Tipping point

Most times I feel I’m stumbling through life. Poorly.

I turn on the morning news, only to catch the weather forecast. I don’t watch news as a rule. Bad energy. This time, the energy is vile and foul. Another mass shooting. I am aware I am assaulted by fatigue. Weariness. And my life, other than bumbling about, already feels weary.

I want to crawl back in bed and hide under the covers.

But I can’t. Like many of you, I have responsibilities. I care for a father who had a stroke and is 90. I’m struggling to revise the manuscript of my new novel. I’m trying to find part-time work in the midst of caregiving and in the midst of it all, have some kind of personal life.

I also realize I am sad. I am struggling to stay away from the news. The media is covering this event as it has every other blood-drenched massacre, with each detail drawn out, focused on, expanded. Watching too much can be addictive and drag me deeper into the morass of our country’s sorrow.

I make a cup of coffee and go over my day. Doctors to call. Sitting with dad for a time. I look at the news again to learn of any new developments. I shut it off. I go to Facebook. Everyone is offering prayers. Posting photos with candles and expressing their sorrow. All this is good. But haven’t we done this what feels like a thousand times before? Does it change anything?

I am a big praying person. Each day I ask the Divine for peace in the hearts of all people and our world. In my heart. But as I sit in prayer and meditation, I wonder: Is it working, helping at all? I ask a friend this and she says, “But you don’t know if your one small prayer won’t be the tipping point to peace. Keep praying.”

The truth is, my empath-self is on overwhelm. After the hurricanes in this country and then the aftermath of Puerto Rico — now this — I can only absorb so much. Shields up. Shields up. I am feeling the sorrow of our humanity and what we keep doing to each other. Of our disconnection to each other and Mother Earth.

I feel powerless. And weary.

I shut off the TV and laptop and start my day. I head outside into fall weather, with brilliant blue skies, sunshine, crisp cool air, tree tops ablaze in oranges and golds. The day seems to mock the agony in our world. I meet a neighbor who smiles and I smile back. He asks how I am and truly means it. I offer the usual “I’m OK” and ask how he is. He is OK, too.

I hear small birds twittering in the bushes and watch another neighbor help a woman get her groceries out of the trunk of her car. I stop for a crossing guard who guides children across the street. He grins at me and waves me on. When I get to my parents’ home, I hug dad and ask him in Spanish how he is. “Estoy bien,” he says, and this warms my heart.

This is life, I remind myself. The little things we do each day that stitch together the fabric of our lives and being. The kind and loving gestures. The acknowledgment of each other as part of the same family.

I can not change what happened in Puerto Rico or Texas, Florida or Las Vegas and before that at Sandy Hook Elementary. And I may not be able to do great things — feed starving children in other countries or even in our own country, provide shelter for the homeless, or help the thousands of women and children who are sold into sex trafficking each year.

But I can control how loving I choose to be in this moment — in this day. I can, as Mother Teresa said, “Do small things with great love.”

This can be my intention and focus with each breath as I stumble through what seems my small, meaningless life. I can also choose to take some kind of action about violence of too many kinds in our country; I can write to politicians to make my voice heard. I can become involved in grass-roots groups, from faith-based to local government.

I can write. These words. They often save me. Perhaps help others.

Or I can sink into the weariness and powerlessness. Wait for the next mass shooting.

I gather up courage and whisper another prayer for peace. Perhaps it will be the tipping point.

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Haven’t got time for the pain

We each have a story. Perhaps you are young and your story is feeling lost and asking What do I do with my life? Or perhaps you are older and you are asking the same painful question.

Your story might be an ugly divorce, a break-up in a relationship, wayward children, financial constraints, ill health or death of a loved one.

Then again, your story may be “and they lived happily ever after.” If it is, wonderful. But I doubt it. Chances are good you had to kiss a few frogs along the way and you got warts and it wasn’t pretty.

The truth is, life will always be filled with sadness and struggle. Now, don’t mistake me. I don’t actively seek out sorrows as you’ll read in a second. Life seems to present them whether we want them or not.

I’ve always realized that life is hard. On some level of my intellectual being, I got that part. But a new layer of awareness has entered front and center on the stage of my life, bowing like some Zen Buddhist teacher and asking with patience, “Got it yet?”

So here’s what I’ve learned of late. And it’s no great revelation. All the great spiritual teachers have taught and lived what I’m about to say. But this time, I got it to the gut-wrenching core of my being and I thought, “Oh, sh—. Really? Go away.”

You have to go through “it” – whatever “it” is in your life – to get to the other side. No escaping it. Accept it. Or not.

Not easy stuff. And the deeper insight I’ve had is this: I’ve been pretending to accept this pain in my life – putting on a good show – while secretly praying, “Please make it go away!”

When I was a little girl, I hated going to the doctor, especially for shots. I’d throw a tantrum and tell my mother “I’d rather go to the moon.”

So I find it one of the great karmic ironies of life that the last five years since dad’s stroke and other health challenges, I’ve been pushed headlong into the medical community, baptized again and again by a tsunami of doctors, drugs and you-name-it.

And I’ve wanted it all to go away. I’ve wanted dad to be healthy. I’ve wanted things to be the way they were.

But I’ve come to realize that’s the “little girl” speaking. She’s afraid. And in those moments, I try to connect with my adult-self and comfort my inner child. I tell her we’ll get through it. Because we always have.

The spiritually mature me has entered that new depth of being where I’m finally marching heart first into the sorrow. Soul first into the pain.

Not because I am masochistic or prone to melancholy. But because I realize that when done with love – and only love – this is the path to transformation. To new life. Perhaps to mysteries yet to be discovered.

Jesus was getting ready to trek off to Jerusalem and his death. But Peter would have none of it and said to Jesus, “Hey, man. You go there it means crucifixion. Let’s get out of here.” And Jesus’ reply? “Get behind me, Satan.” Jesus knew that Peter was like that scared little child who wants us to play it safe.

But Jesus also knew that the only way to the Resurrection was through the cross. Did he want it? Hell, no. Who would? But he did it with extreme love, knowing it was the one and only way for his resurrected body to shine forth, showing us, “This is how it’s done, folks.”

So right now, I’m frightened of all the pain now and ahead — in my own life and in the world. Many times I want to hide under the covers. Some FB friends recently told me I’m “fierce” and “invincible.” Their kindness has given me hope. But I rarely feel this way. Often I see myself as a dandelion puff being scattered in the strong winds of life.

But in the end, I feel we are all fierce and invincible. We just forget at times. We fail to recognize the courage always living inside of us, especially when we summon it with a powerful “yes” and march forward into whatever the sorrow may be, whatever the story may be.

If we don’t, we lose much. We become like the caterpillar that remains safe in its cocoon, that doesn’t want to go through the agony of breaking through its shell to become the butterfly its meant to be.

Like I said before. Not easy stuff. Here’s what Buddhist nun and author Pema Chodron writes:

“Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape – all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can’t stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain.”

Am I there yet in fully accepting the sorrows in my life? Hardly. Sometimes I still run from the pain. But I am learning. And the more I can stay and embrace it, the more whole I – and all of us – become.

As Glennon Melton Doyle says:

“Your pain is meant for you, and there is no glory, except straight through your story.”

So forward. Take a deep breath. Move straight through. You’re not alone.

 

 

 

The grace to remember

I went to the Garden of Reflection in Yardley today. The park commemorates 911 and the lives lost — in the Twin Towers, the Pentagon, Shanksville, Pa.

The energy of the space belies the horror and evil we all felt and experienced. The memorial exudes peace. Two fountains spurt upward, an ethereal remembrance of the towers, and a circular wall lists the names of those who died.

Surrounded by vast green farmlands and thick, sweet woods, the garden is surrounded by an other-worldly silence. Today, many came to walk there, as I did. And remember.

The weather was much the same was it was that day in 2001. Deep blue skies without a cloud, bright sun, a temperate breeze.

I read the names. These people came to work that day, perhaps were thinking about meetings, phone calls, what they would be doing later that evening — dinner with family or friends.

And then.

I kept walking the circle. Some family members had placed vases with roses, or a single rose, beneath their loved one’s name. Many who died were from this area, including one of the pilots.

As I took in the energy of these names, I was reminded: Each was loved. Each had a mother, father, sister, brother, aunt or uncle, daughter or son, a friend — someone who cherished them.

I sat on a bench beneath a shady tree. I thought of all that has happened in our world since then. All that is still happening. Those suffering from hurricanes Harvey and Irma, an earthquake in Mexico, wildfires and excessive heat and droughts, the threat of nuclear war.

I thought of my own personal situation, how each day dad declines and his care becomes more difficult, and how so many in our world are struggling and suffering in even more horrendous circumstances.

In his book When Bad Things Happen to Good People, Harold Kushner writes:

“Pain is the price we pay for being alive. Dead cells—our hair, our fingernails—can’t feel pain; they cannot feel anything. When we understand that, our question will change from, “Why do we have to feel pain?” to “What do we do with our pain so that it becomes meaningful and not just pointless empty suffering?” 

I’m still struggling with that question.

I have met those in my life who have transformed their suffering — those who have lost spouses or children who end up helping those in similar situations, or those who have been addicted who get into recovery and then become drug and alcohol counselors. And some, who because of the pain they’ve suffered, open up to others with more compassion and love.

And I’ve met yet others who have sunk into their grief or sorrow with bitterness and despair.

Many times we want it all to go away. Or we pray to God for miracles. Kushner says:

“We can’t pray that God make our lives free of problems; this won’t happen, and it is probably just as well. We can’t ask Him to make us and those we love immune to diseases, because He can’t do that. We can’t ask Him to weave a magic spell around us so that bad things will only happen to other people, and never to us.

People who pray for miracles usually don’t get miracles, any more than children who pray for bicycles, good grades, or good boyfriends get them as a result of praying. But people who pray for courage, for strength to bear the unbearable, for the grace to remember what they have left instead of they have lost, very often find their prayer answered.”  

I left the park, praying for all of us — for courage and strength to bear the unbearable, to remember with gratitude what we have left, instead of what we have lost.

As I offered the words up to the heavens, I watched a child escape from his mother and run with abandon through the grass, laughing.

A small joy amidst the sorrow. I smiled.

 

A season of acceptance

I share a personal journey here in the hope that it’s universal, that this resonates for you in some way no matter the source of your sorrow.

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A sadness always settles on me this time of year.

The light of long days dwindles and nature decays and dies. Leaves drift like scraps of paper to the ground, green grass begins to blur to brown, and an undercurrent of chill pushes into the early mornings.

The sadness this season, however, is deeper. It’s also about dad, seeing him decline. He is like a bent-over tree, whose branches bare themselves, whose roots have been withering since the stroke five years ago.

Now, as I sit with him here on the deck as he naps, he is asking me strange questions, erupting periodically as he rouses. Who took your camera? Where did those papers come from? What is that over there?

I look down at the college ruled 3 subject notebook next to me. Students are back in school now and will fill their pages with copious notes from courses in English, math or the sciences.

My notebook is filled with medical notes and appointments, logging dad’s health in bits and pieces, what has been done for his care, what more needs to be done.

I woke the other morning thinking of dad’s INR levels, the many phone calls for his IVIG treatments I had to make and other pressing medical issues that required attention. Who wakes in the morning thinking these things?

I am sad for all of it.

If I’m honest the sadness is not only about the loss of dad and who he once was. It’s also about the loss of the life I once had. I want to wake in the morning with time for creative writing, plan a day trip, splash my feet in the ocean, travel to Scotland or Spain. But even if I did these things, would the sadness go away?

Most likely not.

These words are not complaints or about self-pity, but a simple acknowledgement that sadness is part of life’s journey, a testament, I believe, to how well we love or have loved.

Whether we are a caregiver or not, decline and loss will visit us in one form or another. It will hurt. It will feel horrible. We will want to push the sadness away.

But in the end, accepting it is all there is. A delicate balance of not drowning in the sorrow, but allowing ourselves to float in it, to look up at it, like leaves drifting from their source and finding some peace with it.

In her book The Mermaid Chair author Sue Monk Kidd writes:

There’s release in knowing the truth no matter now anguishing it is.  You come finally to that irreducible thing and there’s nothing left to do but pick it up and hold it. Then, at last, you can enter the severe mercy of acceptance.”

I still struggle with this acceptance. Tears are always at the edges of my life, remembering that I haven’t had a coherent conversation with dad in almost five years since the stroke, recalling the dynamic man and inspirational speaker he was, and the times I would ask his guidance.

Yes, I am sad at all this and at its source is the welling of my heart knowing that days pass, seasons pass and everything dies in its own time.

But all I can do in this moment is walk over and pick up dad’s hand and hold it. To know the truth of this unrelenting sadness. To allow the pieces of sorrow to fall from my heart like the dying leaves.

To pray to enter the severe mercy of acceptance.

 

 

 

Goodness in dark times

Sometimes small gifts of love and kindness show up in life. They give me hope, especially during these days when the world seems shrouded in so much darkness. Here are two stories.

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My birthday promised severe thunderstorms. Windswept rain, lightning and hail. My celebratory dinner at 5 p.m. would now become a late European-style meal at 8 p.m. My friend and I could do nothing but wait out the weather until the roads were safe.

The rumbles of thunder grew distant and with skies clearing, we left for the restaurant. On the way, a rainbow splashed itself across the half-darkened sky, an artist’s palette of vivid and rich indigo, violet, red, orange, yellow, green and blue colors.

The child in me smiled. A gift from the heavens. For me. Today.

At the restaurant the waitress seated us near a table filled with 10 people. They were an African-American family including children, adults and grandparents and their joy was contagious, as they laughed, talked, drank and ate.

I overheard someone say “birthday” and then the waitress brought out a huge slice of cake with a candle to one of the men at the table.

“It’s his birthday, too,” I whispered to my friend. “What are the odds I’d find someone here, born on the same day?”

When we finished eating, I told my friend I was probably going to embarrass him, but I was going to wish that man a happy birthday. It was a risk. A small one. I walked over to him and the family turned from their food and looked up at me — all ten of them — with curious but welcoming expressions.

“Is today your birthday?” I asked the man.

He smiled and nodded.

“Mine, too.”

Without warning, the energy of the family burst into confetti-like joy and they all began to sing boisterously at the top of their lungs. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you ….”

My friend stood aside, smiling and laughing, and the entire restaurant stilled to listen, reveling in our common joy.

I was in tears at this family’s goodness and generosity, but even more so when the man stood up, hugged me and said repeatedly, “Have a blessed year. Have a blessed year.”

*******

This afternoon I stopped by the Dollar General for a few items. I stood there, watching as the man ahead of me, perhaps my age, was having trouble paying with his credit card. The machine kept telling him it had expired even though the card itself had a valid date.

The cashier struggled, trying everything to make the card work. The line grew behind me as we stood and waited. The man pulled out some bills from his wallet, but he didn’t have enough cash for the goods in his bag.

He decided to return some of the items, placing them on the counter, asking the cashier to deduct them from the total cost. I was about to offer to pay the difference when a woman behind me, with two small children, spoke up.

“How much do you need? Here.”

She reached into her wallet and pulled out a $20 bill, waving it across me and at him. The man protested. Adamantly.

“I can’t accept that. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” she countered. “Here. I do this all the time. It’s my good deed for the day.”

The man would not take the money as I stood there, in the middle, watching in wonder at this exchange of goodness, of giving freely. The woman, still smiling, dug into her purse and pulled out a $5 bill.

“Well, you can least take this.”

The man bucked at her offer and finally reached out to accept it.

“Thanks. Listen, I work at a local supermarket. Meat department. Steaks. Come by and you get one free.”

*******

We hear much today about hatred. Divisiveness. Racial tensions. The darkness of our times.

But I’ve seen goodness, kindness and love twice these last few days shining in the small, daily moments of life.

The African-American family and the gift they gave me has lingered in my heart. There was no color at the table when they welcomed me, no animosity, no judgment, no hatred. Only love.

This, I tell myself, is who we truly are, in our hearts and souls, people who yearn to share and give love — as well as receive it. No matter who we are. No matter our skin color, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or religion.

Right now the storms may seem fierce in our world, the darkness overwhelming and sometimes, we may want to give up and drown in it. But don’t.

We are so much more than that. At our core, we are good.

We are that rainbow painted across the world’s dark skies — filled with the rich colors of love and beauty.

We can take any moment and spread goodness in the blackness of this world. We can. We can.

 

 

 

 

It goes by fast

As some of you know I’ve taken a brief respite from two years of writing this blog. But this post today visited me unexpectedly and asked to be written. Here it is. I share it with deep gratitude.

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Birthdays make me wax philosophical. I become more than my usual existential self. It’s not a matter of “to be” but where I am now, in that “being-ness.”

To that end, a friend and I were discussing the question that seems to have become popular as of late: “What would you tell your younger self if you could?” My mind went through the Rolodex (that’s how old I am) of pieces of sage wisdom.

I smiled and said, “It goes by fast. That’s what I’d tell the younger me.” He turned and asked, “Would you have listened?”

Probably not.

When we’re younger we may not look too far ahead. No need. Yes, we plan, we work, raise a family, whatever it may be, but mostly, our vision is short-term. We have the illusion that life is forever, with many days left, much time to do whatever we need to with our lives.

But the truth is, as I head into the end of this decade of my 60s, I can say, with honesty, life is short.

I’ve seen friends die, or lose their spouses or children. And those deeper, philosophical questions seem to plague me now more than ever: How many years do I have left to fulfill whatever I came here to do? And what is that anyway? Do I have enough time to do whatever “that” is?

When we are younger, we don’t dwell on those questions; in our older years, the questions dwell on us – whether we like it or not.

It’s more than curious to me that I seem to have a history. I can look back with perspective, as if standing on a hill and viewing the landscape of my life. And what do I see?

At the risk of sounding too corny (but I do love James Taylor), I have indeed seen fire and rain. I’ve had moments of joy, deep sadness, longing to belong to something deeper in life, given up hope, rallied, dug deeper, laughed at myself. All these are shared experiences that make us human. That’s what I see.

And sometimes I’ve just screwed things up.

But I’ve learned from that. At least I hope I have. Mistakes are part of life’s journey and in them I’ve discovered parts of me that are teachable, the essence of my being that wants to grow, evolve and become more compassionate and loving.

As I age, I’ve also found that things of mammon, or of this world, really don’t impress me anymore. Call me a curmudgeon or a not-so-material girl, but I’m no longer invested in what I can get.

But what I can give.

And what does impress me? A soft summer rain, the lulling or crashing waves of the ocean, a forest sweet with the smell of earth, my toes in green grass, a child’s giggle, a long, delicious nap, the deep inhale of pure, clean air. Seeing the potential of genuine goodness in others and in myself.

And here’s what I continue to learn.

Life will unfold, with joy or with sorrow and many times with the ordinary hum-drum of days — and that the “powerful play goes on and that you may contribute a verse.”

And what is my verse? I don’t know. Even at my age I still struggle with this. In the end perhaps life’s journey is stumbling in the dark, trusting in a Higher Power that always guides us, love us. That we are where we are meant to be — and I don’t mean that as a platitude or cliché — and that somehow we exist in each sacred moment as intended by the Divine.

And perhaps that verse is simply being love. Every second. Because it does go by fast. It does.

 

 

Finding wings in the darkness

My personal inspirational essay was published online on SheLoves Magazine this morning. Many of you have already read this. If so, I am thankful and no need to linger in this space.

However, for those who don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or who may not have found it, I’d like to share it here with those who read my blog — with the hope you find words that uplift or inspire. With deep gratitude.

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By Marielena Zuniga | Blog

I walk to the dunes by tall reeds, taking in the expanse of ocean before me. The beach is bereft in autumn except for a lone fisherman on one of the stone jetties. I inhale, the smell of salt air and fish stinging my lungs.

I breathe again, realizing how staccato and shallow this process of inhalation has been for me lately, how I’ve not been taking life in. Here I am in my elder years, still seeking meaning and purpose.

What am I here to do?

How can I serve using my gifts?

What is my life’s purpose?

My dreams were to be a successful, published author, to share my journey with a kindred spirit, to travel extensively, to teach spiritual truths in written and spoken words.

Not all have come to fruition as I had thought or planned. And I am still waiting, even as time collapses around me and grows shorter. Beyond the externals, however, what is it I really seek? This is the question that reverberates in my mind in the early hours of the morning, that chants like a litany through the still of the night.

What is truly of worth in life?

Perhaps I am in the process of soul-making. “This is not always a happy thing,” writes philosopher and author, Jean Houston. “Crucial parts of it are not,” she writes. “It almost always involves a painful excursion into the pathos wherein the anguish is enormous …”

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 A friend tells me that I am in “bifurcation.” The word literally means “a fork in the road,” a point where an old life is ending and a new one is beginning. It is the scientific process of the caterpillar–of chrysalis.

Removing my shoes, I slide my feet into the cool sand. Late afternoon shadows bruise the sky as I walk along the shoreline laced with foam. I huddle against the chill. The seagulls, too, brace against the wind. They step on tentative legs toward the waves, waiting for a meal.

A butterfly snags the edge of my vision. Then I see another and another. They flit in and out of the thickets of reeds as if stitching them together.

I take a few more steps along the beach when a movement ahead distracts me. On the bleached sand sits a dab of brown and yellow. It is a butterfly, stranded on its side and dangerously close to the waves. It is injured, lifting one wing, then dropping it.

I sit down and watch it, struggling for flight. The wind pushes against it; the waves move in closer. I pick it up gently between two fingers and move it toward safety, up toward the dunes.

For some time, I wait, wondering what it will do. The butterfly still thrashes, yearning to fly, but it is hurt and needs to be still for it to heal. I want to comfort it, tell it to stop fighting. A sob catches in my throat.

In her book When the Heart Waits, author Sue Monk Kidd writes: “To suffer our darkness is to take the pained and broken parts of ourselves and rock them gently.”

I begin to weep for it, for my own brokenness and pain, for all the suffering in the world, and I rock it gently. We are all in the process of bifurcation, of letting go of what no longer works and finding new wings. We can do nothing but wait until healing unfolds, until life and answers are born.

I am learning, as Jungian analyst James Hillman writes, that our “soul is the patient part of us.” And I must allow myself to go into the unknowing spaces of my life, to live there with their tensions and sorrows.

I must have faith that even though I am mired in the smaller details of “what next,” God views the bigger picture and is comforting me, providing pockets of peace amidst the waiting. God is with me in the darkness and in the birthing process. And I must believe that as mystic Juliana of Norwich assured, “All is well and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally stand and with one foot, I draw a circle in the sand around the butterfly. I want it to be protected, whether it ever flies again or not. Before I leave, I whisper a prayer for its healing and for all the anguish and hurting on the earth.

I walk a few steps into the wet sand and then stop to look back one last time at the butterfly. But the circle is empty. Somewhere in the wind, my heart is soaring.

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About Marielena:
mz head shotI’m an old woman. And to prove it I’ve been writing a long time, for more than 40 years. I’ve worked as a staff writer for newspapers and magazines and earned some impressive journalism and writing awards. For three years (2010-2012) my essays placed in the top 100 of the inspirational category of the annual Writer’s Digest Magazine writing contest.