In grief, an open space for grace

I disappeared eight months ago. From life, from friends, from Facebook.

It was intentional. I’ve needed — and still need — a container with hard boundaries of space and time to protect me and process what happened, what’s still happening.

This time away feels like what writer Anne Lamott describes as grace:

“Grace can look like exhaustion.”

I’ve been exhausted. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Anne was right. Exhaustion has opened a flood of grace in me, humbled me so that I’ve had nowhere else to go but on my knees – literally and in an interior posture of humility to the Divine.

So what’s been happening in my life?

If you’ve followed my blog, you know my dad had a stroke almost six years ago. I’ve been one of his caregivers and it’s been an arduous but loving journey.

Someday I know I’ll look back and wish I could do it again despite the hardships, see dad again, hear his voice again. But dad is in hospice now. I don’t know how long. I just know my heart breaks to see this once vital man shrinking in body size, sleeping more and more, unable to speak.

Then Joe died in April. He was my partner, companion and dear love of 14 years. While I’ve been preparing these past years for dad’s death, I wasn’t prepared for Joe to die. He blindsided me when he left the planet in an instant without so much as a goodbye.

The issues post-Joe have been many and burdensome – clearing out the house of years of accumulated stuff and the sorrow of sifting through his life, hiring contractors to get the house to market, his finances, taxes, estate stuff. I often felt like Sisyphus.

All of this is not meant to sound like a litany of complaints. I write and chronicle what happens in my life in the hope it touches a space somewhere in your soul that is much like mine — in our collective soul.

I’m a messenger, that’s it, and a poor one at that, one who often can’t remember what day it is, who is stumbling through life and despite wishing wisdom in my old age still ponders life, death, purpose. You know. The nagging questions.

And then there’s the abyss of grief.

Author and retreat leader Mirabai Starr, whose 14-year-old daughter died in a car crash writes:

“… I discovered that there was nowhere to hide when radical sorrow unraveled the fabric of my life. I could rage against the terrible unknown—and I did, for I am human and have this vulnerable body, passionate heart, and complicated mind—or I could turn toward the cup, bow to the Cupbearer, and say, ‘Yes.’”

Grief strips us. Exhausts us. But it also opens a space for grace.

So, in the midst of this overwhelming fatigue, grace is teaching me this:

I need to be ever so gentle with myself, with that child within. My warrior-woman has had to fight and claw her way to get everything done these past years with dad’s care and especially these last months in the aftermath of Joe’s death — and I thank her. She was forced to the forefront in ways I never thought possible.

But that Amazon-woman fighter in me wasn’t protecting or listening to the child, the little girl who pleaded:

Rest. Be. Sleep. Breathe.

Like breadcrumbs, I am now placing these pleas for mercy before my days and hours in the hope I find my way back to balance. I don’t know how long that will take. It doesn’t matter.

What does matter is that I honor both the warrior and the child, that both can find a place in my heart while I heal from so much. That I can be gentle and strong. Live out loud and in silence. That I can be in doubt and faith at the same time.

I’m allowing myself an openness to receive self-love and love from the Divine.

In my deepest moments of heartache and exhaustion, I’ve crawled onto the lap of the Mother-God and rested my head on her shoulder. She simply rocks me. And I allow myself to be rocked.

At times I think I hear her whisper, “I’m here. I’m here.”

And sometimes, when I’m able, I bow to her and whisper, “Yes.”

 

 

 

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Riding the waves of the moment

The wind buffets and flaps the awning on the front porch of the beach house where I’m staying. Periodic gusts moan around the eaves and rattle windows.

From this window, rain falls, wet swollen drops, weeping from a sad sky. My friend has given me this space to settle into my soul and spirit for as long as I need it. I’d like to stay forever. But I can’t.

I inhale and remind myself to stay in the moment despite what I know is ahead. More medical appointments for dad, for mom, for myself, for my brother. More to-do things on my calendar — trying to sell the house Joe left me, dealing with his estate.

How is it possible Joe has been gone for almost five months?

Three days of non-stop rain forecast while here and I decide to be with whatever evolves. I muster energy and strength to trek to the boardwalk. Rain pummels me, so much so that I’m drenched through my clothing to my underwear.

Enormous gusts of wind push my body backwards, pick up my umbrella, threatening to turn it inside out, much as my life has been.

I finally see the ocean. At a distance, surfers are in their black wet suits, peppering the breakers and bobbing in the water like buoys. The waves are angry and thrashing, like I’ve been, relentless in their force and height. The surfers sit there, surfboards at the ready, waiting, patient, unlike me.

Then, spying what they feel is the right moment, they stand and allow themselves to be baptized into flight and freedom, riding with balance along a churning curl of white.

They are not afraid. They are in the moment.

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The weather has deterred vacationers this weekend. The usual haunts are open – the arcade and merry-go-round, the burger and pizza joints, the owners staring wistfully into the rainy, empty boardwalk hoping for customers.

Before I came here, my bereavement counselor advised me to allow myself whatever my body needs. Whatever my little girl needs.

She wants a soft ice cream cone. I struggle with my umbrella to the counter where two girls stand, idly. I grapple with the cone as I head back out into the deluge, ice cream dribbling down my chin and rain staining my face and jacket, as I lick the cone with abandon.

A few stragglers like myself are braving the storm. Each has a story, as I do. I want to scream into the muddled skies that I’m tired of the storm and the hard, of caring for dad for five years, of Joe’s death, of so many other challenges no one will ever know about. I have been functioning on empty for too long. I’m depleted.

I finish the ice cream, thinking of Joe. How many things he wanted to do but didn’t. Spring training for the Phillies. Mount Rushmore. How his life stopped as if mid-sentence, without a period. Clothes in the washing machine, his sweater that he must have peeled off, crumpled on the couch. His to-do list sitting on the coffee table.

*******

I come back inside, throw my wet clothing into the dryer, and snuggle under a blanket. The house offers me a cozy warmth and comfort, cocooning me in silence and safety. I’m allowing myself to nap, to feel whatever I need to feel. At moments, I feel I’m like the rain, drowning in ceaseless sadness. Other times, I feel as if I’m a cardboard figure moving in a cardboard world. Sometimes I scream at Joe for leaving me and then, I remember his lopsided grin and my heart melts.

Yes, death is behind me, but it is also ahead. It will have its way with me and those I love no matter how much I bargain and plead. I will feel loss and pain. I will cry. And as much as I feel I have a strong spirituality and faith in a Higher Power, I must accept that we are here for a brief time and what I make of that time – how well I love or offer my gifts to the world – is of importance.

I don’t know how well I’m doing any of that. I don’t want to overthink it. I’m good at allowing my mind to roam, to dwell on possible not-so-nice scenarios of the future.

I want to stay in the moment, with these words, with the wind, the rain, under this blanket of belief that I am loved by a Divine power, that I am not alone.

I want to be the little girl, delighting in being soaked to the skin and savoring an ice cream cone in the rain. I want to be a surfer, riding the waves.

 

Finding my way without Joe

I haven’t been writing my blog since my dear Joe died on April 20. I will be writing more – about life and the spirit – but not right away. I’m still grieving. And healing. A deep part of that healing was writing this post.  It’s taking courage to share this, to hit the “publish” button. But I pray in some way these words may be healing for you as well.

*******

I once knew where things were. In my days. In my life. I used to know where Joe was. In his house, waiting for me to visit on weekends or during the week.

Then he died. Without warning. And I lost him. I lost my life.

I can’t seem to find myself. I amble around in my small place, repeating his name. He’s gone. He’s gone. I want to fill that ache, that void – the pervasive grief – with anything to make it go away. But this sorrow is all part of the love I tell myself. I have to feel it all. I don’t want to. I want to be numb.

I loved Joe. We had a unique relationship. A friend once said: “You probably have a better relationship than most marriages.” I don’t know what others have. I only know what we had.

He was my best friend. We knew intimacies about each other that no one else knew – or will ever know. We sat at the dining room table at breakfast or on the phone every evening and talked for hours. About politics. Sports. Religion. Discussed how our childhoods made us who we are.

We lived an hour apart but for 14 years we made it work. Our days were filled with the ordinary stuff of life, grocery shopping, dinners and movies. Many Saturday evenings, I’d read a book on the couch while he did the Inquirer crossword puzzle, both of us settling into the comfortable space of being together.

We traveled — to Newport, RI; to Williamsburg; to Cooperstown; to Stone Harbor, NJ. We went to Phillies games. He loved sports. He was over the moon when his alma mater, Villanova, won the 2018 NCAA basketball championship.

The last time I saw Joe was on his birthday. We almost delayed celebrating because March 29 fell on Holy Thursday. Joe decided we’d have dinner anyway. It would be our last supper as well.

I remember inspirational speaker/author Leo Busgalia’s story about the woman and the red dress. She had wanted a special red dress, hinting to her husband what a beautiful gift it would be, from him to her. He kept putting it off, telling her that some day he’d buy it for her. Some day. Some day. Then she died. And he buried her in the red dress.

I buried Joe in clothing I had to choose. I stood in front of his closet, paralyzed, my heart ripping open. What would he like? How could this be happening? After the funeral, I looked through old photos and saw that on one of our first dinner dates he was wearing the same clothing I chose for his burial. Did some part of my soul know then?

I’m thankful we had dinner on his birthday and didn’t postpone it. After our meal, I couldn’t finish my cheesecake and shoved it across the table to him. He ate it all and asked if he could lick the plate. I said I’d disavow knowing him if he did. He was witty, smart, funny, kind and good. He never believed those things of himself, though. But he was.

I went home that Saturday after his birthday weekend. For 14 years, as I’d drive way, he would stand on the front lawn, waiting, offering a small wave. This time, he didn’t. He looked back, went inside and closed the door.

In hindsight, something felt off. Something felt final when that door shut. Had I truly listened to my intuition, I would have heeded the urge to “go back” one more time. But the feeling didn’t make sense. So I didn’t.

Now, I sit with my grief. I’ve written about grief before but never had I experienced it. Now I write from truth, from a gaping space in my soul that swallows me whole. Grief wants its way with me and I must allow it. To deny it means I never loved.

At the funeral, before the open casket as we said our goodbyes, I placed my hand on his heart and whispered, “I love you. I’ll always love you.”

Friends keep telling me: “I’m sorry for your loss.” What they don’t realize is, it’s not just the loss of the man I loved, but the loss of a life I had. Of my home. Joe was my home. I am homeless.

In the end, life is about losing things. People. Our direction. Our way. Our home. But it’s also about finding. I’m still finding my way into this new space without Joe. It will take time. I want to honor the process of grieving.

And I’m not sure what I’ll find along this path. For now, I’m discovering glimmers of gratitude for friends and family praying for me and supporting me. I’m finding a new appreciation for the present moment, for each breath.

And I’m finding tears. Many.

When I was upset or sad, Joe used to listen with patience, then say, “Go ahead and have yourself a good cry.”

I’m crying now, dear. A good one. And you’d be glad for it.

A brief good-bye

Dear followers and friends of my blog,

I recently lost my love, dear friend and companion and will be stopping my blog for a time as I go through the challenging and harrowing process of grieving and mourning.

Thank you for always being so faithful in stopping by to read my words. I promise to return when I feel I can catch my breath and not feel so overwhelmed by sorrow.

Until then, cherish each other and life. It’s all a gift

With gratitude,

Marielena Zuniga

 

 

Resting in God’s breath

When I was in my 40s many years ago, I worked in a fast-paced, high-stress job. Our corporation sponsored a seminar with focus groups to determine needs, in and out of the workplace.

The number one need? Sleep. We were all walking around exhausted.

I never forgot that response.

Life by its nature takes a physical, emotional and spiritual toll. Whether we are working more than 40 hours a week, working two or three jobs, doing all the chores and caregiving for children or elderly parents — we all yearn for an island of peace, quiet and vast blue oceans. Ah. To be there even for an hour.

Doing. It seems our culture is obsessed with doing. We have become a people of “doer-ship.” Yes, much of it’s necessary. But even with that “doing” we must carve out spaces of “nothing-ness” and quiet.

I know. I know. How are we suppose to do that given the zillion daily demands on our lives? I get it, believe me.

Before I retired and was working full-time, I barely could do the things I needed when I got home. Now, I’m one of the primary caregivers for my father and my time is filled with a variety of medical and health-care needs.

People will look at me and advise: “You really need to take care of yourself.”

Right.

But the truth is, I do need to love myself enough to give myself nurturing and good self care. You do, too. How we do that will be individual to each of us. And it will demand a bit of courage. If we are by nature a giving person, we may find it a challenge to give to ourselves as well.

Underlying that act may be a layer of “I don’t deserve this” as well as some guilt in not doing what we feel we’re asked to do. Many of us grew up learning how to be super-responsible and somehow, giving to ourselves may feel like we’re not being accountable to whatever or whomever we’re tending.

When any of us fail to make space to tend to our own needs, however, we are at war with ourselves. And that’s exhausting. In his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, Wayne Muller writes:

“… a successful life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find enough time to be with them; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us.”

It’s far too easy to fall into this pit of exhaustion when we fail to stop to hear that “small still voice” of the Divine within. We become so consumed with “doing” we spiral into fatigue without giving ourselves an opportunity for renewal.

In her book, Feed My Shepherds, Flora Wuellner writes that those moments of renewal may be “gazing at a sunbeam on the floor, looking at a beloved painting, smelling a flower, touching a leaf, listening to a bird, stretching and breathing deeply, holding our hands under running water …or just quietly sensing God’s breath upon and within us.”

All beautiful advice. And I am listening to those words because I am often guilty of not heeding them. But instead of beating myself up for not taking time for self-care, I am being gentle with myself and learning. On this beautiful sunny Spring day, I went to the park and did something I’ve been wanting to do all winter.

I took off my shoes and felt the coolness of the new-green grass and warmth of the soft rich earth beneath my feet and toes. I felt a soothing breeze sweep across my face. I took deep nurturing breaths, filling my lungs with gratitude.

It was only for an hour. But it allowed me to be at peace, to center myself. Giving myself that nurturing time gave me the strength to go forward.

So, this day and in the coming weeks, may we each find what brings us peace and nurturing, whether it’s listening to sweet bird song, losing ourselves in a good book or the brilliant colors of a sunrise, or simply taking a much-needed nap.

May we make time to feel God’s breath upon us and within us. We deserve it.

The gifts of American Idol

I don’t watch reality TV shows.

Except for American Idol.

I love music. Played classical piano and some guitar in my younger days. And almost every one in my large family plays a musical instrument. So I appreciate a melodic voice, the masterful playing of the strings and notes that soar from the soul.

American Idol has that kind of amazing, genuine talent every week and I’m always in awe. But what I really love are the stories of those brave souls who are auditioning.

Catie Turner from my hometown of Langhorne, PA, makes it to the final rounds.

If you’ve seen the show at all, you know that each person has a story. Some come from broken homes, were homeless, have disabilities, have had parents or siblings who recently died, or are raising a child as a single parent. And yet, despite these challenges, each has a gift he or she feels compelled to share with the world.

Even as some come closer to making the final rounds, others are cut. And they leave the show heartbroken and in tears. They have a right to be sad. What they don’t seem to understand in their youth, however, is that other opportunities will come.

Or, perhaps, this is not their life path. After all, American Idol is about show business and celebrity and all the trappings that go with it. Some may not be ready for it. Or be ruined by it.

As a writer — and a person who believes Spirit is always with us and guiding us — I understand this process. When our creative work or gift is dismissed, we’re often crushed.

I can’t tell you how many times my novels have been rejected by literary agents. Or my personal essays dismissed by websites or editors. It’s a tough business.

So, after decades of writing, I finally came to this question: Why do I do this?

Many days I’ve thrown up my hands in exasperation and told myself: I don’t want to write anymore. We, who are creative types, often feel like our work is falling into a black hole. Is anyone out there, does anyone care? Perhaps not.

So to answer that question, why do I do this?

I do it because it’s “in” me — part of my nature. I can’t deny who I am. It would be like telling me not to breathe. If any words I write reach or touch anyone, that’s not my business. It’s God’s. I do my part; the Divine does its part.

And when you come down to it, that’s all we can do — our part. We are filled with the gifts given us by the Creator and then, at least as I see it, we give them back to be used for the greater good.

So, no, I may never write a best-selling novel. Or you may never star in a Broadway play. Or paint a masterpiece. Or play guitar like Eric Clapton. The Divine may have other ideas for the best use of our gifts other than our ego-driven agenda.

But each contribution, no matter how small, truly matters.

Art by Carly Dresselhaus

We are a kaleidoscope of gifts that are meant to prism out onto others and perhaps one small piece will illuminate someone else. Bring laughter. Joy. Hope. Each part is integral to the whole.

Spiritual teacher and author Marianne Williamson was once asked by an audience participant what he should do to become a famous actor. She asked this young man: What’s stopping you from acting now, even if you’re not famous? She told him: Perform in local community theater. Start a theatre troupe for young people. In other words, if you really want to act, you’ll act whether you become a celebrity or not.

This is not to deny dreams. If you want to become a star in your area of talent, you can do that. But it will take tremendous tenacity, drive, talent  — and some luck.

The truth is, many of us will never stand on a stage and perform. Instead, our gifts will be used in the ordinary moments of life — when we teach, parent, listen to someone in distress, cook, play a sport, dance, make others laugh.

Society does not shine the spotlight of success on these gifts. But they are just as important as singing, dancing, writing or painting. So, we can use our talents in the present moment. We can be authentic and true to our own voice, not someone else’s. Have fun. Use any failures to learn and grow.

And most important, offer our gifts in service to others.

When we do this, we are idols of the best kind. Living up to our God-given potential. And what greater gift is there?

 

 

 

Watch and pray

(I’m re-posting a blog from two years ago during this sacred time of Holy Week. May we open to the mystery of the Divine presence in our ordinary, daily lives.)

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Last year when dad ended up in the emergency room, I watched.

I remember him on that hospital bed, writhing in pain, soaked and feverish. I looked at the wall clock as it ticked away the hours — 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. as we waited for a room to become available. I sat by his side, trying to comfort him, as his fever spiked to 103 or more.

And I prayed. For him to be out of pain. For peace, for him and for myself. Thankfully, dad did recover.

I share this story because I believe many of us in our lives have watched and prayed with and for a loved one.

Perhaps a family member who was ill or struggling through a personal problem. Watched and prayed for a child to be born. Or watched and prayed with a parent or child in the dying process. And how many times lately have we watched and prayed as wanton terrorism has taken lives?

I’ve been reflecting on those two words — watch and pray — as we end Holy Week in the Christian tradition and head into Easter. Jesus asked his disciples to do this with him in the garden before his death. They weren’t very good at it because they fell asleep. I suppose a heavy Passover meal and plenty of wine will do that.

But perhaps the disciples didn’t get it. Maybe we don’t either. And does watching and praying make any real difference in the fabric of our ordinary days?

I believe it does and that we are called to do both. But they can be challenging. Why? Because watching and praying require a certain attentiveness to the present.

Watching is an awareness that is not so much of the eyes but of the heart. It is an interior waiting and listening to the Spirit where we are deeply paying attention. We are the silent observer to a deep mystery, an experience that confounds us that we may not completely understand.

And in that watching, if we allow ourselves, we are changed. We become more human, more compassionate, more loving. When we move in this direction, we open to prayer.

What is prayer? I find labels dangerous, and semantics are often misconstrued, but for me prayer is simply this: A communion with the Divine — however you find it, wherever you find it.

You may discover the Divine presence in nature, in a chapel, in the woods, in rote words, with beads, or in a monastery. It’s anything that takes you to the interior space where you are fully present to the God of your knowing.

One of my favorite writers Anne Lamott says there are only two prayers she uses: “Help me, help me, help me.” And “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I love these prayers because they cut through all the theological jargon that God probably dislikes. They are honest and real, and if anything, I believe the Divine loves honest and real.

Throughout our day, we have many invitations to watch and pray. I did the other day. I chose the line at the grocery store I thought was the shortest, but as usual, the one that moved the slowest. The cashier seemed to be taking his time. I found myself becoming annoyed. I began to pray, “Help me!”

But as I waited, I also watched — him and my own feelings. He took his time with each customer, especially with the elderly woman ahead of me. He joked with her and made her smile.

I found my heart softening and my impatience melting as I watched. And now I prayed “Thank you” — a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving that he had been sent as my teacher and was a light in a very dark world.

We are each called to be that light, not just at Easter, but in every moment of our lives. And we are called to be that light especially as we watch and pray through the mystery of it all — the births, the deaths and the petty annoyances in between.

Anne Lamott has said: “On this side of the grave we’re not going to understand the mystery of God and grace … we know so little.”

But that “not knowing” can also be a gift. It beckons us to trust. It is an invitation to open our heart to a Divine Power who loves us and is with us, in our personal daily struggles and in the world at large.

A loving force who even as we watch and pray, also watches and prays with us through it all — in the Garden and in the empty tomb.

Dying with us. Rising with us.