Simple gifts

The other day I walked in the park.

As I ambled by the swings and slides, a woman who looked like she might be a grandmother was with her granddaughter. The child was perhaps four years old. Her blonde hair tousled in the wind as she bent down and picked up a frayed, sad-looking dandelion.

She came bounding toward me — ignoring her grandmother’s calls to come back — and said: “Look! I’m going to give this to my mom when I get home.”

“That’s beautiful,” I said as she held it toward me, beaming.

Then she began stomping on the ground in her purple-and-pink glittery sneakers, looking down at them, trying to make them “do” something.

“No more light,” she said.

Her grandmother came toward me and smiled. “They used to light up more but I guess they’ve lost some of whatever it was.”

I told her to have fun and walked away thinking, how often have I lost my light, whatever it is that I once had. And what has been causing me to lose it?

Perhaps the clutter of many things. Holding on to worries. Agendas. How I think life “should” be instead of accepting how it is. In other words, not letting go, not simplifying.

When I was in the workplace, there was a saying some of you may know: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. If I’m going to be totally honesty here, I have a personality that makes things harder than they should be. I tend to make things more complicated.

I used to get frustrated with that part of me. Now I have come to accept that it’s all part of the unique package that makes me who I am. I am someone who still likes to hold on, someone still learning to “let go” and simplify — and someone who is still trusting in faith there is a Higher Power who moves life along in divine right time and flow.

I am also gentle, or at least learning to be, with all those parts of myself, as I would with a young child. As I might with that little girl in the park.

Would I have yelled at her and told her, “That’s an ugly dandelion!”? Never. Then why would I berate those inner child parts of me that need love and even more love? Especially those parts that delight in the simplest of things?

The older woman I am becoming also needs that love, especially as she is often — not by choice — having to let go and simplify her life. In fact, children and the aged both dwell in a certain simplicity that no longer requires agendas, pride, ego, money, promotions, “things” or whatever it might be. They are content with what is, in the moment.

To be truthful, I am still coming to terms with the losses of my life’s journey as I age. A friend of mine told me he feels like he’s lost his mojo. I understand. And one better, I often feel, as the Mad Hatter said to Alice, “‎You’re not the same as you were before. You were much more… muchier… you’ve lost your muchness.”

Sue Monk Kidd, one of my favorite writers, says this:

“Finally, I began to write about becoming an older woman and the trepidation it stirred. The small, telling ‘betrayals’ of my body. The stalled, eerie stillness in my writing, accompanied by an ache for some unlived destiny. I wrote about the raw, unsettled feelings coursing through me, the need to divest and relocate, the urge to radically simplify and distill life into a new, unknown meaning.”

Like Sue Monk Kidd, I am learning to radically simplify, to distill life into a new unknown meaning.

At the heart of it, I believe that’s why simplifying poses such a challenge — we are face-to-face with some “new unknown meaning.” It isn’t how it used to be. We start as pure beings, simple and free, then gather a lot of “guck” along the way.

Now, in our later years, we are being stripped away to uncover the beauty that has been there all along. We simplify. And while it may be challenging, it is also freeing.

Even my prayer life has entered into simplicity. I am breathing in love, breathing out love. And like writer Anne Lamott, I am saying these three simple prayers:

Help me. Thank you. Wow.

I am learning to be like a child again, delighting in a dandelion. And learning to accept and love the older woman, finding it’s OK to lose some of my muchness. To stomp on my sneakers to discover perhaps a new and more engaging light.

When I simplify and let go, it opens up space to be free. To dwell in the now. To be the soul and body I was created to be.

And that simply makes me say “Wow!”

********

Holy remembrance

The rain finally stopped and dad and I sat on the deck. The sky had cleared to a deep blue , the birds trilled and a warm breeze surrounded us, tinkling the wind chimes.

A box of photos sat at my feet. Dozens of dusty black-and-white and color snapshots, corners and edges aged and yellowed with time.

My brother had carted the box out of the garage. We will display some of them at dad’s party when we celebrate his 90th birthday on May 6th. His birthday is really Cinco de Mayo — true Mexican-American that he is — but with so many family flying in, we are honoring him on May 6th.

As I browsed through the photographs, a surge of nostalgia swelled up in my heart. There we all were — family — in our youth. Mom and dad, looking like movie stars, dressed in sequined gown and tux ready to go to a party at KYW-TV where dad once worked.

And me and my siblings, at backyard barbecues, sitting at the long wooden picnic table, chomping into a burger and holding up a brew or a soda, hamming it up for the camera. My nieces and nephews, still toddlers, playing tag on the green grass, or rolling around in it, their lives still ahead of them.

I began to show the photos to dad. He has limited speech capacity since the stroke, but he squinted and smiled and kept saying “wow” and “joven” which means young. Yes. We were young.

As I looked at the photos in the box, each one evoked a memory. Of our family. Our lives. Each had captured a moment in time. I came to see this remembrance as holy — and at the heart of all spiritual practice.

This week, as I write this, we are in the midst of many sacred memories. For Christians, it is Holy Week and in the Jewish faith, Passover.

Jesus said he yearned to share the Passover with his disciples. His desire was to create eternal memories of the heart, that he might live on in us when he shared bread and wine and said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”

For those celebrating the Passover, a seder meal commemorates the freedom of the Isaraelites from slavery and into a promised land. In fact, the Jewish people were commanded to remember.

Remember that you were strangers in the land of Egypt. Remember that the Lord took you out of the bondage of slavery. “Remember” is a biblical mandate and the Passover story that initiated a commitment to memory.

This time of year is one for remembering the Divine’s intervention into a troubled world, freedom from enslavement, triumph of life over death.

Why is it important to remember? Many reasons. Perhaps most important, memories give us identity, show us who we are as individuals and within the larger community. They ensure that life events will not be lost, but learned from, treasured and carried forward. They bind us together. In love. In life. In death.

So as I sit with dad, pouring over photographs, I am on a journey of remembering. Trips to Nashville and the hills of Red Boiling Springs, TN; birthdays and my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary; my grandmother’s funeral, Christmases, trips to Ireland and vacations in Florida.

Dad and I smile at the people we once were — slimmer, sillier, unwise, hopeful, blissful in our ignorance of what was to come. And I marvel at the people we have become — strong, stretched, suffering with stroke or illness, resilient, prayerful, loving.

I see myself in some of these photos and I’d like to go back to that young woman who was me. Tell her about life. That parts of it will be happy, some of it will be painful, but to hold on to the moment. To savor it, no matter how it may feel, because it will never come again. This is what I would tell her.

Dad tires of looking through the photos. I put them away and we go back inside the house. He is moving slower these days with his walker. But on May 5th we will celebrate the memories of 90 years of a life well lived and well loved. We will look at the photos and “ooh” and “aah” and call to mind the stories they evoke.

And we will be blessed in those sacred memories.

We will be glad and rejoice in the now.

 

 

Who are you?

Strange things happen as you grow older. You start to lose things. Hair, energy, car keys, lists to help you remember, and why in the world you walked into that room. What was I going in there to get?

But sometimes, loss can be a blessing. It strips down and shows us what is no longer necessary.

Most important, I believe we begin to lose our false self. What is that?

In his book Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, says:

“Our false self is who we think we are. It is our mental self-image and social agreement, which most people spend their whole lives living up to — or down to.”

For many of us, this becomes an all-consuming effort. We create this other persona that we feel society wants, or our family and friends expect of us. For me, it was years spent working in the writing field, for newspapers and magazines, and a few stints in the corporate world.

As an ambitious young working woman, my persona was about fine clothes, a good salary, making an impact with my words, earning writing awards, my by-line.

Were those wrong? No. All of those were necessary and part of my journey. I had to pay bills after all. And on some level, writing offered me an avenue to use my gift of writing to educate and inform many people.

But at some point, I began to realize there was more to life than this. These “things” were not at the deepest level about my true self.

One of my favorite authors Sue Monk Kidd writes: “In our youth we set up inner myths and stories to live by but around the midlife juncture these patterns begin to crumble. It feels to us like a collapsing of all that is, but it’s a holy quaking.”

That “holy quaking” can lead us to our true self. And what is that?

Simply put, the true self pulls us closer to the Divine, to God. I think children and animals show us how to do this best. They have no hidden agendas, take no offense at slights, but simply delight in the purity of being themselves. They are who God created them to be.

A friend of mine scolded his dog one day for jumping into a basket of clean clothes. But the dog didn’t know she had done anything wrong — she was living in pure innocence and joy as God had made her — and just as quickly forgot about her “mistake” and went about playing and wagging her tail.

I’ve also had the privilege of knowing a handful of people in my life who I sensed were living in the integrity of their true selves. They accepted themselves, knew who they were, both flaws and sanctity — and in their presence, I felt an ease and grace.

As we move closer to our true selves, I believe the more loving parts of ourselves are magnified. And we begin to accept those parts that hide in façade or selfishness. Or they simply disappear in the light of that love.

Discovering our true selves is not so much about what we do, but what God does, says Rohr.

“And what God does—what life does—is gradually destabilize the supposed boundaries of the small self so we can awaken inside of the Large Self, which we call God. This usually happens through experiences of great love or great suffering or inner prayer journeys that allow the private ego to collapse back into the True Self, who we are in God.”

For me, the journey toward discovering the true self has come late in life in caring for my father. In honesty, all facades and pretenses crumbled in the call to be of loving service and this ongoing experience has graced me to see myself as I am in God’s eyes — holy and flawed, sacred and scared, selfish and loving.

But I am — like everyone else — always in process with this. Living from our true selves is a journey, or as Rohr says, “a dance between the loneliness and desperation of the false self and the fullness of the true self, which is ever re-discovered and experienced anew as an ultimate homecoming.”

So, I find as I am growing older, I am also growing up — spiritually. Even better, waking up. And like most of us, I am still learning to navigate the mysterious pathways to who I really am. Warts and all.

Home to my true self. In God. In the divine. In love.

 

 

 

The sacred body

Spring is struggling to arrive. Purple and yellow flowers poke through brown earth and then shiver in frigid winds or are covered with an unexpected snow. The dance between spring and winter, mild days and biting cold, will linger until the seasons settle in on their true place in nature.

As I walked the other day, I was aware of how I struggle. To arrive. At my true nature and self.

Of how at times I accept the mystery and uncertainties of life with ease and grace and just as quickly, fall into a space of worry and angst.

What is life about? Why am I here? How am I meant to serve and a myriad of questions that leave me hanging on a cliff of unknowing.

Asking the questions takes courage, as does being human. And as I walked, I thought how brave we are to take on these human bodies.

We are, as mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote concerning the hero’s or heroine’s journey, embarking in a strange world where we are tested again and again.

I admit, I’ve always been more comfortable with my spiritual being than my earthly one. Being human is messy. Aches and pains as we age, grieving at the loss of those we love, battling with illnesses. And yet, it is also about aliveness.

Sue is a neighbor who is 90. She is vibrant, always smiling. I saw her yesterday with her adult daughter who had taken her grocery shopping.

“My mom was in the hospital on Thursday and Friday,” she said. “But then we celebrated my brother’s wedding on Saturday and there she was, dancing at the reception with the rest of us.”

Sue smiled at me. “I wasn’t going to let my body stop me. I was going to have fun. You have to do that in life, you know.”

Then there’s Grace. A neighbor of my brother’s I met years ago, she was always dashing here and there. In her 80s. Yoga. Biking. Meditation. I called her “amazing Grace” because she was.

“I’ve traveled to many countries,” she shared. “Alone. And I’ve loved it.”

These women were reminders I needed. That I still need every blessed day. Life and the human body may have its limitations but it’s also about aliveness. Sue and Grace both embody that effervescence and zest even as frailties encroach on their physical form.

When I visited Ireland many years ago, I was in awe of its raw wilderness, its unexplored places that were filled with so many possibilities for aliveness. These spaces were sacred invitations to slow down, to listen to my own breathing in the stillness, to discover a deeper sense of my own being and body.

In fact, Buddhist author Reginald Ray describes the body as “the last unexplored wilderness.”

Our body offers infinite wisdom and yet, we rarely pause to reflect on the rich and vibrant possibilities in this physical form. We fail to stop and ask what our bodies might need — sleep, rest, play, exercise, quiet?

And in a world that is body-obsessed and many times makes us feel “less than,” we can choose perhaps to enter the body’s wisdom with mindfulness.

In her book The Wisdom of the Body: A Contemplative Journey to Wholeness for Women, author Christine Valters Paintner writes that we can follow a balanced path where we don’t try to go to extremes in our spiritual practice.

“The sense that everything is holy, for me is the heart of the monastic path and so points to our bodies as sacred vessels as well,” she says. “The Celtic tradition has such a body and earth-honoring sensibility to it, and the desert monks taught me much about how to be with difficult thoughts and judgments as well as how to cultivate a capacity for presence to my experience as an expression of love.”

We can stay grounded, she says, by tending to our breath and tracking our inner experience.

So, I am learning, as I always am. As spring struggles for balance with winter, I, too, am learning to find balance between my spiritual body and earthly body. Both are important. Both needed. Both sacred.

And I am learning, with the seasons, to embrace my body for the gifts it offers. To see my body as an expression of love.

To come home to myself. Again and again.

 

 

A Sabbath snow

I was 10 years old when I saw my first flakes of snow. My father’s work had transferred our family from humid, tropical South Texas to the harsh, cold winters of Philadelphia.

As those bits of crystalline magic fell from the sky, I was in awe. How could God create such a miraculous thing?

Those winters in the early 1960s when I was a child were filled with blizzards. Mounds of snow blocked the front door, drifted into the corners of the windows panes, and outside, my brothers, sisters and I created snow forts and mazes.

My mother bundled us in snowsuits that made us look like aliens or Robby the Robot. After awhile she would call us inside, and even though we could no longer feel our toes, fingers or faces, we begged to play a little more. We laughed. We had fun. We couldn’t get enough of the white stuff.

Now, we are in the midst of a northeast blizzard wailing outside my window. And I’m wondering where that little girl went, the one who loved snow, who couldn’t wait to build snowmen and snow forts.

By the time you are reading this, hopefully the snow has departed and out to sea. But while in it this moment, I look out at tree limbs bending in mercy to the winds and walls of white whipping by in sheets. The distant landscape is a muddled blur, with only vague silhouettes of houses or hills poking through the blinding haze.

I am thankful to be inside, with warmth and food, praying for those who have to be at the mercy of this weather. Those who must be outside because of work or emergency services.

I am also thankful for snow as a spiritual teacher.

Snow is God’s way of making me slow down. To stop. Snow doesn’t care about my to-do list or where I have to be. It only invites me to be with it, in the present moment. Snow forces me to stop doing. When the snow is deep, I can’t drive around for errands, can’t be about my busy schedule.

I am inside, cocooned and stilled.

As a spiritual teacher, snow invites a silence that I believe we all need and crave. It makes of the world a hushed, contemplative space — a monastery of the heart — where we can truly listen to the Divine. In that stillness, we have the opportunity to truly connect with the essence of our soul.

We also may discover the gift of nurturing ourselves when we otherwise might not. Reading a good book. Curling up with a blanket and the dog. Mindless daydreaming. Naps. All can be savored as snow falls outside.

Snow also shows us beauty, blanketing the world in a soft, shimmering white. And light. That light reveals to us the beauty of God and reminds us, on a deep level, how much we yearn in our being for that light and beauty.

As snow drifts down in lazy flakes, we can also be reminded how it is like God’s grace, covering everything. Nothing is left untouched. Snow makes rough edges, smooth, and makes beautiful those objects we consider ugly. And it falls on everyone and everything.

Tomorrow, and perhaps the next few days, we will be digging out from under. Shoveling the walkways and plowing out our cars. There will be time for this.

There also will be time for play, for re-connecting with that young girl who once loved snow.

Crunching through it on a walk. Savoring the clean, bright purity of a world made new around me.

But for now, as the snow continues to fall, I am called to Sabbath time. A day of rest. Listening. Being. A gift from God.

 

 

 

Waiting

I’m still waiting for results from some medical tests. I’ve never been good at it. Waiting. I get anxious. Uncertain.

So I went back to read a blog post I wrote in 2015 about “waiting” and what I still need to learn. It seems a good time to share this again.

It’s also Ash Wednesday in the Christian tradition, a time to remember we are simply passing through here, and that in some sense, we are always a waiting people — waiting to return home.

And may we know, in the waiting, we are never alone.

*****

The schoolyard felt vast, a desolate ocean of concrete, as I sat there, waiting.

A five-year-old, I clutched my Cinderella lunch pail to my chest as I saw buses leave, parents pick up their children. And my insides churned. Where was dad?

As he pulled up in that 1950s station wagon, I jumped in the front seat and fretted in sing-song style, “I waited and I waited but you never came.”

Dad told me in later years he raced and rushed from his job so he could get there in time to pick me up after kindergarten. But sometimes, his work delayed him or traffic was heavy — and he was late. And while I waited, alone, I was filled with an overwhelming loneliness and anxiety.

Of course I healed from that experience and as an adult, it became a private joke between dad and me, especially if I was running late for some event with him and he would say, “I waited and I waited ….”

pain and sorrow womanI share this story because it seems we are always a people of waiting. And yet, we often see it as an inconvenience.

Let’s face it. Waiting is not popular, especially today.

Stuck in heavy traffic, at the airport for a delayed flight, at a doctor’s office, waiting for the cable repairman. You name it, and we wail and bemoan all this “wasted time” when we could have been doing something else.

The truth is, waiting is not lost time, but valuable if we choose to make it so. Waiting can be rich, inviting us to live in the present moment and to trust in the process of life — to surrender our timetable to the agenda of a Higher Power.

In other words, when we are forced to wait, we are no longer in control. The Divine is.

girl by oceanBut waiting is not all drudgery. It can often be filled with hope. And promise. In the Old Testament, the Israelites waited 40 years in the desert to reach the Promised Land. Mary waited for the birth of the Christ. The Buddha sat under a tree, waiting for enlightenment.

In this way, waiting is not passive — but active. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen puts it this way:

“Active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening. A waiting person is a patient person … impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore, want to go somewhere else. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to actively live in the present — and wait there.”

Without this period of waiting, whatever wants to be “birthed” cannot be fully formed. Some examples that come to mind are the chrysalis of the butterfly. A child in a mother’s womb. A work of art or book in process. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writer Annie Dillard quotes poet Michael Goldman:

“When the muse comes she doesn’t tell you to write. She says, ‘Get up for a minute. I’ve something to show you. Stand there.”

If we were not to “stand here” and wait to see what is being shown us — to cut short any of our waiting time — we thwart whatever wants to take form and shape.

When we patiently wait, however, we are gifted and graced. One of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd, writes:

“When the time is right, the cocooned soul begins to emerge. Waiting turns golden. Newness unfurls. It is a time of pure, unmitigated wonder.”

transformationI have to admit that I’m still not good at waiting. But I’m getting better. I have come to understand that the things of God don’t come suddenly. Often, the Divine is more of a mid-wife than a rescuer, one who patiently guides us through the process to new life.

And yes, like many of you, I wait. For many things. But I also know, as Jungian analyst James Hillman wrote, that “our soul is the patient part of us.”

So I try to listen to my soul more often, to sit with it in silence. But this time, unlike the little girl, I know I’m not alone. The Divine is always with me and within me.

With this inner knowing, with this sense of presence, I trust. In stillness. In anticipation. Waiting.

 

Word by word, step by step

I first saw Loretta at the dysphagia table in the hospital.

She was helping a stroke patient with his lunch. Dressed in white, she could have been any number of the nurses or aides who roamed the hallways and rooms of the acute care unit.

Eight stroke patients sat in a semi-circle, eating as best they could, and as I fed dad his food, I watched her from the corner of my eye.

As life draws to an end, compassion is more important than food.

She was different somehow. Older, yes, but also more caring than the many medical professionals in this unit who seemed callous performing their duties. She was present. She encouraged. She listened.

I was still learning who was who in the maze of dad’s care, while every day, mom and I and my brother would trek to the hospital.

There, we encouraged him out of the labyrinth of darkness into which he had entered after his stroke. Helped him move with the walker, encouraged him to speak words. And fed him. Stroke patients often have trouble swallowing — dysphagia.

So we sat with dad at breakfast, lunch and dinner at that table. Helping him eat. Spoonful by spoonful. Even though he would often use his knife with the pudding or his fork with the apple juice.

We had entered a strange world of shadows, one which had little light.

Until Loretta entered dad’s hospital room that next day.

She announced herself as the speech therapist, someone who would be helping dad regain vocabulary and communication. She sat next to him as he lay on the bed, was patient with him as he stared at her, trying to connect.

toddler-walkingSlowly, the journey began with Loretta and dad’s speech.

After he left the hospital, I would drive dad for his bi-weekly sessions with her, load him up in the wheelchair and push him through the hallways of the hospital to her office. There, in that cramped space for an hour I watched as she led dad, step by step, word by word.

He was a toddler, learning to maneuver vocabulary again.

She’d ask him questions. Ask the day, month, year. Engage him in conversation. And ask him to pray, understanding how much his life had been centered around God and faith, how rote prayers often return in speech.

A first-generation Mexican-American, dad spoke Spanish first. She said that often a first language kicks in for some people. I speak some, so I would talk to dad in Spanish.

Then Loretta began to learn more of dad’s story from me, that he had been a professional and inspirational speaker, how he had helped thousands with the speeches he gave around the world.

It seemed cruel that God would take away the one gift he valued.

After six months, dad ended speech therapy. But my friendship with Loretta was beginning.

Over the last four years, we have remained connected. Strange how a tragedy can lead you to new people and heart spaces if you’re open. We email when we can, have met for lunch and coffee when time allows. Share about our families. Pray for each other.

Today dad still has aphasia. The word “tortilla” seems to replace just about every other word and my heart smiles. But whereas he was silent before, he now forms sentences. Some days he is more lucid than others and for a few hours, I cherish the “old dad” remembering what he was like.

Letting-go21Yesterday, I had to have biopsies at the hospital. I emailed Loretta and asked for prayers.

As I lay on the table, waiting for the surgeon, anxious and terrified, Loretta surprised me by coming into the room. She’s a busy woman, with many patients to see.

She hugged me, kissed me on the cheek. She placed her hands on me and prayed and offered words of wisdom. She encouraged me to better self-care. I listened. And the last few months I have indeed been moving into more self-nurturing. Daily meditation, small walks, reconnecting with friends.

But just as dad has been a toddler, learning new words, I am still a toddler learning to love myself more.

I am teaching myself, step by step, to nurture that little girl who is often afraid, who simply wants to be acknowledged and loved. I can offer her that. I am.

bigstock-Woman-Silhouette-Waiting-For-S-5824100Now I wait for the results of the biopsies. And again, I struggle with staying present, in the moment, in faith and trust.

I attended a workshop a few years ago for people who were experiencing grief after the loss of a loved one. As everyone went around the room, sharing their stories that wrenched my heart, I heard each one say this, in varying ways:

“It didn’t feel OK. But I knew it was going to be OK. Even if it wasn’t.”

That’s what I believe now. It’s going to be OK, even if it isn’t.

And that, my friends, is grace.

As are the angels of light God sends.