There’s nothing to be afraid of

My mother grew up in the hills of Tennessee where she recalls an elderly gentleman who used to spin yarns. He’d tell his tale and then, in his folksy Southern accent, say, “You can believe it or leave it alone.” That’s how I feel about the blog post I’m about to share. You can believe it or leave it alone. 

I share this story in the hope that you, too, may find peace in whatever life brings this year. There is nothing to be afraid of.

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I tend to worry. Believe me, I’ve prayed endless prayers to trust more in God, to be healed of the anxiety that often grabs at my gut and stares me down with its unsettling eyes.

I can tell you all the reasons I get anxious, but that knowledge doesn’t help when I’m in the midst of some health-care challenge involving dad or mom, or someone I love, or some concern about my own health. I can tick off the numerous causes that prompt my “inner child” to become so fearful.

None of those reasons matter. Because in the end, the fear — and let’s call it what it is — is about me wanting to be in control and not having faith in a Higher Power. 

Thankfully, I’m not always anxious. Sometimes, grace will enfold me and I’ll be more at peace. Being human, however, I can be pulled away from trust in a nanosecond and find myself face down in the ugly muck of fear.

But the last two weeks, something happened.

A friend recently died. I’ve been praying for her spirit because that’s what I do. I pray not only for many loved ones still here, but also those in that space you can call “heaven” or “the other side” or whatever name you want to give it.

Ultimately, we are one energy. And whatever dimension or space our spirits inhabit when they leave our bodies, I believe we are always connected and in need of prayerful love and attention. So, I had been praying for my friend.

The week before Christmas I put out my decorations, including a small stuffed bear in a Santa outfit. When you press on its left paw — and you must press very hard (envision a dog’s squeaky toy and that’s how hard you must press) — the bear plays in tinkling chimes “Jingle Bells — dashing through the snow.”

Two days before Christmas I had been out shopping in a soft, falling snow. I had entered my place and sat my bags on the floor by the chair where the bear rests. And then it happened. The bear began to play.

How could that be? I hadn’t touched it. I stood there, baffled, listening. The music stopped for a few seconds, then it started again.

What was happening? I’d had the bear for 10 years and not ONCE had it done this. Ever.

I let it go, attributing it to some fluke, but a whisper of something else nagged at my soul. Could it be my friend letting me know she was OK?

I woke up on New Year’s Eve morning and walked into the kitchen to make coffee. When I turned on the light, half the power went out in my place. I’ve lived here for some time and that had never happened. I called our maintenance man and he was baffled. None of the switches on the fuse box were tripped and nothing was amiss. He tripped the master switch anyway and the power came back on.

Again, I dismissed it. But that pull to listen returned. I kept feeling a message wanted to be heard. But what?

Yesterday morning, I was getting dressed and next to the stuffed bear.  It hadn’t played a tune since that last mysterious occurrence. But once again, the bear began to play.

As before, the music stopped for a few seconds. Then it started again and wouldn’t stop until I finally said out loud, “I know you’re here. You can stop now.” And the music immediately stopped.

In my heart, I felt something wanted to be conveyed. But I had no idea what that might be. I prayed and asked that if my friend — or another angelic being — was trying to tell me something, that I might be open to hearing it. Nothing came.

I don’t watch much television. Hate commercials and usually turn them off. But last night, I caught one advertisement for TurboTax. A strange pull came over to me that I was meant to see this. What? A tax commercial?

The TV ad showed  a toy bear, about the size of my own stuffed bear without the Santa outfit, toddling a step at a time toward a frightened woman. This lady peeked out from behind a closet, terrified, believing something terrible was waiting for her.

And then, as the bear giggled and danced toward her, the words read:

THERE IS NOTHING TO BE AFRAID OF.

I sat there in awe.

I shared all this with a friend who pooh-poohed it, attributing it to natural causes. You might, too, and that’s OK. As I said in the beginning, you can take this tale or leave it alone.

But for me, it was a clear and direct message from God that my prayers have been heard, that the Divine does want me and all of us to be healed of worry and fear.

I know experiences will come this year when I will be tested, when fear will shove me back into old patterns. Will I truly have learned to “let go and let God?”

I don’t know. But when challenges come, I will hold on to these words: “There is nothing to be afraid of.”

I will allow myself to breathe into the fear, knowing the Divine spirit of Love has got my back. And I will learn to trust. A step at a time, toddling toward faith.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The face of the New Year

We all long to be seen.

It is one of the deepest desires of the human heart. When we are seen, we are validated, affirmed. We feel to the core of our being that we are recognized at soul level.

In another’s face, we feel her or his heart meeting us. In Africa, certain forms of greeting mean “I see you.” And in Connemara, Ireland, a phrase used to describe admiration is, “The face of the people is toward you.”

This past year I have felt seen in various guises.

In my father, who, through clouded, cataract-laden eyes, greeted me with a smile every time I came into the house. In a dear friend who offered sanctuary, a space to heal and renew after days of caregiving. Another friend, who affirmed my writing and encouraged me to go forward.

Decades ago, when I was going through a rough time in life, I remember a spiritual director with whom I felt truly seen. He offered unconditional acceptance, presence, and generously allowed me to find my own way and my own soul.

Allowing ourselves to be seen, however, takes some courage.

I still struggle with this because it invites vulnerability. Perhaps this is why children and animals offer us the most authentic measure of being seen. They are not laden with expectations or past wounds, so in their faces we find the expressions of sacred innocence, of acceptance.

This Christmas, I leaned over into the crib of my four-month-old great niece, and in our first meeting our faces found each other in laughter and joy. And in my friend’s dog, who sees me — not only as someone who will play with her — but knows she can lick my face and hands in pure abandon.

This past year many lost the faces of those they loved. A family member or dear friend. A beloved pet. And while those physical countenances may be gone, the souls that embodied them live on.

Yes, we grieve. We cry. But on some level we know their spiritual faces are ever with us, seeing and loving us in new and other realms.

In this coming year, we will find more joys and sorrows, more losses and gains. How we approach the “face of the new year” will depend on the proportion of depth we bring to it.

I love the Irish writer John O’Donohue who speaks of the manner in which we view a landscape or a person for the first time. He advises us to take time, to be present to that moment, because we will never see that person or have that experience in the same way again.

Each day of this year will be much the same, moments that are fresh and untouched. How will we approach these precious seconds of time, what will we inscribe on them in those first meetings?

For myself, and for you all, I pray we may come to see ourselves with deeper love and gratitude for the holy beings we are. I pray we may recognize the common clay of our bodies as connected.

And instead of resolving to “do things” such as lose weight, exercise more, eat healthier, or stop this or that — all worthy goals — perhaps we can learn how to simply “be,” and in that being-ness discover ourselves more authentic, vulnerable, compassionate in the moment.

Meister Eckhart, mystic and theologian, wrote that we should worry not so much about what we do, but rather about what we are. And what we are, who we are, is love, pure and simple.

So, my prayer for us all for 2018 is that we may see the face of this new year with new eyes.

May we ask ourselves at the end of each day, as O’Donohue writes, “What did I really see this day?”

May it be love.

*******

(Wishing you all a blessed, joyous New Year, with gratitude for pausing here with me in these moments.)

 

 

 

 

Another Christmas story

As children we are sometimes oblivious to what our parents are going through. Especially at Christmas. Dad used to tell this story in his inspirational lectures before he had the stroke. Perhaps it’s time I share it now, with some modifications.

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We had just moved from tropical South Texas to the Philadelphia area. Dad’s work had transferred him to what I felt was an alien planet — cold, bleak and unfriendly — but my siblings and I adapted.

As Christmas approached, we were excited and rambunctious.

Little did we know that even though dad now had a better job, making ends meet was difficult because of the move. I was 10 years old and had no idea we might be poor.

My mother was worried about Christmas. Dad kept telling her to have faith.

“But we don’t enough money for toys, a Christmas turkey … or even a tree.”

“God will provide,” he assured her.

My mother trusted God but she also knew that we would expect toys and a Christmas tree. On Christmas Eve day, my father phoned my mother from work and said he had an extra $10. In the early 1960s, that amount of money could buy a great deal. Not enough for a tree or toys. But at least we’d have Christmas dinner, he told my mother.

On the way home from work, my father stopped into a church. He knelt and prayed. He thanked God for taking care of his family. He asked that this be the best Christmas ever for his wife and children.

He held back tears, not knowing how God was going to do that, but his faith was deep and strong. He knew God would answer his prayer.

As he walked down the aisle, a man approached him.

“Sir, my wife is ill. I have an infant son and I’m out of work. We have nothing on this Christmas Eve. If you can spare even a dollar, I would be so thankful.”

My father stood there, not knowing what to do. He needed this money for his own family. But it was Christmas Eve and this man was in need. Dad dug into his wallet and handed the man his last $10.

“Go and take care of your family. Merry Christmas.”

The man began to cry.

“God bless you, sir,” he told my father, hugging him.

As dad left the church he wondered what he was going to tell my mother. He knew she’d be upset. When he got home and shared what had happened, she looked at him with tears in her eyes.

“But what about our Christmas?”

A knock on the door interrupted their conversation. The neighbor across the street and his adult son stood there, holding a huge, fresh-cut Christmas tree.

“We’re not sure you could use this,” said our neighbor, “but my son came into town for Christmas and didn’t know we already had a tree and bought this one. Can you use it?”

“Yes, we can!” my father said, thanking him, as we all stood there, our eyes growing wide.

Then came another knock. The local volunteer fire company was delivering Christmas dinners, complete with turkey and the trimmings. My father was having a difficult time settling us down at all the excitement.

“But what about gifts for the children?” my mother whispered, as we decorated the tree.

“God’s come through so far. Just wait.”

My mother still wasn’t sure, but at least she knew we had a tree and a Christmas dinner.

Later that evening, as it grew colder and a soft snow fell, my mother thought she heard another knock on the door. When she went to open it, she found two huge boxes, brimming with wrapped gifts.

“Someone must have known we were in need and delivered them,” my mother whispered.

I still remember that Christmas. Life was hard and we may have been poor, but in hindsight, I see how rich we were. My parents gave us the greatest gift of all — one of faith, that all things are possible with God.

We witnessed firsthand the true meaning of Christmas, how God was manifest and born through the love and kindness of neighbors and strangers.

And God had answered dad’s prayer after all. It was indeed the best Christmas ever.

*******

Thank you all for the gift of your readership and presence here. I wish you and your loved ones a joyous Christmas, a blessed holiday season and a Happy New Year!

 

 

 

 

 

Forever in our hearts

I lost a friend today. A Facebook friend.

I didn’t know her as you would know most friends you call up and go out for dinner to chat. I knew little of her history, her life, what kept her awake at nights, her favorite color. But I knew enough.

She loved cats. And bubbles. The ocean. She called it her happy place. Her heart was open to life, despite whatever horrendous stuff it slung at her. In the end, it handed her cancer.

That didn’t stop her from living. She took trips, went to the ocean, made sure she told people she loved them.

Even before the cancer, she was brave and strong and I told her that in Facebook shares. I don’t know if she believed me. But I always admired her courage, how she stepped through every life challenge with grace and determination. I shared with her once that she was my hero.

Part of a spiritual group on Facebook, she shared her love, generosity and positivity and we loved her. Her last post was on December 4 and she assured everyone she was OK. She went home to God on December 13.

I wish I had known her better. Wish I had asked what her favorite color was and what kept her awake at night. But as I said, I knew enough. I knew her heart. It was as vast and as deep as the ocean she loved.

She wrote a final FB farewell to us all, wanting no fuss at her passing, but simply asked us to do one of two things in her memory: Perform a random act of kindness or an act of joy (bubbles, perhaps?) 

It’s the kind of thing she would ask and even though I grieve her passing — it makes me smile. It’s something she would want us all to do.

So be kind to one another. Blow bubbles. Everywhere.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A little love at Christmas

At this time of year my life can feel like the scrawny, humble Christmas tree that Charlie Brown buys in the perennial favorite, A Charlie Brown Christmas. He tries to make it beautiful, but instead the branches limp over in defeat.

The season can do that to us. The pressure of commercialism, buying gifts, doing everything we feel needs to get done can leave us empty and exhausted.

Or, perhaps the holidays trigger dysfunctional family issues, grief over the loss of a loved one or beloved pet, or remind us that we are alone and don’t have the perfect romantic relationship as portrayed on the Hallmark Channel.

It’s a Wonderful Life is another Christmas movie that speaks to what seems to be failure. Most of you know the story. Poor George Bailey can’t seem to catch a break. He wants to leave his father’s banking business and travel the world.

But he falls in love with Mary, marries her, follows in his dad’s footsteps as bank president, and is stuck in his hometown of Bedford Falls. Some sneaky business dealings place the bank in trouble and George is driven to suicide.

Until Clarence his guardian angel appears and saves George. He grants George’s wish: What would his life be like if he had never been born?

When Mary is visited by the angel Gabriel and told she is to be the mother of the Christ, she is in fear. What will happen now — and how? Her heart must have been troubled as she traveled to visit her cousin Elizabeth to share her news.

But when Elizabeth affirms Mary by declaring, “Blessed are you among women and blessed is the child you will bear!” Mary’s fear leaves her.

Only then is Mary able to proclaim the Magnificat, a grace-filled prayer of praise and thanks. An angel couldn’t evoke Mary’s powerful words. But another human being could.

Sometimes we fail to see the power we have as humans, how the smallest of acts can be life-changing and blessed for others.

Charlie discovers, with the help of Lucy, Linus, Snoopy and his friends, that his tree is not so scrawny after all, but filled with beauty.

And George discovers the impact — no matter how insignificant his actions — he has had on many lives. He just never knew it. Mary finds her fear at “what happens next” disappearing when her cousin affirms her as a channel of God’s grace.

We can find ourselves somewhere in each of these stories.

I know when my life feels like a scrawny Christmas tree, or I feel like George and my life seems to have little meaning, or like Mary, I feel alone and afraid – I can open up my heart to receive the love and support of others. And I can love myself.

The point is, we matter to each other; we need each other. As Clarence tells George, “Each man’s life touches so many other lives, and when he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?”.

Your life may feel like Charlie Brown’s scrawny tree, but Linus knows better. He tells Charlie, “I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.” 

A little love. Sometimes that’s all we need – what we can be for each other.

What greater gift is there?

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Emptiness and fullness

We are good at emptying things. Dishwashers. Hampers. The trash. But how many of us are good at emptying ourselves — at letting go so we might be open to receive?

Here’s a Zen story that may help in our understanding.

A young student desired to learn from a certain master and was invited to his house for an interview.

The student began talking about all he knew, his past teachers, spiritual experiences, philosophies and on and on. As the master sat there and listened silently, he began to pour a cup of tea. He poured and poured and even after the cup was filled, kept pouring until the tea was spilling everywhere.

The student finally noticed what was happening and stopped his monologue to shout, “Stop pouring! The cup is full!”

The teacher said, “Yes, and so are you. How can I possibly teach you?”

I think “emptying ourselves” to receive might be one of the toughest spiritual challenges around. But it’s also at the heart of all true spiritual growth. When we are filled with ourselves, nothing else can enter. Divine love. Graces. Good.

But emptying ourselves takes a certain kind of courage. At heart, it’s about “letting go,” a topic I write about a great deal. We have to enter into a “poverty of spirit” that isn’t always comfortable. That means emptying ourselves of things we might want to hold on to — our pride, intellect, spiritual experiences, material gain — whatever it might be that blocks the Divine good longing to fill us.

I’m not speaking here to those who may already feel drained. That emptiness, I believe, comes exactly from NOT opening ourselves to be filled with the goodness, support or nurturing we need from ourselves or others. The Zen saying is true that “you can’t pour from an empty cup,” that is, we can’t give from what we don’t have first within ourselves, a lesson I’m always learning.

So how do we empty ourselves to receive in the busy-ness of our daily lives? After all, many of us are focused on jobs, families, caregiving for aging parents, school — whatever it may be — and time doesn’t allow for spiritual practices or for even the concept of letting go.

Maybe it’s not that complicated. We “empty ourselves” when we forget ourselves in brief moments of service to others, by offering a kindness, a smile, a door opening, an offer to drive an elderly neighbor to an appointment, listening to a friend or family member who needs support.

When we empty ourselves with these small acts of love, a greater good fills us, one of which we are all a part. 

We can also empty ourselves by having beginner’s mind — a tenet of some spiritual practices — when we see all things as new. In my own life I often find myself in a rut before I know it. That rut may be the same habitual acts that although need to get done, become boring after awhile. No surprises. Same old, same old.

In his book The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life author Thomas Moore explains how we must let go of what we know in order to uncover the new.

“The first step is to recover a beginner’s mind and a child’s wonder, to forget some of the things we have learned and to which we are attached. As we empty ourselves of disenchanted values, a fresh paradisiacal spirit may pour in…we may discover the nature of the soul and the pleasure of being a participant in the extravagance of life.”

This time of year it’s especially easy to get sucked into the holiday chaos, of falling into the habitual yearly routine of putting up the Christmas tree and outdoor decorations or holiday shopping and baking. When this happens, perhaps we can stop and take a breath, find a quiet physical space where we allow ourselves to be emptied of the frenzy so that the silence and love of the one who loves us can enter.

Another small exercise that might help comes from retreat leader Joyce Rupp. In a short ritual to help people realize the emptiness and fullness of their lives, she uses an ordinary cup. From her book The Cup of Our Life: A Guide for Spiritual Growth, she writes:

Hold an empty cup in your hands. Look at all the room the cup has for filling. Picture an inner part of yourself. Notice how much room there is for filling. Hold the cup out before you in the gesture of a beggar. Ask God to fill you.”

At the heart of it, we all thirst to be filled to overflowing. But first, we must venture the brave step of emptying ourselves. We can’t have one without the other.

May we have the courage to embrace both.

 

 

 

 

 

The Gift

Here in the Northeast, the weather is turning colder, leaves are falling and geese flock in chevron flight across sullen-gray skies. This time of year — one of giving thanks — seems right to share this essay again. Some of you have read this before. For those who haven’t, here is The Gift.

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I have started walking again in the park. This has become a prayer, a way of grounding myself.

When my feet are pulled to earth, my body centers, then my mind and finally my spirit. It does not always happen this way, but when it does, it’s as if irritating gauze has been lifted from my eyes, as if the earth beneath my feet becomes the salivated soil the Messiah used to heal the eyes of the blind man.

The park has a pond at its center, thick with geese. They are there now, but soon they will be gone. They know it will be time to go.

How is it they have this inner sense of rightness, of being, without questioning? Is it the scent of snow crystallizing in the upper atmosphere, the blustery skies, the days of dim and muted light?

I think it is none of those, but an act of trust in the highest good of which they are a part. So they surrender. And in surrendering, they are protected.

Winter is coming and I dread it. I liked this season once, appreciated the mystery of snow, the way it coated roof tops and tree limbs with layers of whipped-cream softness. It smothered the world in comforting silence, the muffled sounds of cars lumbering by, a child on a sled, her squeal of delight echoing across a hill, pure and clear as a soprano’s piercing the frigid night air.

Now, as I have grown older, I wonder where and how I lost those childlike eyes, the thrill of innocence in the present moment, the staccato crunch of snow beneath my boots.

When did I lose the joy of building a snowman until my nose and cheeks were pink and my gloved fingers tingled? When did I abandon the delicious act of spreading my arms and legs on mounds of white to carve out angels?

I had become blinded by the winters of life, by deadlines and adult duties, meeting others through mist and fog — vaporous and not present — and hibernating, waiting for spring, hope and life.

One day, at the pond filled with geese, Sara Maria gave me hope. To say she gave me hope is to say everything. That day God was revealed to me and was embodied in this girl-child. She became Yahweh and Emmanuel, the ever-present moment of I AM and God with us.

In my life, I believed in God and often prayed to know God better. I sought direction and signs. I asked the eternal “why” but often, God was silent. Why then did God listen that day and choose to speak in that way? Was it because that afternoon as I sat on the park bench, watching geese lift from the pond and glide off into the dusky sky, a young father and his child filled my heart with an unexpected thanksgiving?

The sun was low, soft light filtering through the leaves, dappling field and wildflowers. Father and daughter walked hand-in-hand in the distance.

Patiently, he waited as she stopped at times to bend down and scoop up something in her hands. Even from afar I could sense his love for her, she, free to explore, and he, watching and protecting.

As they walked closer to me, I could see she was a pretty child, a round face and curious eyes, taking in all of life without question or judgment. Her thin legs would break into a happy skip and then she would squat, exploring the earth in great detail.

I knew they meant to pass me by, and I, in turn, would offer a simple hello. Then, the child did something unexpectedly — she stopped before me. She stood there, frail and elfin-like, her silent stance embracing me in acceptance.

She asked my name. I told her and asked hers in turn. We began a conversation of the highest realm, of her walk by the pond, of her father, of her mother at home, of the geese on the pond.

It was then I noticed she clutched something in her right hand — a bouquet of tattered and mottled goose feathers.

These were special, she told me, showing me the unique designs of each and then sharing what she would do with these when she returned home — dust her doll furniture, tickle her brother, tuck them in her hair and pretend she was an Indian princess. Her body was a ballerina’s as she spoke, tiptoeing around her father’s legs, lowering her eyes and then lifting them to meet mine.

Words spent, she cocked her head and grinned. She tugged at her father’s leg and he bent close to her small face as she whispered in his ear.

“Fine,” he said. “That’s a wonderful idea.”

She paused shyly, then extended her arm and hand, straight into my space, straight into my heart.

“For you,” she said.

I could not speak. What could I say to this gift from this stranger-child, a gift she had gathered with joy and love?

“Thank you,” I whispered. “Would you like to take one home with you? Pick the one you’d like. It will be our special feather.”

She nodded and after a few seconds of deliberation, chose one. Then, holding her father’s hand she said good-bye and walked away.

For days after when I walked in the park I would look for Sara Maria, hoping to see her again so that I might truly thank her. But I never did. I finally decided that this was the way it was meant to be. She was there for me at one moment in time when I needed her.

I took the feathers that day and gave them to the water, one by one, a symbolic gesture that I could not hold on to anything in my life, not even the blessings.

I let them float on undirected breezes, knowing that my journey had to be a letting go, a trust that wherever I am is good, secure and protected because of a higher power at my side.

Each feather became a prayer.

******

(Blogger’s Note:  In 2012, this essay placed fifth — among thousands of entries — in the inspirational category of the annual writing competition of Writers Digest Magazine.)