Once upon a time oh so very long ago…I didn’t know…
I stumbled across this faded photo again tonight. A boyfriend and dear friend of so many years and I in front of the fireplace. I didn’t know then how time would pass so fast. There was so much life in front of me. I didn’t know how we would lose one another while we were busy making other plans. How years of illness or homelessness or death and marriages and so many other things would descend upon one or the other of us. I didn’t know how you can lose touch with someone you swore you could never lose.
These days, however, my intuition is stronger than ever. I’m learning the wisdom in living life with a heart that is willing to open to loss or joy or confusion. I’m learning that life with an open heart requires much wisdom. Wisdom–a bit of hardwon gain in exchange for oh so many losses. In that, I’m lucky. Wisdom is partly listening to intuition, that still small voice that says, go here, turn there, you’re okay. Wisdom is also partly resilience, learning how to bounce back from tragedy, how it’s okay to grieve or cry, how to let go of what fails to serve our life or the greater good any longer.
Too many people refuse the necessary changes that get you to wisdom. Wisdom requires boundaries in this world. Boundaries that are necessary for protection of your beautiful heart, for letting go of suffering, for not allowing the entire world, or even a smidgeon of it to take your heart hostage. Your heart is your own. You get to choose whom you share it with, whom and what you open it to. You must treat it well.
Change is inevitable. We are designed for it. We are not meant to hold on to anything too tightly, for in the tightness of our grip, we create suffering.
To be sure, life has a funny way of landing you in the most unexpected places. You never know where that might be or what will happen along the way. but I’m learning to live the questions, as poet Ranier Maria Rilke said to his young protégé. And as in all things, life is an inside job.
I believe it is ours to come into this life to learn how to lessen not only our own suffering but then the suffering of others, as well. Kindness helps, starting with you. But it can take many years to learn that. You are very fortunate, indeed, if you have discovered it and become infinitely and patiently kind with yourself while you learn the special kind of braille that is required to navigate your way through the darkness: Indeed, it is the first step towards living a few answers.
Uncertainty is hope when you don’t know the outcome.
Photo by S. Wolfington
By now, I’ve gotten used to an array of recent diagnoses I’ve been on the receiving end of…reminders of my mortality, some having the potential to shorten a life. In the beginning, admittedly, it throws you off balance. And after a time, life then becomes a new normal where adjustments have been made, answers are being sought. You learn to manage your new normal—or a new version of the old.
Apart from the most trusted of confidantes and after the first period of mourning and shock of news, whatever it might be, you learn to keep the bad days to yourself and share the good ones by putting on your dancing shoes, getting out to catch up with life and friends.
You’ve come to recognize your survivor-hood by now.
And when someone asks, you work to keep your answers brief and hopeful. You recognize quickly the glazed eyes, the subject changed. Vulnerability can feel awkward.
Yet you know in the end analysis, everything is alright.
Yesterday I ran into a somewhat new acquaintance who upon seeing me, recognized and embraced me immediately. Embarrassed because I was having problems remembering our exact meeting and conversation, I played along. So much has happened since then. Before we parted, she made sure to take the time to let me know the takeaway of our first meeting while she cried in front of me, how she had walked away feeling so much hope. Unbeknownst to me, I had apparently conveyed knowing that no matter what calamity befell me, I was always certain I would be okay (after a period of adjustment). Nothing was the end of the earth, not in death or life. And that gave her hope right up to moment we bumped into one another yesterday.
It’s interesting, while just being who we are, what we never suspect what people will take away in their meetings with us we’re not aware of. I wonder who of us asks ourselves if our presence is an ordeal to bear or a welcoming breath of fresh air.
My hope for each one of us in the darkness to always keep the vulnerability welcome light on. However it looks, there is a way home.
Something I wrote a few years back. This life all around me faithful to provide carefully positioned sentinels that stand at the gate against any misery that would seek to make a permanent address inside me–a reminder of where my true north lies, a pointer home saying “This way to your heart”.
Driving down the street the other day,
I detected that fall had had her way—
and under freshly shorn trees were luminous
yellow-gold pools where sunshine had accumulated
—a riotous cornucopia of puddled sunshine in
brief reprieve between darkening days,
like some kind of joy
suddenly rising up to greet me in the dying leaves.
It left me happy for days.
My life has it dying seasons, as well.
Yet the art of dying often leaves me wanting,
absent without poise or polish.
futile attempts made at scooping up decay
of that which needs to die, staring, bare
limbed, at loss, shivering in the wind.
If there is joy-filled reprieve, I often fail to notice it.
This letting go business—I’m not as graceful
as the golden dying leaves.
But what I’m counting on is that spring
always comes and old attitudes, beliefs and judgments
The beautiful wild calls to me more and more. Days and years pass, and I am moving closer to death now that I am in the last third of my life. Being here now, I feel done with so much focusing on the logical minutia of my days. It’s easier than when I was thirty or forty in a way. This minutia feels stale as I move towards lightening the agendas others have for me, the ones I have of myself, the tyranny of the urgent cracking its whip over me to move faster, work harder, accomplish more. I am ready to become a human being now rather than a human doing. My commodity is not valued in how much I can accomplish but in realizing my mystery, to be tenderly compassionate towards all that I have deemed as less than perfect within and around me.
This is what makes perfect sense to me now, the alchemical weaving and blending of logos and mythos together into a substance that becomes far more valuable than either alone. Gold, if you will. I have spent the better part of a lifetime mostly doing one or the other, furiously scurrying around to accomplish whatever long to-do list I had in order to be able to live in the mystery. As if I had to earn the right to lie on my back in the grass and gaze at shape shifting clouds or put my pen to the page when the first lines of a poem slipped in to my awareness or try my hand at putting some color on the canvass—or merely to take a much needed nap.
What makes sense now is living on purpose, living with awareness of all that I am doing in each moment, of acceptance wherever I might find myself. Washing dishes turns into an act of grace as I feel the warm water running over my hands, handle each fork and cup, happy there are dishes to wash, food to prepare, food at the end of my arm anytime I want it, blessing the earth and each hand that went into its growth and preparation; or paying bills, feeling the abundance of the universe, that I have been graced with a roof over my head, a place to lay my tired body at night.
I am grateful I have what I need when I need it even if it is not always exactly what I think I want.
Today I was counting the last of my former life, the years I have spent in caretaking. I believed it mine to shoulder the atlas as I cared for seriously ill friends and family, along with a serious illness of my own. Counting too many years in the business of living and dying, emergencies, and crisis and drama in the physical, mental and emotional arenas—I am just done.
Now I feel ready to count the stars in the midnight sky, to watch the sailing ships of clouds passing by. I am ready to take long walks, write books, and rise up and up into my one beautiful life before dissolving back down into the primordial soup from which I came.
Yet even in the sad and the bad, the worry, the hurry that has consumed my days, I am utterly grateful. These are gifts of pain I have been graced with. Deep within me lies a dark underworld from which arises a priceless seam of gold, a transmutation of the pain and fear into a precious metal. I couldn’t have fully understood this until more recently. I am multi-dimensional, of the stars and of the earth. In this suit of flesh and bone, lives a being descended from the stars, from the source of life itself. I am meant while I am here to dwell in both myth and logic, to learn equally about both, to learn to weave them into a beautiful tapestry. Everything is purposed in my life to propel me towards the realization of this wisdom…to be heavenly minded while tending to life, to mend that which is broken with my compassion, to seek forgiveness, to forgive, to be a place holder for love, to be in a possession of a heart that has been broken wide open, to become fertile ground where life can grow.
I have not entirely mastered these things yet. It’s okay. It is not mine to completely master. Better to accept my own humanity, my fragility, my missing the mark so many times. This is true wisdom to know there is perfection in failure and fragility. It is part of the dying process, the cycle of life. Everything has to eventually die so that something else can live. At every moment, ten thousand things are dissolving at the same time ten thousand things are arising, taking their turn at form, at life, deciding what they will be, just for the joy and the experience of being in any particular state. For are we not each and every one and everything nuances of the one life that runs through us all, here to learn about life, ourselves, each other?
Grace is continually born out of pain, life arising out of death. Our pain becomes another’s grace as we reach out to touch and comfort. We can do this because we’ve been there, walked through the same fire of suffering. Lives and hearts are made whole from shards of anguish and heartache. Love grows. We’re not alone.
Last year my sister and I took a long anticipated trip to Cabo San Lucas. Landing at the airport in San Jose at the southern tip of the Baja California peninsula, we rented a car, anticipating a happy drive to our resort. I brought my trusted electronic GPS with me in order to navigate our way there.
Zigging when we should have zagged at a fork in the road, we became horribly lost along the way. The GPS wasn’t any help at all as we found ourselves out in the middle of the Baja desert staring at nothing but cactus, sand and sun. The red car icon on the screen showed us going round in circles in one spot while the female voice instructed us to “turn right at the next alleyway.” What? What alleyway? Where? (We’re still laughing over that one!)
We ran out of road at a half finished freeway end zone that dropped off into nowhere, wild eyed and asking directions in English from workmen who knew only Spanish, who then pointed us down a dirt embankment into a dusty, dry flood zone.We were incredulous. But then more incredulously, we drove down that embankment because we didn’t know what else to do, soft pillows of red dust kicking up everywhere as the back end of the rented sedan wildly fishtailed about, not misconstruing the overheard Spanish “loca” (crazy) as we drove off.
At a loss to know how, the flood zone got us there—eventually. Eventually, and as we later learned, the GPS had righted itself taking us on what we thought was a wild goose chase while we zigged and zagged between crumbling adobe houses, abandoned construction, and third world city boulevards, and children in the streets while we pretended we knew where the hell we were. Then suddenly, there we were—right in front of the resort, where after checking into our rooms with much too much luggage and exhaustion—sand, sea and salt rimmed Margaritas beckoned with relief.
It’s been a wild ride these last months that have left many of us attempting to turn right at the next alleyway in the middle of foreign deserts, our psyches and emotions left going round in circles. Personally, I’ve run the gamut of inhospitable feelings and disbelief. I’m exhausted. Isn’t there a Margarita somewhere on an island resort waiting around the next corner?
And frankly, the pile of unfolded laundry on my bed isn’t going to fold itself. The piles of paperwork aren’t going anywhere until I attend to what needs attending. There are impending deadlines to meet while I stare off into space or sleep late trying to insulate myself from pain, while my fear or guilt tell me to do something now—anything, no matter what it is.
This is often how trauma impacts us at first.
We are a traumatized nation at war with itself while the whole world watches in horror. And I often feel like the first world I knew is heading into some surreal third world landscape I don’t recognize anymore.
Then I realize that in order for something to live or be born, it is often true that something has to die. Death and birth is the natural order of life. And when what fails to work anymore, life will find another way. Chaos and order coexisting all at once. One way dying while another is being born. Yada, yada—I could write a whole chapter on that one subject. It’s painful. People suffer, even die. You know. Our egos and ideologies threatened, our existence, too. None of it is personal, but it sure feels like it.
Presently and at the same time everything is going on, I’m actively resisting the notion to intellectualize myself into a nihilistic state of stupor, or numb myself in other vice. I’m fighting to stay awake. I don’t want to miss my life or fail to connect to the suffering or joy of another.
Where true value lies is remembering to consciously breathe, meditate, pray and listen, take time out of each day in order to decipher or intuit what is yours to do, your personalized marching instructions, your “true north”, as they say.
I know that as humans we react to trauma in the most human of ways. We must grieve, allow ourselves to experience its stages in order to heal. Life must wait. It isn’t helpful to hear others tell us to calm down—which can feel for us like a manipulative tactic to alleviate the discomfort of another who is not yet grappling with their own pain.
After all we are humans, not machines.
Against a backdrop of black landscape out there, there is a still a wide vista of blue sky inside myself. In the spaces in between I choose to create, be it a minute or an hour or more, in between the crazy, the chaotic, the confusing, is where our internal guidance lives. Learning to lean in and listen is what saves us from the clamoring voices that demand we do this or go there or be quiet. Not always that we receive clarification in the exact moment of quiet breathing or prayerful listening, but that the stage is set for direction to come, often in the most unexpected ways. We learn resilience here, how to bend in hard winds. Directional leading tells us what is ours to do and what is not. Like the Wheel of Fortune in the Tarot, it is in the hub of that wheel that shelters, knowing that all is okay no matter how harsh the storm, or who might be coming at you with fear in their eyes.
I know. Easier said than done. But it’s a conscious practice. I still fall out of practice though even after practice over many years. Why do I do that? It’s the human part of me.
I’m learning it’s okay to fall, even as a nation. Failure strips the veneer off. It’s the great revealer of what’s been hidden. Healing cannot come until you uncover the hidden that has been having its way with your life or your nation planet. It’s the beginning of the end to what hasn’t been working. This could take a while though while that which has been hidden fights hard for its existence or way of life.
My GPS always knows right where I’m at, at any given moment even when I am feeling wildly off course, flailing about or melting down into a puddle of emotion. I always trust I will, however, settle down. My own true north always knows where I’m at, always comes for me to lead me back. It is always talking to me even when I’m not listening. It could say, sit still, rest, prepare, learn, take care of yourself, eat right, move now—fast, go, stop, you will be okay, you are okay, talk to someone, talk to and help the person next to you, remember what and who blesses you, write that letter, make that phone call, here’s who to see or where to go, write that book or poem—here’s the first sentence, run fast, don’t worry, trust, sleep, be careful, watch out, see the doctor, don’t go out, stay in, it’s okay, love yourself, you’ll learn, find grace in your fall, you haven’t failed.
It is intimately connected with every moment of your life. Helps you to open your heart to the world, feel the magic of and get inside of your body, identify with the suffering of another, disengage with suffering that doesn’t belong to you without losing your compassion. It’s all there. Everything you need as a guide to your life is inside of you, guides you to the next step, the next thing to do. May not give you the second step until you have completed the first. It has kept you alive to this point even if you’ve failed to see it. You’ve survived until now for something else you’re supposed to do or be or flower into. It’s fierce. It brings clarity of vision you didn’t expect in ways you couldn’t have foreseen. It can save your life, bring you home when the time comes.
Last night, I was reminded in conversation with someone dear to me about making a commitment to myself to listen more to that still small voice that knows. I am making a commitment right now that every day for the next week, I will start my day by listening in, by being still, by breathing consciously in and out, by praying for direction, clear hearing and vision. Be it for a minute several times a day or an hour when I awaken, I will listen for my marching orders, for what is mine to do. At the end of the week, I will commit to another and then another. One day at a time.
Today I am not going to rush out into the world in attack mode without hearing what it has to say first. It might only be a quiet hint, a sign, an intonation, but I have learned to recognize that voice through years of practice. It always comes with peace, with expansion of being and not contraction. There is grace in it even if the work is difficult or the suffering around me heart rending.
What is important is to keep my heart open and my ear to the ground. This is how we work for the greater good. This is how we heal in time.
After your mother dies, there are some things that happen that you didn’t see coming.
Something happens. Life begins to reshape itself. The landscape takes on new form. And whatever cords between you in life in what was unhealthy, what bound you to her ways, her beliefs about how life should be or about how your life should be, begin to dissolve.
However, I should qualify that.
You must be committed to change for a more authentic life first, even if you might not know what that looks like.
Change is usually never what you thought it would be. It looks different, feels different than what you originally envisioned. Change can go on and on way past the expiration date you think it should; when you think you’ve had just about enough and can go no more with the direction it’s taking you, loudly announcing to the world you are ready to get off this ship that feels like it’s sinking or bobbing wildly about in every direction.
Still, the bottom line is commitment. Commitment to your own growth. Not everyone chooses this in life. In fact, most don’t. It’s work; and after all, when you think about it, it’s all work—everything, that is. It’s just that some kinds of work—the unhealthy habitual kind, the tranced out states of mind, the escape routes that we so often try to catapult ourselves through, produce far different and negative results than the one that is committed to seeing positive growth in a life riddled with fears.
So first, you have to say YES. Even if you say it with trepidation or hesitation or can only whisper it. Even if you’re scared to say it–if you want your future life to look different than your past, or want to die not as an impostor, but knowing you lived an authentic life, you have to first say yes, and then keep saying yes. Beyond that, you may know nothing, having no idea how to get to that authentic life. Nevertheless, you can be sure you’ve been heard. Life finds the way for you. It will meet you where you are and take you by the hand and lead you out.
And yes, this could take awhile. So you better settle in for the long haul. There will be rest stops along the way where you can sit a spell and catch your breath, trust me.
Both my parents are gone now. As the eldest child, the one that was groomed to take care of everyone else first while being admonished to forget about my own needs or self care, my earliest lessons were in the art of shame and guilt. The religion of my parents and the generations before was a hard taskmaster, and I was an A student.
Shame is a Pandora’s Box whereby one opens the lid and all kinds of awful things fly out. It shows itself in self and other loathing, dishonoring the body, incessant and unhealthy guilt and judgment over almost everything. It relegates the sacredness for all of life to the bottom of the garbage pile. We learn to fear or blame anything that doesn’t look, talk, walk or believe the way we do. We see the world as a mirror reflecting back our own fears about ourselves.
Recently, a dear friend of many years confided in me a conversation she had with her mother, now deceased, shortly before her death. Her mother had told her shortly before her passing, that she, my friend, would finally be free once her mother made her transition. My friend queried her mother as to what she meant, saying that she didn’t want to be free if it meant her mother’s leaving. My friend’s mother who had been very controlling over my friend throughout her life, thought that was what she was referring to. Her mother told her, “I can’t explain it, but you will find out.”
That conversation with my friend was a big aha moment for me. We both agreed there were changes we could never have foreseen in the death of our parents, unanticipated emancipation from previously held fears that were finally allowed to surface. Collective grief long withheld inside our bodies now acknowledged. We were grieving for far more than just our mother’s deaths. And it was huge!
Grief has a way of forcing you to the mat. You can’t hold it at bay forever. It will eventually catch up with you, taking on shape and form you never saw coming. Or maybe you did. The warning signs were there, but you might have ignored them or come up with all kinds of excuses for shutting it down or stuffing it into some hidden corner of your psyche.
Seventeen months after my own mother’s death, my mother’s voice is beginning to fade in my head. It’s not that I don’t intensely miss her and long for her physical presence in my life, it’s just that I no longer have to live up to her expectations of me. Her death opened a door in my life I don’t think I could have gone through before. I collapsed. There had been years of care giving, illness, and the loss of so many others in my life that I held near and dear. I laid in my bed with exhaustion. Slowly, I was for the first time able to listen to the larger world around me in nature, to the inner world inside me full of its own black holes, its own wisdom, its secrets that began to bubble up to the surface in realizations and long held emotions. Up and up, one after the other, I began to take full stock of my life. There was nothing to stop me from doing so.
Of course, this required a commitment on my part first. What else was I going to do if I ever wanted to get out of bed? Allowing all those hidden places to surface and then to face what felt surreal or scary without running away from it, without trying to numb myself out so I wouldn’t have to think or cry or grieve whatever monster was coming out of the closet.
I gave myself permission to grieve, not only for my mother, but for myself, to say that it was okay if I didn’t absolutely feel top of the world every minute; and to even forgive myself on certain days when I failed to love my life, to wish that there were a way to get out of my body. I gave myself permission to say I didn’t feel so okay, that I needed help.
There has been so much healing work that has gone on these last seventeen months, and it has been intense, painful, and full of unexpected grace and recognition marching right along with the desperation and depression and even wanting to, by default, leave my body. I have been through the gamut of emotion, pain and elation.
Now the light of day is beginning to seep through the cracks of my life. We all know the song by Leonard Cohen who sings, “Ring the bells that still can ring, there is a crack in everything—that’s how the lights gets in.” I am ringing the bells in spite of everything and through everything, knowing that something bigger than the humanness of myself holds me, sees me, and intimately knows and loves me as perfect underneath my sacred cracks. I am asking for some signs of blessing and acknowledgment. Am I doing it right? Am I listening for the whispering intuitive voice that lives inside of me? Am I making progress? The answer comes back with a big YES.
I realized that if my tomorrows were to be different, then I would have to be different, be willing to make changes in my life and allow for the changes that naturally find their way to me. I am finally beginning to reap some of the ripened fruit of my hard labor in the sowing I’ve done these past months.
Several weeks ago, I decided to test the waters. In my journey, I have recognized my issues surrounding money, and have asked to find healing for that, as well. I recognize that the Universe is full of abundance, that everything is there for us if we can only learn how to harvest and use it over anxiety of not enough and scarcity. And so with that in mind, I asked for a sample of abundance in my life in order to overcome some of that mentality of lack and fear, put a chisel in the crack so that a little more light can begin to spread itself into the darkness of my fears.
Three days later, I was gifted with a fairly recent edition of a Toyota Corolla, upgraded and in perfect condition, with a couple minor cosmetic flaws easily and quickly remedied. This in comparison to my present and paid off car, as reliable and low mileage as it is, felt unsafe for me as I traveled the slick, wet, icy or snowy roads up here in the Pacific Northwest part of the country.
Relating this experience to another very dear friend who is extremely tuned in, I was informed that a door previously closed in my life, had now been kicked wide open. Now a couple weeks into it, I continue to receive quite unexpected blessings—blessings I never could have anticipated, but come in logical form, falling into my hands. The abundance is flowing. Someone turned the faucet of grace on, and I am now standing knee deep in it.
I don’t think any of this could have come about if not for the death of my mother. Oh, yes, maybe it could have in another life or place, but maybe not in this one. I had to be made ready for it–it was always there waiting in the wings of my life until I was. There was so much re-wiring within me that needed to be done that, for me, could only happen through the everyday tragedies and blessings that muscled their way into my life when I wasn’t looking.
It’s been a long road, and I am far from done yet. Then again, who knows? Life is a big question mark, and you never know what will come around. The thing that insinuates itself into your life in misfortune or grace can ultimately be the very thing that brings your wildest dreams to you. Stay with it—it could be better and worse than you ever imagined.
Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” ~~Lao Tzu
I am over it–I’m throwing out my “Goo-B-Gone” in exchange for authenticity, giving up the sanitized version of myself for a more authentic me. Me with all my messiness, my pain and my outrageous laughter.
This is not to say I don’t still sometimes dig through the trash for that stuff in a moment of panicked meltdown. But the general theme of showing up as myself is having its way against my compulsive need to look strong for everyone. I am finding freedom in asking for help, in admitting my vulnerability.
It’s heady stuff, exhilarating when you finally begin to let the truth of yourself out.
It’s taken me awhile to get here after much grief and loss, and I’m not about to throw away all this hard work in order to look good for a lot of people that don’t really care because they are too busy worrying about how good they smell or how well they clean up.
I have given up my dreams of reaching total enlightenment or perfection in this lifetime and have decided to go out and live. If I have to fall down, that’s okay—let my life be worse or better than I could ever have imagined.
I’ve spent too many years believing certain things are fixed or healed and put away for good. These are just silly notions I’ve entertained. I have come to realize that I am at my best when I am broken wide open to both myself and others; and that because of the brokenness, there are far vista-ed rooms that wait for me, things within them I could never have conceived of on my own. It’s not that I go out looking for it. It has a way of finding me when I’m least expecting it. Wait long enough, it will come around. Life can be really surprising on both ends of the spectrum.
What I have often thought of as healed or finished so often returns for another day of reckoning, another layer of awareness in order to enter into wholeness, to make you ready for certain gifts that are waiting in the wings to enter your life.
I know my perception of how things are is limited by my stoicism, my blind faith, my rigidity, the wounds that live inside me. It is only by becoming soft inside, by allowing life to do its best work on me, and my eventual surrender to the whole beautiful world living inside my beingness that I am given the password to enter the sacred expanse of rooms or realms beyond anything I knew existed. Openness is where the sweetest of grace sweeps in. Brokenness is where it can find me, where I tumble down to my knees in gratitude for this one moment of pure release, knowing I am seen.
Pain is often the chisel that cracks the heart open when I have refused to surrender.
And it’s okay that it might take a while to learn this. I am learning to be tender with myself.
I am done with trying to sanitize and rationalize my life away.
Life doesn’t work like this on a more organic level. It will always find a way to come to you in order to crack your most carefully crafted exterior wide open. We are not as together as we would like others to believe.
Sometimes you just have to fall apart in order to come together. That toughened exterior has to crack wide open–the one that always wants to tell the world how fine you are, the one you hide behind with your doubts and fears and wounds.
There are some wounds that are buried deep, and like a splinter, take their own sweet time to surface. Sometimes the abyss looms large and we fall in.
On the way down, open your eyes and look around. Don’t fall asleep. Don’t judge yourself in the falling. Life is having its way with you, hoping you will surrender your heart to it—that you will find a way to say yes.
Life and the ability to laugh will cycle around again.
Life has a rhythm to it like the natural inhalation and exhalation of breathing, like the tides going in and out. No less your very own life, too. Expansion and contraction, contraction and expansion. There is no getting around it.
There are times you are required to give out and then just as naturally, simplify your life or days enough in order to take in the necessary nurture and nutrition your depleted body and soul requires. You cannot serve from an empty vessel. If you habituate yourself to serving from that place or believing there is no other way, life will come in the backdoor to simplify it for you. It will make a way where you thought there was none.
Recently, I let the windshield washer tank in my car run dry. I discovered this one day when I went to turn it on, and the only thing that came out was disgusting brown ooze all over my windshield. It’s kind of like this when we let our tanks run dry without taking the time to fill them back up.
In my years, I am coming to recognize that I always have enough. It might not appear to be so, I still too often hit the panic button; but it starts with the knowing that I am enough in whatever comes along. It is my perceived inner lack that I project out into the world and then draw back to myself.
Knowing this requires a daily commitment first to show up for myself, even if in the smallest of ways, such as consciously and simply inhaling and exhaling first before taking action or deciding what to say when things fall apart. And maybe that is all you can do in the moment. You might have to keep breathing, on purpose and with awareness.
No matter how we perceive it, we don’t know the end of the story yet. It could be better or worse than you ever imagined and then circle back around again. And remember that at the end of every story, a new one begins, whether that story ends by death or circumstance.
Put away the veneer and shellac, and begin to peer into the holes of your life with new eyes–there are stars in there!
If I were to get a tattoo on my arm to remind me in every minute when things fall apart, here’s what it would say: Everything Is Okay.
As I enter the last third of my time here on earth, looking back over my life, I find that some things never change as much I might have believed they did. I am still starting over again as I’ve done many times before. It’s all about “beginner’s mind”. I won’t officially arrive until I graduate from this life. Until then I am still learning–and in fact, learning many things are not to be taken as seriously as I once thought, that laughter counts for a lot and kindness starts with me.
I love these exerpts by spiritual teacher and author of Life With A Hole In It, A Guru in the Guest Room, Vicki Woodyard :
“….Here’s the deal. No one reaches full potential until they die. Not only that, no one appreciates them until they do. I am speaking of both literal and psychological death. ‘The price of kissing is your life.’ …….
Things come and go. People come and go. You’ll leave and probably forget your hat. If you do, that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with you. It just means you forgot your hat. See, that’s the thing about death. You can’t come back for your hat.”
WHAT I REMEMBER IS JAYNE. Jayne Mansfield, that is—the bursting at the seams, large bosomed, blonde bombshell and sexpot of the 60’s. The Hollywood star with the heart shaped pool in her backyard lived a large life in my mind. I wanted to be her. I was nine or ten playing house in my bedroom—as Jayne Mansfield, of course, stepping into the cool darkness of my closet to make out with an imaginary, muscle ripped Mickey Hargitay, while my girlfriends, all the while sighing and moaning, languished on my bed waiting for me to come to my senses and come out of the closet.
Then one day she was beheaded. I was devastated. Riding in the front seat of her car, slamming into and under the backside of a semi-truck, and…off went her head—I imagine right into the back seat! Just like that.
I imagine that she believed she still had a lot more making out with Mickey left to do, but as you know in all things, they end. Time runs out, and all you’ve ever done is all you’re ever going to do. And besides all that, I had already grown tired of making out with Mickey and was feeling the intensity of my puberty bearing down on me in the crush of feelings I had towards the boy down the street.
So much innocence left behind as the crush of life began to have its way with me. I almost succumbed to it more times than I care to say. Lucky for me, I made it this far into my sixties. Surprised to be here now, I was sure I would die before I was fifty. My entire adult life was white hot with extreme busyness and caretaking, and then total collapse—all of which I believed to be a badge of honor I wore proudly.
While at lunch the other day, my friend, Mystic Meena (whose odometer is getting ready to roll over to seventy), happened to remark on a sixty-seven year old actor that had passed away recently. Meena related how television pundits had observed after his passing that at least he had lived a long, full life—to which my friend exclaimed, “Bullshit!” When I was thirty, sixty-seven was definitely old—and death not so unexpected—that is, of course, unless you are sixty-seven. Unless you are ready for it, the pronouncement of death always comes as a surprise at any age. I don’t feel done yet.
Here I am, and the sun is beginning to dip in the sky. There isn’t a whole life left in front of me as I have a series of “holy shit” realizations that I’ve got to begin now if I want to find and use my real voice. My dreams are still the same. It’s just that I have a little less physical energy to realize them with. Maybe the point of the body sliding past the apex of youth is this: it compels you towards your realness. I don’t know for certain. It’s just a hunch I have.
Now that the leaves are beginning to turn into blazing yellows and crimson reds and oranges, into their most flagrant and final stand for beauty, I am wondering how I didn’t see there could be so much splendor in moving towards that inevitable final breath of falling from the tree. What a metaphor to our lives—the grace-filled allowing, the gentle welcoming of age, the coming home to ourselves, finally. Perhaps, the leaning into our wisdom years, of spreading our brightly colored canopy over the lives of those coming up after us as way-showers is what really matters. Personally, I don’t want to waste it, not a single drop, not a single brilliant colored leaf of it between now and the time whatever pronouncements over my impending demise are made.
I am heading towards my glory years; and it going to take some careful planning and execution as I begin to re imagine myself, playing smarter, not harder. There is still time enough whether it be one year or forty years. I cannot take my body for granted anymore. I cannot ignore and punish it. As long as I am able, there is a strict requirement for honor and listening, then supplying it with the necessary rest, nutrition and nurturance it requires. In this one moment I have been gifted. It almost didn’t happen.
Whatever has happened in my life has brought me full circle. I am lucky to get the chance to have a “do over” in the last act of my life, playing the part of me rather than someone else. My fear, in whatever time is left, is leaving this life realizing I never had the courage to live an authentic life.
Admittedly, I am scared. It’s a moment by moment thing requiring a firm commitment. Holes must be plugged in order to enter into right relationship with myself. Gone is the bent towards extremism in my thoughts and actions, doing everything at once or nothing at all. It is not mine to single-handedly save the world.
If I want to live out the richness and the depth of all that has brought me here, I must practice sacredness and gratitude in the gentle or not so gentle breath of each day, in allowing, in letting go, in lightening up, and in laughter, and last but not least, in the flow of words that find their way from my heart to my fingertips. I am rising up and up into this voice that has been given me, flowering quietly or noisily, vibrantly and brilliantly. I am practicing freedom, using the only voice I have to set this prisoner free.
I am going through a dark night of the soul. Yet today, upon awakening, I slipped outside on to my porch with my morning coffee, sat and listened. Even the gray-skied Oregon shroud and the blur of cars racing by couldn’t keep the praise of the new day from winging through the trees in song.
Today—what a profound relief—a few inwardly quiet healing moments spent where gratitude could find me. When I arose from the chair, it was with much delight that I could feel the welcoming of it all no matter what or whom is showing up.
The Hebrew term for gratitude is hakarat hatov, which means, literally, “recognizing the good.” Practicing gratitude means recognizing the good that is already yours, because, as my dear friend, Mystic Meena, says, “When gratitude is your only prayer, all begging ceases.”
Nevertheless, I am, this year, recognizing where in my life I have played the part of beggar. More than any other year, it has come to me this year that begging has no place in my life anymore. There are so many ways I could describe how it has manifested in my life.
I hesitate to share, but for the purposes of this blog, I will be brief. I know I am not alone. Many of us share similar stories—a lifetime’s worth, but more recently for me in my 40’s and 50’s (now in my early 60’s), I went through a difficult and abusive marriage and divorce, which was followed by a decade of illness interspersed with multiple major and/or near death surgeries; an immediate family member with severe bipolar disorder I took responsibility for, and thankfully,they are holding their own now. Subsequently, however, my mother dropped into my life fulltime with Alzheimer’s Disease. It fell to me to care of her for six years until she passed exactly one year ago today. There was a period in between my mother’s illness and death of insane traveling combined with the end of a challenging relationship. And it almost feels like too much to even mention, but in the last thirteen months, I have experienced seventeen other deaths both near and far to or from me. It’s more than I can process in one fell swoop.
No wonder I am outright physically and emotionally exhausted—part life happening because it does and part believing incorrectly about where answers laid.
Trauma hides in our organs and brain and skin and shows itself in some interesting ways, comes back to us as fate in illness or loss or poor choices with unfortunate consequences. Three weeks ago, I ended up in the hospital with crushing chest pain.
My overdoing, my attempts to save everyone but me have become my undoing—and thank god! I’m taking the year off. No one to care-give but me; no volunteering; no wounded bird projects. My mother is gone along with so many others. I love her dearly, miss her terribly, but I am free now to play catch-up with me.
Cumulative grief, my hospice grief counselor of the last few years calls it. I have lost body parts due to profound and overwhelming cumulative grief…grief of which I managed to push back down into my body out of guilt or shame or whatever other false notion I had about my life and how I needed to show up in it. My mantra has too often been “I’m fine, I’m fine”, when in fact I was not fine.
I have decided to out myself. I’m working on allowing what needs to surface for healing, surface. My agreement with myself is there will be no tolerance for guilt or shame in myself or through the well-meaning words of friends. What’s done is done. I take full responsibility, give myself complete grace. I’m allowing the imperfection of my life or my choices or what befell me to bleed through, to give in to crying or laughter or sleep. I am holding to the idea of giving up my quest for perfection in exchange for a more imperfect authentic self. There is work to do.
Grief can be an exquisitely painful, surgically exacting knife that reduces one down to their more essential self. It has a way of stripping away the superfluous, the pretentious, and the inauthentic. No less true in my life, I am greatly paring down to what heals, what brings balance and wholeness, or what feels restorative in the most inward parts of me, even as painful memories trigger tears or the sudden wash of anger at current injustices having nothing to do with me. I have allowed so much in order to be liked or loved.
These last months, there is a pull between living and dying. Every moment I am acutely aware as I feel caught in its tautly roped tension between “what’s the use?” and the desire to push through and forward towards my long held dreams and goals—dreams that have dogged my days since I was five years old. I still want what I’ve always wanted: to feel the length and depth and breadth of my days, to feel wholly alive. Most certainly, I’ve had my moments. Profound, they burn inside me. I want to live free from the inside out, maybe for the first time in my life.
There are days I often fail to make a lot of sense to even myself—those days when pulling myself out of bed seems like an insurmountable task, or my legs refuse to carry me. Then there are other days when grace shows up unexpectedly as a beautiful reminder that life is still good no matter what, and I am brought to my knees in gratitude just because.
My most important job right now is me. I am working on my vulnerability, my transparency. I am making the decision, however challenging, to give voice to my secrets, to honor my emotions and my body, who both show up as messengers of what needs more loving in me. Sometimes I don’t feel so okay, yet I am determined to walk this path, ultimately give up my beggar-hood for the deepest practice of gratitude. I have a feeling this may be the most important work of my life yet.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!”
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.