is on the pillow with them. In the past, my mother never appreciated him jumping on her bed, but last week she was found petting him as he lay next to her. Jasper has taken up residence at her feet.
It is difficult to watch someone you have loved your whole life shrink down to nothing and be in so much agony in their slide towards the inevitable. She has been in hell every minute and completely aware of being there even if the person who once lived in her body is no longer there.
I have had to make some painful decisions in these final days as to her care and comfort, and I have to tell you, it has been wrenchingly difficult and guilt producing. There is so much I don’t know here. She has a DNR order (Do Not Resuscitate) in place, but what to do about getting water or a little bit of food into them if there is still the willingness or ability to swallow at all? She has been placed on heavy meds in order to keep her comfortable. Otherwise, she is attempting to get up and then repeatedly falling; shockingly, she’s even been found climbing on chairs and sitting on tables. No one would expect this from a very frail and skeletal 95 lb. woman who just two years ago, weighed in at 180 lbs. After several recent small strokes, her speech is unintelligible, but she is still amazingly strong and has a death grip when she decides to hold on to something. She has become a danger to herself at this point, and after getting as much water and a bit of food down her as she has been able to tolerate, she now sleeps, due to the influence of medication.
As her guardian, it has been up to me to tend to all the business of dying. I am either with her, or making phone calls and tying up a lot of loose ends every day. It is a tremendous amount of work, not to mention the emotional business. In the evening, I collapse and cry in my compulsion to try and make her dying as comfortable as possible. This is not always so possible, and there are daily emotional adjustments to her constant and many changes.
Still there have been some funny and/or meaningful things she has been able to say in the middle of it all:
She mentioned that she keeps seeing “Dad” hanging around a lot lately and didn’t know why.
The other day, my girlfriend, who has adopted my mom as her own and has provided invaluable help as Certified Nursing Assistant, was tending to her. Mom looked up at her and asked, “If you’re my sister, then why are you so short?!” (Her “tall” sister passed away several years ago, and my mom has been mentioning her a lot lately—so she must be hanging around, too.)
My same girlfriend told her that she was very beautiful, and my mom straightened herself and replied in a clear distinct voice, “Yes, I AM beautiful!” before slumping over and returning to her unintelligible speech once again.
You have to find reasons to laugh. Yesterday after we left my mother sleeping and after we met in conference with administration and hospice regarding mom’s care where I chose comfort over everything else they could do, my girlfriend and I went to lunch and had a glass of wine. Jokingly, I informed her that taking care of the dying requires lots of wine. She said she thought she would write that into her contract the next time she takes care of a terminally ill patient.
Family and friends have made last minute visits to see her, but it does not appear that she recognizes much of anyone anymore. Yesterday while sitting next to her bed, this same girlfriend who has been there every step of the way through this journey with me, suggested to my mother that she hug me. On cue, my mother who was determined to lean vertically in my direction, put her head on my chest. I put my arms around her and for over an hour we stayed that way—her ear against my beating heart, my fingers playing in her hair, gently caressing her back and arm…it was the last moment of heaven together before she closed her eyes—maybe forever.
I cried and cried today. Standing in the hot shower, mixing tears with water, I cried. I prayed.
With tears, went breath. Not for myself particularly did I cry. It was all I could do though, the only thing.
Quite recently, I have been entrusted with stories. Overcome by the grief of others, I felt myself full with their pain, their stories of death, loss, and unimaginable grief. Stories told of decisions made I would have argued against had I been asked beforehand–sincerely believing nothing good could come from them.
However, what’s done is done. I have no power over any of it—except as witness to it.
What do I do with all of this? Where do I go and whom do I ask?
Some would advise it not in my best interest to involve myself. Look at the bright side, the light only, the bigger picture. Be happy, some say, accept what is and move on.
Don’t stare too long into suffering’s great abyss—or the abyss might stare back.
Some might say correction is needed or guilt conferred as if I some kind of judge, jury and executioner over another.
I say not necessarily so.
So much pain, not enough me. It’s feels unbearable at times to hold for long without paying an unbearable price in depression, apathy or anger. The tendency is to pick and choose what we will see; or at the least, we are chosen, unwittingly, without notice–a kind of in-your-face thing.
As humans, it is understandably natural to shy away from what causes pain in us and instead turn our attention to that which brings pleasure—you already know this. Yet there is a Tibetan Buddhist practice called Tonglen you may be familiar with. This is not my solitary focus here, but to be brief, it involves breathing in the pain or the wish for peace and healing of another and then breathing out peace and healing to that same individual or group of individuals. One can also practice this for oneself in identifying with others who also might be feeling the same pain or suffering around the world. We allow the pain to pass through our hearts, transmuting it into healing. At the very least, it changes us. If you are interested, you can Google it for yourself if you choose to learn more.
I am not a seasoned practitioner of Tonglen. I have used it more than a few times over the course of years. Today was one of them. When the pain of self or others becomes unbearable, it is a good therapy to change the way you see things.
This morning I blogged a poem here that came to me first thing upon awakening called, “Tending the Roses of God”. I was speaking about my mother and her descent into the deeper stages of her illness–Alzheimer’s. I referenced the idea of her tending the roses of God while her body slumbered. It occurred to me later my mother is one of the roses of God; and I, along with others, are tending her as she is bathed or fed or loved.
Yet it also came to me that we are each and every one a rose in that same garden of life, that it is our given service to tend one another by learning to bear witness to the pain and suffering of our lives, by offering up our gifts or talents as acts of healing.
In this, my mother has taught me well. It’s been a long and difficult journey I have often resisted. Nevertheless, witness is the wisdom I’ve learned here, the most valuable lesson, the only viable choice I could make in order to survive and not go down in flames of exhaustion and guilt. I’ve heard it said that the grieving we do is merely the love we are feeling making itself known in visceral ways .
I view many kinds of grief as a kind of stripping down to what’s essential, what is real and true.
What disservice would I be doing in my knee jerk attempts to short circuit whatever important work is going on just so I don’t have to feel uncomfortable?
It is this bearing of witness I am speaking about in not only the practice of Tonglen, but in our choices to become present, to hold space for everything that crosses our paths. It is a conscious choice though expansion of the heart, the still presence of witness. I am making a choice to do this, to recognize that my heart has its great capacity to carry the world in it and not be diminished by it, but rather to transmute it. It is a great honor to be entrusted with this and to trust no matter what a thing looks like.
I am choosing more and more, not always necessarily with success, to hold space for another when I am called. It is a life’s practice not learned overnight, but through the course of years and all the things that happen in a life. These others–they are me, my brother and my sister, no matter the story. How could I do less?
This does not necessarily mean there is something for me to do or to change. There is often no instant comfort or practical advice I have to offer; nothing I can affect or change without creating damage in the long run to myself or them.
I can only sit and be present with the grief or the illness carried by another whose load it is to carry it. I can sit with my discomfort or lack of answers. I can sit and allow my heart to sift through it all, to breathe out peace and healing the best way I know how.
The more difficult task is to remain still, to cease fruitlessly wishing for the proverbial wand of righting wrongs.
I am learning to let go of the need to “do something”—the guilt I’ve been raised with that has so often compelled me into instant action. I know I may still feel the guilt of inaction or answers, but I am choosing to not always allow it to have its way with me, to take time to be reflective and wait on my heart. I trust implicitly in my heart to do the right thing—but first I must listen and be witness to all it has to tell me.
A number of years back, my daughter was an assistant teacher at an elite private school just outside of Los Angeles.Many of the children that attended there had parents in the movie industry and one of them was a student in my daughter’s classroom. His dad just happened to be Will Smith. Since I was personally dating the cousin of the owner of the school at the same time, I was invited to several social events, which also included being introduced to a few of the celebrity parents, including Will Smith and his beautiful wife, Jada. It was quickly apparent to me they were no different than the rest of us, and on top of that, they were warm, friendly and engaging. Since then I have seen interviews with them, and it is my feeling that they are old souls here on this planet, highly evolved individuals with ample amounts of integrity and wisdom. I realized there is a lot I could learn from them.
So tonight, when I happened along this Facebook post, Be Intoxicating, by Jada (https://www.facebook.com/jada), I was thrilled. It’s a perfect segue from my last blog post, “The Crack in the Mirror”. And I am excited, having written that piece over a year ago, to have transitioned to a place of being pretty okay with who I am and where I find myself at this stage of my life. I am loving just sending out love wherever I happen to find myself by noticing the people that end up in front of me—the teller at the bank, the stranger at the other end of the phone, the person waiting on me, calling them by their first name, engaging them, becoming genuinely interested in their humanity. It’s a selfish act really for all the satisfaction it personally brings to me as I find ways to let someone know they are seen and appreciated just for who they are right here and now, however they show up. I am far from perfect at this and I definitely have my moments of being self absorbed, yet this seems to be fast becoming a new avocation of mine as I learn to practice on one person at a time.
But I digress…I’ll just let you read Jada on Be Intoxicating…
I have never been nor will I ever be the prettiest girl in the room. This has a lot to do with my profession, but also with the fact that my grandmother raised me with the belief that there will always be someone prettier than me and that beauty does not guarantee anyone love. Therefore, she did not focus on beauty in her house. Instead, she raised me to focus on what she considered to be the most important component in life…how well we relate to the soul of another.
The other day I met a woman, who was 80, who spoke to the most unreachable spaces of my soul through her kindness, laughter and wisdom. We related in a way that was so intoxicating, it was difficult to leave her. My experience with this woman brought my grandmother’s vision of relating full circle for me. Jada, be a joy to others and may that joy nourish them. Surround yourself with those who are a joy to you and allow that joy to nourish you. Always make the effort to find a language for the untouched spaces of every soul you meet. This is the recipe for blissful intoxication that she has passed on to me.
“Oh, God, help me to believe the truth about myself, no matter how beautiful it is.” —Macrina Wiederkehr
I never leave home without my face on. My public face, that is. This includes hair in place, makeup that includes blush, eyebrows, mascara and eye shadow.
Iwill often joke to new friends, “If something ever happens to me, please remember to put some eyebrows on me!” Usually it gets a big laugh, but no, I’m serious. I only have half of an eyebrow over each eye. Without eyebrows, my face seems frameless, lacking a point of reference. Some mornings can be challenging enough after a difficult night with sleep apnea, frequent awakening cramps and multiple bathroom visits as I stumble into the washroom, look into the mirror and see those two burnt holes in a blanket staring back at me.
I mean I need the stuff! Sometimes I think about not applying mascara, or even, god forbid, an entire face and just going as me. The thought of this causes some anxiety, and so I will determine to just leave the mascara off, then watch as my hand takes on a life of its own, picking up the mascara wand and applying it to each set of eyelashes over my two burnt holes. I mean, what if someone should see me with my dark puffy circles, the brown aging spots and sagging eyes? I am half envious of all those women out there that can get up, run a brush through their hair, slip into an old tee shirt and jeans and proudly walk out the door and not give a damn.
Life is always full of choices. Academically, I am aware of the countless potential I can choose from in any given moment. For some reason that I have not yet let go of, the outward facade that I put on is unusually difficult to step away from. Oh, it is easy enough to pinpoint the development of this story in my life. You know, something having to do with being brought up in the 50’s and 60’s when appearances were everything and women were taught to please others before themselves. My parents were no exception to that rule, and my mother taught me well. She was beautiful and never left home without looking like she just stepped off a Hollywood stage.
When I was sixteen, a onetime date later confided to his friends that I looked like I got hit in the face with a hockey puck. Word got back to me. I was crushed and humiliated. Now looking back, I know that was not a true story. Looking back at younger pictures, there was not a damn thing wrong with me! I was cute—why couldn’t I see it and appreciate it then? Yet you would think that by this stage in life, entering my sixth decade that I would have pulled it together by now. There is still not a damn thing wrong with me. So why do I shy away from cameras and public mirrors?
I recently watched an online story regarding a young woman who had recovered from an eating disorder. After intensive prolonged therapy and recuperation, she made the courageous decision to take a year off from her reflection, blogging online about it. This meant all household mirrors covered up, no focus on dressing room or public mirrors. Her makeup was applied by touch, and she dressed without reflection, even prepping for her own wedding sans mirrors, except for the assistance of a few friends. At the end of the year, she was ready to see her image as if for the first time and found she was finally beautiful in her own eyes, blemishes and all.
I am not so comfortable I could choose as she did, except for avoiding public mirrors, which I already do.
I have made the choice to change a lot of things in my life, but overall, I have to admit that my outward physical appearance is one of the more difficult challenges. I am not as consumed and have made some incremental progress over the years, telling myself now I’m sixty, so I don’t have to look like I’m thirty anymore. Still moving to another country halfway around the world, converting to a different religion, finessing an escape from the clutches of a serial killer or leaving bad relationships and/or losing everything to start over again—I have done all of this and much more—all the easier choices to make. I have succeeded in many areas, stood tall, taken major risks, and pretty much leaped over tall buildings in terms of some choices in my life.
Like a cat, I have managed to live nine lives and be here now to tell about it. Yet I did it all with makeup on! Oh, and the eyebrows, too! I even go into surgery with makeup neatly applied. Unless I’m dying (did that, too), I wear the damn makeup!
How would my life be altered if I made a different choice and walked out the door without perceived definition? I am identified by a set of eyebrows it seems.
So what would happen if one day, maybe even today, I put the makeup down? Would small children run screaming when they saw me? Would people cover their eyes at my appearance? Would otherwise friendly dogs bite? I think not. What I might actually begin to realize is a new sense of freedom after the first moments of insecurity and slinking around corners in order to avoid being seen. I might even forget myself a little more and begin to see other sentient beings in a way I have never appreciated as much. Or maybe I’m putting too much stock in my public persona. Yet I secretly suspect my world view would be positively altered.
Where are the boundaries when one becomes undefined, when one lets go of all tightly held identities? I suspect I would become freer to “make up” my own life. Who would I be without eyebrows? And does wearing makeup encapsulate my life into something more acceptable by others rather than allowing me my own fuller creative expression? Maybe my life would come to define me more than my made up face on some level as I let go of immediate impressions of what I think others think I am. And not becoming too rigid about this, I would be at liberty to wear it or not on any given day.
I have a girlfriend who is an accomplished mystery novel writer. When she has a good idea or vision about something that would help or heal in this world, her whole body is instantly and purposefully moving towards it to accomplish it. Yet she remains largely undefined, and to some who might look at her, by her own admission, their first impression is, “What the hell happened here?!” It is inspiring, yet scary to watch her in action. She is kind of crazy in a good way, too, having committed herself to being here and fully participating in the larger healing process around her..
My friend informs me that upon initially meeting me years ago, her immediate impression was that I was a nice, sweet, boring type of church lady who didn’t have much to say for herself. I presented my writing and poetry to her, as others before me have for critique or approval. Not expecting a lot, she admits she was astonished reading it. A complete vision unfolded in an instant as she witnessed it going into hospices and hospitals and books, places where it would begin to heal lives and hearts. She tells me, “Shoshana, do you realize who you are and what you have to do with this? Your work is brilliant!” She envisions my life’s purpose in exactly the way I have always known it at the deepest core level since I was a small child, and she consistently holds the mirror of my true self before me. Gotta tell you, pisses me off! Because she, along with more than a few of my other respected and accomplished writerly friends, won’t shut up or leave me alone on the subject! They are on my back about it all the damn time. Yet, I know they are absolutely spot on.
My friends are my conscious when I don’t want to see. They are me in a way. I look at them and see myself, even when I don’t want to see.
Taking my makeup off to show the world my true self, my blazing heart, could very well be the next thing I need to do to set my life on fire, or at the very least, to set some part of myself free. Wrinkles, age spots, dark circles, missing eyelashes and eyebrows, nothing in place to offset the crooked teeth or crooked smile. Yet is it not worth my life—an amazing and brilliant force for good—that would say to the world “there you are!” instead of “here I am!”
This month in honor of Mother’s Day, I am sharing one of my personal favorites—a very special poem I wrote to my own daughter while she served in the United States Coast Guard. I am humbled in that this poem has circulated wide and far,word having gotten back to me that some very special things have been accomplished with it in setting relationships right and as last prayers of a dying parent to their children. Please know you may need a tissue on hand while reading.
If I could be a wall for you, I would my child.
If I could be a sword for you,
I would that, too.
And if I could, a sentry man be
that stands guard in your dreams,
I would stand fierce and true.
I would stand as a massive fortress between you
and life’s arrows. I’d slay your fire-breathing dragons
and shield you from the illusive shadows that call.
I would hold you close in my arms and
sing you lullabies like when you were small.
I would take your pain.
But I cannot.
I’m only a mortal given a child on loan.
and it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever done
to stand and watch while you become
a person of your own.
To accept you must fight your own dragons,
shed your own tears and fend off
dark phantoms who stalk your sleep.
I can only stand and perceive that I love you
with every heart’s beat, with every breath
that I breathe.
And to love you is to let you go, to allow you
your time and your pain, your right to
your own life, knowing that the tragedies
of today are the seeds of tomorrow’s gains.
And my love for you, my child, is a deep ache inside;
the little beauty soon to arrive. Right away he caught my attention as he sailed down from the sky, expertly landing on the edge of a neighbor’s roof. Settling in for a wait, he sat there, looking at me—he could feel my eyes boring holes through him, admiring his handsome beauty. That’s when he decided to strike up a short conversation with me. Anyway, he must have sensed I was kind of curious to know what he had to say for himself.
It was just about the time I happened to be leaning out the back porch door across the drive. A full bloom jasmine spring evening, everywhere birds were chattering in that wonderful kind of music they do—it was a full on orchestra playing. The dishes could wait. I couldn’t stand it a moment longer and made a beeline for the door to eavesdrop in on their conversation and enjoy the scarlet remnants of a setting sun. It’s mating season around here, and birds beginning to feather their nests, chattering from tree to tree, flying here and there. We humans seldom pay them any mind, so consumed by the frenetic pace of our lives, but this eve, I was listening.
I guess he thought he wasn’t close enough because he scooted himself over several feet to the very corner of the roof where we could get a better look at one another. I wondered if I was hearing him correctly or if I was just a silly human over-imagining things when he told me his girlfriend would soon be there. We humans can be quite dim when it comes to bird language, or for that matter, any other mother tongue of another. We sat there staring at one another for a while until suddenly he whistled the most lilting little love tune. A moment later in response, the same love notes sang out from a distant tree. And a few minutes after that, here she came, a delicate little beauty, orange breasted, swooping in, landing on the ground, hopping around, checking out this thing and that.
Swooping down from his perch, they were both unexpectedly and quickly in front of me. He had brought her over to where I was to introduce me to his little sweetie. They pranced around at the bottom of the porch steps, hopping by the garden all happy and proud, keeping me in their line of sight all the while. They stayed a couple more minutes, taking off quickly in flight at first sight of an approaching car. I bade them farewell and happy nesting.
What a magnificent gift—this gift of noticing, slowing down long enough to listen to the larger conversation that is taking place in our everyday lives, to actively find where love lives, to see who and what is paying attention to us. It surprised me that in my witness of this magnificent nature being, I was noticed in return, a continuing affirmation I am always seen, a vital part of this whole beautiful mess called life—a realization that trumps the nightly news of war, disaster and nonstop pronouncements that the sky is falling any minute now. Life goes on out there in the world, up there in the sky, creating and recreating itself over and over again when and where you think it never could. The funny thing about love, it’s always there waiting for you somewhere. Paying attention, as I sometimes forget to do, can definitely help. You find love in the unlikeliest of places, the most unexpected, too.
Tomorrow, just as an experiment, determine to notice where the love is in your life. Notice the little acts of kindness that cross your path. Notice the people that pay attention. See who is begging for love or in need of witness. Notice the natural world around you waiting to be seen, even longing to bend down and share its secrets with you, its praise songs that ring from tree to tree and star to star even when no one is listening
In any event, I have it on good authority that the sky is not falling, not today or tomorrow or ever. There’s still plenty of love holding it all together, being born everywhere, no matter how it looks to the human eye. How do I know? A little birdie told me.
“Well, my conclusion is: Hate is baggage. Life is too short to be pissed off all the time. It’s just not worth it”, Danny in ‘American History X’” 1998
The other day I was parked in Costco
parking lot and getting ready to exit my car
when another car parked alongside me.
Inside, with the windows rolled up,
I could hear the poor woman screaming
at the top of her lungs over and over at no one I could see (on her blue tooth maybe?), “I hate you, I hate you! Do you know how much I really, really hate you?!” For a moment, her force of spew threw me off balance–I have no idea of the circumstances she was in, but my heart went out to her in a kind of way for whatever hard journey she is on.
We all have our upset moments, but it’s not an address I choose to live at every damn day. I realized that it’s been many years since I’ve lived in that world of constant upset with everything and everyone…I also realized that for most of the people in my circle, this was also true. It is work to get here. None of us are immune from the more difficult challenges that can come our way or the instant reactions that might arise–the work comes in understanding that you’ve probably survived worse and if this is worse, you will survive one way or another, here or there. It requires the vigilant practice of practicing infinite compassion and kindness towards yourself and others. You learn to start again with beginner’s mind, knowing the gift in everything will find you if you remain open to it.
I might be from Venus. When I was a girl of five, I would dream every night of catching the wind and soaring high above the earth. I could see perfectly everything that was going on below. It was a heady, exhilarating experience, and I had no doubt about my ability to run and leap into the sky. I was quite sure about my powers because I was from Venus, you see. And the secret to Venus, in my five year old dreams, is that the clouds surrounding Venus were actually a protective cooling system from the intense heat of the sun where we lived. This world I had traded in for Earth, Venus, was futuristic and beautiful, and we were a highly advanced civilization. Of course, I couldn’t tell anyone where I really came from down here on Earth, but every night I was my own little super hero. This was a nightly ritual I entertained for several years until the world convinced me, of course, that I was only dreaming nonsense.
Now that I’m returning to my second childhood, as they say, I’ve decided that maybe I was right the first time, at least about flying. A week ago, while in deep sleep, I dreamed I was a great bird with expansive feathered wings of black and white, all the while still being me. Life was so big up there that I was near bursting with the deliciousness of it all as I glided down the length of a wide green river below. My wings effortlessly followed a natural easy up and down swoosh, dipping low to the ground, swooping and rising into the air again, catching the currents as they lifted me higher and higher. I could feel the sun warming my face and back as I rose. And I wasn’t alone. Others joined me in my flight—indigenous colorful human birds whom I knew had my back. Other human birds came near to us, too, who at first appeared menacing, but as we got close, they showed themselves as friends and together we banked and dipped, letting the wind carry us further along until we landed on grassy slopes along the river where I was led to their sacred tented circle of community as an honored guest.
As I flew, I couldn’t understand how so many had forgotten they, also, had the power to fly. I wanted to tell everyone on the ground to come join us in this most ecstatic experience. And one or two young human birds, a little afraid to fly, did make the leap into the sky—while I taught them how to bank and dip and rise again, how to catch the light just right.
Life can feel so very overwhelming and congested at times, and it is good to catch the uprising drafts of wind now and then, to see life from up high as though through the eyes of mighty bird. It is easy to feel landlocked when we can’t seem to appreciate the proverbial “forest for the trees.” From my vantage point up there, I knew I was beautiful. There was space enough to travel anywhere I wanted to go, and I knew this was really the natural order of things. There was a seamless-ness to life, a natural ordering as I understood my meaning of being here for my soul’s growth. Up high, it was easy to trade in the tired and old for the sacredness in all things.
It’s been a long path from my five year old self to here as I lean into the wisdom years, but I am coming to more fully understand what fragments, what fails to enhance or bring joy, what stops me from flying when forests are thickened by too much overgrowth, and I am unable to get a foothold on catching the currents. Not that I look for it or expect it, but I understand it becomes necessary that some trees might need pruning. Trees need light to grow, just as humans do, and old growth prevents the fullest measure of light from getting in. Every forest needs a good fire now and then in order to clear the ground, pry open the tight fisted buds and force new life up from the underground.
This is truth: That chaos is completely necessary, as is fire, or water or wind, as are all the elements of the earth. After the burning, chaos is bound to bring order around eventually. It is the natural order of things. Order arising, becoming this thing or that of another order and the cycle begins again.
It helps to have wings. You should try it sometime.
Redemption comes easy. We’re told that. It’s sold on street corners, in pulpits and on television. Hawkers of salvation everywhere with goods to sell that will make you happy, change your life, offer eternal deliverance, forgive every sin and clean your toilet. Our lives and souls can be washed clean in an instant in beauty creams, laundry detergent and holy blood.
So whatever I have thought redemption is, I have been paying my dues towards achieving it without buying into creams and detergent. At least that’s what I tell myself.
What is that anyway? In my quest for this elusive thing called redemption I have supposedly bought into, I have often found shame instead. It has caused me to be overtly punishing of myself; and I think I’ve confused redemption for perfection at times. When I am perfect at this thing or that—religiously meditating every day; my life pristinely organized and categorized; practicing compassionate kindness with everyone equally; never getting my feelings ruffled; faithfully practicing healthy habits of eating right, exercising daily; going to bed early; resisting unhealthy habits and demands…after I’ve perfected all this, then I will somehow find my redemption, and the scepter of “good-enough-you-may-now-enter-the-kingdom-of-light” will crown me. Then the angels will sing. Oh, and one other thing—flawless, inspired writing that hits like a zing to the heart of every reader.
What a load of bull crap!
Redemption is this: I am already redeemed in every moment no matter what is going on. As the comedian, the late Gilda Radner, used to say, “It’s always something”. There will always be something lacking, something left undone, something urgent or necessary to get in the way of our perfection. We can exhaust ourselves into a quivering heap trying to achieve it. I am not always going to get it right. When I think I have achieved a certain modicum of equanimity or balance, there will always be something to challenge me. Life doesn’t fit into neat little packages for the most part.
So what would redemption really look like for me on a daily basis? Devising a daily, weekly or life plan and then executing it to the letter? Nope! There are many components to my life that, in fact, add to its quality when I adhere to what’s good for me. I could start with one. Good sleeping habits are an example, and I do have specific challenges with my sleep that can detract for sure. Yet maybe redemption comes in dropping the story I’m telling myself about how it is, how I’ve become a victim of life or even my own inaction after a night without sleep. Maybe it’s just accepting that I am humanly flawed, that life is messy, and that all I have is right here, right now, and I am doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing now because I am doing it. I can change my story, shift my dimension by being with this moment on its own terms. There is no other story beside woman sitting at her computer writing about redemption. I can sit here and focus on this one thing I am doing and drop the stories about how I should really be doing ten other things and how much there is to do and why-can’t-I-get-it-all-done-at-once, or I-should-be-saving-the-world-and-why-haven’t-I-done-it-yet? Let go of that big tangled ball of string of everything I must accomplish, be and do that wants to live inside my head. Instead I could pull on one strand, the one solitary note of the singular thing my heart or my body is speaking to me to do now. Maybe what is more needful is to be “woman sitting at window watching the rain come down”.
Redemption for me lies in this one moment, not in a thousand others that don’t exist.
Awhile back I made the decision to leave a relationship I was in. As decision making often goes, the lead up to the decision was distressing, agonizing even as I searched my heart for right answers of what to do, all the while not really wanting to do what was right knowing it would be the most inconvenient and painful for all parties in the short run. I vacillated back and forth, one moment totally ready to stick it out and make it all okay no matter what, believing it would be; and the next knowing some things were beyond my control and repair.
Day by day, the situation had become increasingly unbearable in exact proportion to the good that seemed to be leaving for both of us. Looking in the mirror, I was looking like someone else looking back at me. My joie de vivre had taken flight to distant shores. My soul was shriveling and meaningful purpose or repair wasn’t to be conjured up or found anywhere.
Then one morning after a particularly bad night, I just woke up with perfect clarity of what I had to do.
I took comfort all the while in my questioning knowing that the decision would make itself. I knew I didn’t have to rush to judgement or do anything ahead of schedule. However, I will add the proviso this may not be true in every case, and indecision and vacillation can too often render one immobilized, keep a person in a stagnant or even dangerous situation, or at the very least, from their most authentic selves. The thing was I knew myself well enough to know how resilient I am, how much of a survivor, that I have survived far more painful things. I knew I would ultimately do what I needed to do to save the only life I really could when nothing else was working—my own.
I knew there would be those who would disagree with my decision, who would call me wrong for doing so, who would question my motives, who would no longer call me friend. I knew this questioning might arise from people who thought they knew what was best for me or my partner, or thought they had a grasp on who I am or what the situation was. Nonetheless, I knew in the depths of me what was true, and I left in spite of the clamoring voices that might surround me.
It was one of those watershed moments in life when you know you are going to have start from scratch all over again. It’s not like I haven’t had to build from the bottom up before. It’s a kind of fire in your life that burns the house down. It’s damn hard work to rebuild. It’s damn inconvenient, too.
Oftentimes the decision to leave a situation, a job, or a relationship is something that decides itself. One day, after a lot of tossing and turning and sleepless nights, you just wake up knowing. Suddenly there are no more questions. The decision becomes almost independent of you and begins to move you at that point.
And sometimes the decision is made for you, thrust at you without your input. It can be abrupt and shocking, leaving you crying and groping for answers for endless days.
Yet you do find the courage to go on you didn’t know existed—from a place deep inside yourself. You do what’s necessary to rebuild life in a meaningful way, to restore the lost vitality, to create something beautiful and with purpose. You laugh again. You make new friends. You are still you, maybe only now a better version, and you grow through the pain into wisdom and caring and helping others to find their way, too.
First, you must do the important work of grieving, whatever it takes. It doesn’t mean, however, that there will not be doubts or second guessing once the decision has moved you away. You will still wonder what if, what might have been. Then again in your heart you know the truest answer, that you did the right thing, that you can never go back.
How do we judge the rightness of a decision except by listening deeply to our own heart, following our truest true? Hindsight is usually a good barometer once you are far enough down the road from it. In the meantime, we must trust life and our hearts enough to listen, to know that the answer will find us. And if we are fortunate enough to have a friend who knows and trusts our heart also, it also good to listen to that friend of wise counsel.
The answer that comes may not always look like something we think it should or hoped it would. Sometimes the miracle comes through the hard work of growth and willingness to change. It may not be convenient. It might be painful. Yet in the still small voice of yourself, the places that whisper, you know it to be true if you are listening. You know that if you do not heed the whisper, the inner knowing underneath all the questioning, second guessing and vacillation, you will miss something very important in your life—yourself, your reason for being here.
In an alternate version/universe of yourself, you decided to stay against what your heart knew to be true, to play it out, and it had catastrophic consequences. In this universe, however, you will get to live and thrive because you left, or because you were left. You have something else you are supposed to do, that waits for you to walk its way. And maybe you might not have found your way had you remained frozen where you were.
Not so much by relentless hammer blows—
the rubble pound of life,
rather by wind that blows
‘cross water, skipping, skidding, rolling,
smoothing over without care or heed the many edges of things.
Washing past what cuts, what causes to bleed
in sprays and stings, in the steady pulse of waves heading toward land, or in
strong undercurrents without end
wearing things down, leveling them out,
the jewel refined,
the patina rubbed in, shined into the stone.
Change comes slow,
does not relent or flinch, hitherto howls and moans,
sings its wearying song.
All the jagged lines, the gouged holes done in
by the slow increment of time,
the tic toc of year upon year pushing against,
wearing down both stone and skin
And one day, surprised, you wake up
after you’ve become transparent enough,
and the beautiful thing inside,
the truest gem of shimmer and light,
rises up and up and flies.
It seems entirely ironic, yet appropriate that I should land on an old wooden bench flanked by a sign that’s written with the words: “End of Trail”. I am sitting in the middle of John Day Fossil Beds National Monument, Oregon dwarfed by prehistoric cathedral like rock formations of crimson colored basalt, ashen gray tuff, and weathered copper green clay stone–six million years of history embedded in the stone walls around me. I feel like am being watched.
September here bakes the clay, burns your skin, but for the dry gusts of strong breeze that envelope you and stroke your face, play with your hair. It feels delicious and I am suddenly and overwhelmingly taken with the desire to meditate. I am being seduced and played with as each whoosh of wind pushes itself up against me; as I am sung to by leaping grasshoppers as they chirp happily away in the brush.. I close my eyes. I am near approaching heaven in this one magnificent moment.
Life and death and life again. Breathe and I find myself hurtling back in time from present moment of sixty years on this planet. Back, back through my 50’s and I am sitting with friends blowing out the candles on my 50th birthday cake. Yanked again quickly through years of my 40’s finding my way in a brief marriage, the beginning of long term chronic illness and near death that crossed into my 50’s. Now in my 30‘s asking life who I was, a single mother, life lived on foreign shores, losing my father. I‘m now returned to my 20‘s, a young wife and mother full of responsibility. My life had been neatly mapped out, or so I thought. Answers were easy then. Here I am in my teen years listening to Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, sneaking out the back door late at night, writing poetry full of first love, angst and anger and war. A girl now, I am living in my parents house, running out the door to play with my friends, building rocket ships to the moon in a cardboard box, peering into a juvenile microscope in wonder of the world beneath the glass or gazing into the night sky, able to name every star formation while dreaming of time travel and parallel universes. Going further back I am a little girl of two standing in the doorway of a big white house watching men in white coveralls as they brushed lemonade yellow coats of paint on the kitchen walls. And here I am an infant lying in my crib watching my parents and grandmother tiptoeing through my green walled room on their way to the kitchen. Pulled away, I am floating inside my mother’s womb. It is so silently peaceful here, and the whoosh whoosh of her beating heat reverberates throughout me.
All this imagined in the space of a moment or two, I don’t know, I lost track of time as I hurtled out my mother’s womb into the silence of life between lives. Floating again for a time, as if waiting before being yanked back and back past lives and lifetimes of great pain or torture, laughter, aloneness, families, starvation, drought, abundance, death, dying, war–all the million and one things that comprise a life. I am pulled past planets, racing through the Milky Way and galaxies and life ejected from unimaginably hot and violent nurseries of forming stars, sucked backwards in a colossal explosion of light and fire as it reels backwards upon itself into a singular pin point of light.
Silence. Nothing. A void where neither right nor wrong exist, without form.
There is a dream going on, many dreams like plays on multiple stages. Am I the dreamed or the dreamer? Lifetimes and galaxies, universes and all matters of form rolling out in thunderous sharp cracks and deep bellows of hearty laughter, bells in every kind of clang and ring were singing and lightening splintered and split through each dream, each splinter a different dream of form and being. Electric life force dancing, deciding here to become this thing or that, dancing in the wings of a bat, the beating heart, the wind’s roar, the cry of an infant in his mother’s arms. Again and again expanding and animating, contracting in life and death of everything that is.
Everything already exists in this void. Dreams upon dreams upon dreams, coming and going, passing in and out, rise up, fall down again from this primordial soup. It’s all there.
I still feel the wind. I feel the hill I sit upon undulate and roll beneath me, and I give myself to the possibility that ground beneath me might dissolve, that whatever molecules and atoms that hold this whole thing together might suddenly change the dream. And I am okay with this. Rivulets of sweat run down my backside then rapidly evaporate into salty stains. I am not aware of time but I feel the sun changing in front of me while I dream. Not a bug or a fly of distraction lands on my skin, or maybe I just didn’t notice.
Slowly I open my eyes. The furnace like heat of the day is settling and the sun casts long shadows across striated green hills. Arising from my position in front of the “End of Trail” sign, I begin a meditative descent on the trail towards the car, as I imagine how easily rooted we become in whatever imagining we each find ourselves. People, tribes and whole nations dream, divided one against the other, aiming weapons and hate at anothers dream. “My dream is better than yours,” we say, “your dream is wrong”. We are all sleeping.
I am taking a lesson this day from the whole of the natural world around me. One tree does not attack the dream of the other, but waits in accepting silence for the axe or the lightening strike or fire. One mountain does not fight over land with another. If there is coalescing of space or place, or life is to be snuffed out like the candle’s flame, it is done in the natural order of things…nature giving up its life when the appointed time of dreaming ends.
Sitting outside the dream for the briefest moment startles me out of my suffering. I do not make appointments with this inexplicable event but am chosen by some cosmic witch doctor who decides I need a good jolt of caffeinated double shot juju to come awake or heal from attachment to another’s dream. Who knows exactly why? Maybe I’ve just been doing a whole lot of going along to get along and need an icy cold cup of water thrown into my face. Maybe it might be my intense suffering or pain that calls it in. Whatever, it always arrives totally unexpected, unbidden, unsought. I am always left changed, shaken out of doldrums and/or a brain run amok. It alchemicalizes my existence from complaint to holy gratitude, it rewires my brain, exchanging the everyday profane for the mysterious sacred. Life suddenly is realized for the Holy Grail that it is, and I can see myself anew. I look into another’s eyes and come to see myself in a different way. It is as if I am arriving on the shores of life for the first time.
This is the face of Alzheimer’s Disease. It is only one face among many and it belongs to my mother. My mother has always been a beautiful woman. I am talking about movie star beautiful. Always beautifully groomed and made up. In her younger years, if you squinted your eyes just right, you could almost see Natalie Wood–at least that’s what my cousin says. Natalie Wood or not, she was stunning! And she is still beautiful at 80 with this terrible disease that has had her doing things she would be utterly shocked at if she knew about. She was always a very proper and private woman, and taught me well in the rules of feminine etiquette–don’t know that it took so well with me, but she tried.
For five years, I have been and continue to be her overseer, protector, companion, bull dog, bouncer, secretary, gopher, care giver and moving man. Nearly two years ago, I had to place her in a memory care unit after a severe psychotic break sent her spiraling down into severe Alzheimer’s. She is in a better place with the help of medication now, although declining a little more every day. It has been hard work, and I have learned so much from her, but I also have Adrenal Fatigue as a result which has taught me big lessons about how we take care of ourselves or not while caring for others.
The surprising thing I didn’t know I would do is I have fallen in love with many of these dear souls that live alongside her, that don’t always fade so quietly into the night as Alzheimer’s exacts its toll on their minds and bodies. Tonight, surprised again, I fell in love when I went to visit my mother–let me share with you this endearing little story.
So this evening, I popped in to visit my mother. Happened to be the dinner hour, and they had a full house going with lots of energy. I am spoon feeding my mom and listening to the female resident who usually sits with her and who is blathering away about what I have no idea. But she telling me all about something she did using words that sound like gibberish interspersed with English and pointing to the Sloppy Joe she hadn’t eaten, but wrapped up in her napkin. I was agreeing and nodding and telling her what an amazing story she had, when all of a sudden, she stopped mid sentence, looked straight at me and said, “You look particularly beautiful tonight!” Wow! I thanked her profusely and told her I loved hearing that, and she replied, “Well, I just say whatever comes up!”
Apparently, I am having an interesting life between lives lately. The time between sleep and not fully awake has taken on a life of its own.
Stuff I need to know, I suppose, shows up, talks to me. It’s like I’m in school again sitting at my desk, taking notes, listening. White sheets of paper waft down from some other realm with questions on them. Is this a test? Am I imagining? I hear distinct words in my ear. I see things I wasn’t trying to see. And it takes me by surprise when I was just trying to get in a few more winks before stumbling out of my bed. In those moments, I suddenly get it—it’s an aha or eureka moment where truths become more tangible for me rather than just reading written words on a page.
Maybe these little visitations are showing up in the early hours because I am too thick or opaque in my waking hours while fifty other things muddle through my head; or where there is the risk of poor message recall in my dreams while I play telephone trying to decipher. These understandings, visions and voices are never predictable, but surprising when they do show up.
This morning I was in the classroom again. Today’s lesson presented itself before me as I understood the truth of real self, who and what it represents, and who I am in my most intrinsic being-ness. The ocean appeared, as it were, on the chalkboard, vast, watery and unfathomably deep, and I understood it as metaphor of that which I am where stillness is, where nothing is disturbed–I Am That, while above waves are crashing and black storms cracking. There were a tsunamis rolling across the horizon towards land and life as it was known would be no more. I was not this. I understood in this that the waves, the storm, the spaces in-between—the lulling calm intersecting the waves, and the tsunamis were my life—but they were not me even when I believed they were. I was the one underneath it all watching, observant, aware, quiet. Yet there was complete permission in the experience of the storms and waves. I saw it was okay, the emotional life of my life, its pain, its joys, its numbing, frozen places, the spaces in-between, the everything that was happening. It’s just my life, that I don’t have to fight it all, for whom I am beneath the storm remains undisturbed, holds space for it all. It doesn’t mean I’m less or more than based upon what is happening on topside of my days.
Then another thing arose on the horizon of my listening and seeing, the words, “Your thoughts activate the earth.” I realized deeper I am not my thoughts either, but they hold sway over my world as to what appears or shows up in it. My thoughts like waves that come and go, certain habituated thoughts that create patterns and grooves in my life, in the lives of those around me.
I suspect we are more powerful than we know. That our collective thought patterns when amassed over time and space hold sway as to planetary events, weather patterns, global and earth changes. Maybe the tsunamis that we create with our minds or the literal or metaphoric events that befall our lives are necessary in order to clear the deck for bigger changes to come as a kind of answer to our struggle with letting go of our outmoded, no longer useful patterns in thinking. Otherwise, our lives become stagnated and even stinking.
Our lives like waves that rise up, then fall, rise up again and the cycle goes on, all the happy and sad, the tragic, the comedy, the spaces between our birth and dying. Yet we are not the ten thousand things appearing. It’s just our life showing up.
Now the question is how to use this sacred and powerful life that’s been gifted us for the betterment of ourselves, our neighbors and the world? How do we activate our life on this earth and become a force for good by allowing the undisturbed self we really are to influence the life we are living?
This week, having been a little unsettling, I accept myself in whatever state I am in–doubt, sadness, joy, pain, bliss, I’ve run the gamut. There is room for everything. I am perfectly imperfect. I’m going with that.
This week, I accept that words have eluded me as I have struggled with my imperfect attempts to be brilliant here. After much effort of starting, stopping, stilting, nothing until stop–I’ve felt like a too hard eraser that stubs across and rips at the page. I offer this instead, a poem in honor of this sacred life and being–
Let the soft animal that is your body,
rise up from the earth.
You who live on the edge of infinity and stars,
feet on the ground deeply rooting into black soil beneath you,
feel as emerald earth rises up through your bones.
This animal that you are, that houses you,
needs stroking, needs petting,
needs feeding and nurture.
Let it purr.
Your animal soft or sleek is perfect,
this suit of blood and bone and flesh—
born from Earth and stars
—that houses the light of ten suns.
This animal that is your home for such a brief time,
that gives you arms to surround and hold close with;
hands to comfort or create with;
legs to run, to climb mountains or merely to move towards
a crying child; and
eyes that mirror the heart beating inside your chest.
This being-ness so full of miracles
in every miniscule act,
in the little lion that roars when its hungry;
in the vast army of red corpuscles muscling their way
through your body,
its vast arterial highway—
down to atoms and quarks in joyous dance
and light that explodes in ecstasy
in the cosmos that lies between.
As the heart flows into the body in
muscle and skin and lungs that breathe;
in fits of laughter when your eyes water
and your beautiful cheeks can take it no more
and your body is doubled over with pleasure—
until the last day your animal serves,
until earth reclaims your house,
and your light is freed, what shall you do?
Till then, here’s a clue:
Love the animal you find yourself in.
Praise it often for giving everything you need and more.
Why give it less when it asks so little of you?
Just a little fresh air and sunshine, some good food,
This was written awhile back after years of caregiving, illness, and death, and the demise of a relationship. Our lives can feel much like a proverbial pressure cooker at times–especially these days on the planet as time seems set on warp speed. Yet intersecting with the grief that can overwhelm us in doing our work, there come unexpected moments of pure release, a benevolence, an answer to prayer, as if to say, “go on, keep moving, you are not alone”. There is sweet grace in not knowing, in our confusion of not having exact answers but knowing they will arrive in the exact moment necessary–and not a moment too late. There is grace in allowing the knife edge of pain to do its best surgical work in our lives without trying to cover it over with the lid of denial. Better to accept our own vulnerability, our tears–there’s a new day coming when we do–even if we are the only one changed.
These are days when grief takes what it takes. When the best I can do is hold myself and cry. I am spent with it, pale and tired, worn down.
Nonetheless it seems right that I should find myself here at the same time when everywhere trees are catching fire, going down in cloven tongued flames of glory, suspended between death and life in a kind of spectral breath stopping splendor—a brilliant colored luminosity that makes you wonder what it is that dying knows.
Sorrow has a way of opening me and ripening me, of letting everything out—and bringing everything in, while the whole world rises to meet me in my solitary pain while I fall. Yet not always so serenely as the dying leaves, while I am choking on the words, “help me, please”, and I think no one is listening.
What comes without predictability startles me—strong arms that gather me up in moments of laughter or surprise. Grief interrupted, I suppose, preempted by grace when the unexpected flare of golden light outlines dark clouds after heavy deluge; or falling words from a stranger’s mouth apprise I’m still here. It’s okay to cry—
or laugh when yesterday, as trick or treating goblins came out— as I went by a dark angel in bright wings receiving a ticket from a sternly posed uniformed man; and further along the road seen were old men in tutus teetering down the sidewalk in high heeled shoes.
These are gifts of pure release, a break in the storm, a kind of benevolence coming into my bones, won’t let go, that fiercely holds on. Laughter and transcendence, marrow building even in what is dying; even while I let go, and life goes on. Even while what needs to come around, comes around, and once again, I find myself spiraling down to my knees.
It is my hardest work in this earthly realm, to tell myself the truth, to tear this mask of pretense off. In this, I believe I am not alone. I am struggling daily to confront my own humanity, to be intently present for myself as I listen deeply. I am discovering as I listen, it has the unintended consequence of changing my entire view of life around me. Allowing this pain sensitizes me the humanity of others in a larger way. Labels about how I believe someone might be are falling away, and I am beginning to see an integrity in the basic goodness of life, no matter the outward appearance.
Concurrently, what comes is the knowledge of where I’ve failed to live up to my own commitments to others, where I’ve lied in order to gain something for myself, and in so doing, deeply hurt someone else; where I’ve failed to say what I mean and instead what I thought someone wanted to hear, the many occasions where my motives have been less than pure, where harm was done to another soul. It hurts to look at the many parts my actor self has played, and to take responsibility for where I have failed the test of my own humanity. It crashes in with a loud thud, and I am grieving also for what I have done at the same time I am feeling relief, a proverbial lightness of being.
Still and always, there are respites that come guaranteed, bring the necessary energy to go on, to see it from above, then the wheel turns instinctually to face me with what needs attending in my life.
My soul that needs its time in mourning, its difficult times of transitioning, the realization of what’s been lost or what was done. And I am tempted to run. Still I can count on my steadfast life of reckoning in the fated events and happenings that show up. It then becomes up to me to find the beautiful truth of what needs grieving? Or what needs loving? What needs amends?
As with everything in this life, this life of mine requires its struggling, it maturing and I am grappling with my relationship to it and my place in the world. Things take time to grow and mature on the vine as in me, to be fully what they are intended to become.
I am learning a certain approbation of the requisite pain, the obligatory difficult work of grieving what’s done. There is a fundamental understanding I cannot summon to myself everything at once. What is trying to be born requires turning over the soil again and again. Like biting into a sour green apple before its time, impatience would have us spit it out, leaving a bitter taste upon our tongue. What is vitally important is the struggle, then the acceptance in the rendering down where the most essential self is found, where the truth of the heart is let out. It is in the stripping away of façade, or the relief of laughter, in the unexpected support we receive, in the surrendering again and again that something necessary and bewilderingly beautiful can finally emerge.
Turns out that ruling the world from my bed has not been a total waste of time this last ten days. Sitting like queen, I have been holding court with boxes of Kleenex, cough drops and cups of tea. This was not a role I aspired to, however, and normally I would have resisted and complained at every turn about being ill. Normally, I might have muscled my way past body aches and fatigue out into the world believing I shouldn’t feel like this. However, you can’t believe everything you think. I should feel like this, because I do. It’s my body’s way of ensuring balance and rest—which I didn’t consciously know I needed—but I will defer to my body’s wisdom on this one.
It’s been interesting to watch myself lie here without complaint, to observe life racing madly around me and not feel compelled to enter into the skirmish of getting it all done. This week, I have declared a truce with myself. I’m going to just lie here and be okay with it even while dishes and dust and paperwork pile up.
In my long hours of solitary idleness, I can’t muster the energy to even disagree with anyone. I have decided that I have will have no opinion as to who is right or who is wrong. I have decided that this week there shall be a truce, a kind of peace inside of me. It’s none of my business what others are doing out there—whose fighting with whom, who is right or who is wrong. I have no talking points, nor do I want to listen to them from anyone else. I’m tired of argument and the scrapping of ideas and ideology. Can’t we all just get along, and could you pass me the box of tissue, please?
It’s not that I don’t care. I care passionately. But I think I care more about the state of my being, the state of your sacred being right now. When I am still long enough, the truth has a chance to present itself before me for what it is, and I have recognized some very inconvenient truths, and as much as I say I am for peace, I also recognize my own hypocrisy in always being an ambassador of peace in what I think and do. So okay, I admit it. Yes, I am a hypocrite. My outward actions don’t always align with my more zen like thoughts or vice-versa. Yet I am going to be okay with that. I am going to lie here and know how terribly blind-spotted I can be because I know I am really okay in the greater scheme of things. So no, I don’t want to run with the pack anymore of who is right or who is wrong. No more name calling, denigrating, demeaning, reducing the other into some concept or label so that I can further dehumanize or categorize them. That includes the dehumanization of my own self for perceived mistakes. I am ready to step outside of the “group speak” when it comes to another individual or group.
I am not a concept or a label and I don’t want to put anyone else into that category where they become my enemy. Our primitive minds have been conditioned for this. We haven’t been around all that long in the history of the planet. In fact, you could kind of say, we just got here. We’re still learning. So it is natural—we had a need to stay aware of what surrounded us at all time in order to stay alive, to consider who was friend and who was foe. Our lives depended upon it.
These last days have given me further opportunity to look at my unquestioned thoughts and ideologies. I could be anyone, born into any life on the planet that looks different than mine, raised with ideas I consider as inhumane or insane or ignorant. We paint the world with broad strokes of disapprobation, the lenses through which we see one another like fun house mirrors. We decide in an instant who is worthy of life and who isn’t just because that’s the way it is or has always been in our tribal consensus. Yet there is no idea or act too strange or evil or charitable at any point on the continuum that I also do not carry within myself. Given different circumstances or in another lifetime, I might have very well committed the same act, envisioned the same deed for good or for evil, and indeed, carry the very seeds of Hitler and Mother Theresa within me.
I want to notice when I censor myself in order to be seen as loyal to the group to which I belong. Where have I believed something because my tribe believes it so without first examining that belief and where it came from? To accept carte blanche what informs my life without first having an honest conversation with it is dishonest. There are many things I don’t know but have accepted at face value because it sounds good or feels good, and heaven knows I want you to approve of me. Yet it only takes a minority or handful of people to be a mighty force for good when they begin to set aside their own selfish interests for the greater good of all by questioning their thoughts. In Mark Matousek’s book, Ethical Wisdom—The Search for a Moral Life”, he writes the following:
The good news about us versus them is that stereotyping can be reversed. A recent study of prejudice revealed that mutual trust can catch on and spread between different racial groups just as quickly as suspicion. Through something known as the “extended-contact effect,” which travels like a benign virus through opposing groups, “conscious as well as unconscious bias between people of different races can change in a matter of hours,” according to psychology researchers at the University of Massachusetts. Peaceful exposure to “the other” seems to be key.
And I would add this would also apply to any other group of people with which we find ourselves at odds because of their race, political persuasion, ideology, religious belief or sexual orientation.
This benign virus of which they speak, I want to be a carrier of it.
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm any hostility.”