Catch the wind

In the 1960s, many of us were trying to find ourselves. Hair was growing longer and skirts shorter. The Vietnam War. Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Indeed, the times they were a-changing. Here’s a story about a high school friend and how, in trying to find ourselves, we found the unexpected.

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I was a freshman. An all-girls Catholic high school, no less, where — as the outside world pounded on the doors with the decadence of Woodstock — inside the regimen and decorum of a convent prevailed.

woodstockI was quiet by nature. Loved reading. Shy and insecure. And then I met Regina, a classmate. She lived nearby so we rode the bus together.

She had long red hair — that she ironed nightly into a crisp, flat sheet — flashing green eyes and a tough exterior. She smoked on the sly, cursed like a sailor and spoke her mind. I wanted to be her.

As we grew older, we loved all things “folk” and “British” and Regina tempted me to a place called The Cellar where local bands and singers performed. The steps downward were steep and the room itself, narrow. Pockets of light poked into the darkness from candles stuffed into empty wine bottles set on the few tables that lined the stucco walls.

We entered a shadowy, smoke-filled world where a guitarist strummed “Catch the Wind” by Donovan or a four-piece band thumped out songs by the Rolling Stones.

Regina started dating the bass player of one of the bands and she tried to set me up with the lead guitarist. But I was painfully shy. Our conversation that night fizzled because I wanted to speak of things like “The Little Prince” and Charlotte Bronte and Leonard Cohen. He couldn’t finish a complete sentence. He wouldn’t have understood.

Like her mother, Regina was political. She protested the Vietnam War. She believed in equal rights. In her rights.

One day during history class, she was sitting in the back row by an open door. We watched as the good sister walked down the aisle and yanked her out into the hallway. I overheard part of the conversation. Sister felt that Regina’s bangs were too long and threatened, with scissors in hand, to cut them. “You’re violating my civil rights,” Regina screamed. “You can’t do that!”

make loveOh, yes, I wanted to be like Regina, outspoken and courageous in times that demanded a voice.

But times do change. And so do people. We graduated. Moved on. Life took me into journalism and writing. I lost touch with many of my classmates, including Regina.

Then one day, I was searching on Facebook for high school friends, and that somehow led me to her name and to another site.

And to her obituary.

Regina had died at the age of 56. She had had a hard life. When she was in labor and about to deliver her baby — a single woman and alone — she drove herself to the hospital. Later in life, she worked odd jobs, doing what she had to in order to survive and raise her son.

When she was diagnosed with brain cancer, she wasn’t afraid.

Her sister had written in her obituary that she saw this not as an ending, but the beginning of new life. Somewhere along the way, Regina had rediscovered what the Sisters had planted in our hearts years ago — faith in God. It had sustained her those last days.

The 1960s were a time we were trying to find ourselves. We had dreams to change the world. But some of us got lost along the way.

We didn’t know that as much as we would try “to catch the wind” that we wouldn’t. That as we grew older, life would have its way with us, that we would love, cry, laugh, fall and get up. Again and again.

And sometimes, in those days of turmoil and trying to find ourselves, we never thought that perhaps we were never lost to begin with.

We didn’t know that being shy or outspoken were all good, pieces of who we were becoming. And in that search for self, in the fearlessness of youth, little did we dream we might find ourselves in death some day. Or so soon.

sorrow-julie-fainI go back in memory to that time and can still see Regina, red hair swinging and bangs intact, challenging me about my vote and the Vietnam War, letting a curse word fly, giving voice to her views about civil rights and women’s liberation.

I realize now that she was one of the first to show me how it was done, one of the first who helped me find my voice.

And in my heart, I know she’s at peace because she finally did find herself. She found her way home. She caught the wind after all.

******

 

 

 

 

 

To be idle and blessed

What do we do when we are exhausted with life? Here are some thoughts and stories.

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Sometimes we feel we have nothing left. We are empty. Dry. Earth that is caked and cracked and aching for water.

weary 1We have done too much in our lives, driven too many miles to work, attended too many meetings, cooked too many meals, had too many sleep-deprived nights, and worried too much about children or spent too many hours caring for aging parents.

We’d like to pull the covers over our heads and sleep. Preferably for months.

This, I believe, is the human condition today.  We are exhausted, physically. On a deeper level, we are soul weary. Our spirits yearn to be refreshed.

But how do we do that? How do we restore our being, especially when so much is demanded of us?

A friend of mine has been grappling with these questions for some years. She wakes up at 5 a.m. each day and travels into Manhattan where she works for a large corporation. Her pay is excellent but in exchange, she puts in long hours, manages mind-numbing projects and puts up with wearisome meetings. If she loved her work, perhaps all that would be bearable. But she doesn’t. After work hours, she is exhausted, with little energy to do the things that might replenish her.

My own story is one of caregiving. I was pushed into the “graduate course” of self-nurturing after my father had a stroke two years ago. I eventually came to realize at deepest levels that I had to make time for myself, even if it was for an hour. Otherwise, I had nothing left for him, myself or anyone else.

quiet and restToday, I am still learning to let go and simply be — to allow a sunset to soak into my soul, to curl up with a book or daydream — and not feel guilty about it. I know that if I don’t make time, it won’t happen. So I schedule a date with my spirit, to nourish it, and with my body, to relax and heal it.

Only we can decide what will refresh us down deep. It may be gardening. Prayer. A walk. A nap with a dog curled at our feet. Or, it may be allowing the moment to unfold in its fullness while we “do” nothing. I love Mary Oliver’s poem, “The Summer Day” and her words:

“… I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed …”

Sadly, we have forgotten how to pay attention. We don’t know how “to be idle.” So, for many of us, “falling down into the grass” won’t be easy. Being human, we will make excuses and allow the pressures of life to drain us.

But the truth is, some task or person will always be pulling at us. To find rest for ourselves, we may need to ask for help. We may need to say “no” more often. Or, we may need to let go of what no longer serves us. My friend did this. She eventually left her corporate job and although her income is meager, her soul is flourishing.

What I continue to learn is this: Much may be demanded of us but we have a choice as to how we respond. We can choose to be gentle with our precious being. We can simplify our lives and make the time to reboot, even if it’s for five or 10 minutes.

daisyIn the silence of our hearts, we can allow ourselves to fall into the arms of the Divine Beloved who wants nothing more than our restoration. We can be idle. And blessed.

Only then, will the hard earth soften. Life-giving waters flow into our hearts. And our souls bloom.

 

 

 

Holding space

Life can be hard. That’s a given. But sometimes, life can feel overwhelming as if we are drowning and can’t find air. What do we do when we’re in that space of despair and hopelessness? I offer a personal story, difficult to share but in the hope that it might be healing to others, and another story in which the circumstances have been slightly altered. Here they are.

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woman wearyI had been in a painful place in my life. If you’ve been on this human journey for any length of time I’m sure you’ve experienced deep pain, too. I felt so much despair over certain situations I didn’t know where to turn or what to do. Yes, I had tried counseling and had prayed. Despite my efforts, I was sinking fast into the “dark night of the soul” and felt utterly hopeless.

So I woke one morning and decided a walk would help. I’ve always loved walking. It’s a way of grounding myself physically and spiritually and often lifts my spirits. I went to a nearby park with a lake. The day seemed to mock me with its sunshine, blue skies, melodic birds and temperate breezes.

After my walk, I sat cross-legged on the cool summer grass, watching the geese and ducks floating on the lake. They didn’t seem to struggle. If only I could find their peace. At least the park was quiet this day. No one was around. No one. All was hushed except for the sounds of the gentle lapping of the waters against the shore.

As I sat there, a deep sorrow welled up in my soul. I began to cry, then sob. I prayed. Yet again. But what good would that do? Hadn’t I prayed endlessly before? Then, from out of nowhere, haunting strains of music caught my ears, drifting across the lake. A bagpiper. I looked around but saw no one. Where was he?

Now, as he played the dissonant, melancholy strains on his pipe, my weeping became deeper. I asked God for a sign. Help me, I pleaded. I need your grace. I need your grace. I need your grace. No sooner had I whispered this bagpiper_2_by_frani54-d6lugpaheartfelt, urgent petition that the bagpiper began to play “Amazing Grace.” It drifted across the waters and straight into my broken heart. Even as I sobbed, the song comforted me. I felt as if God had heard me, finally, and was “holding space” for me.

Holding space. We hear much today about this, but what is it exactly? I believe it’s an experience where we are met and loved exactly where we are and for who we are. We are not judged. The other person is not trying to fix us. They are simply opening their hearts to us, walking “with” us in whatever may be happening in our lives.

I had the sacred privilege of holding space for others when I did my graduate internship in counseling at a mental health clinic. One woman had come to me in deep pain. She was distressed that her single daughter had turned to drugs and was no longer providing for her 6-year-old child. So the woman and her husband, both in their 60s, decided to raise their grandson.

But one day, while he was in their care, he went out into the street on his bike and was hit by a car. He died. And the woman could not forgive herself, her daughter or God.

heart you are here

My heart broke with her. And I could do nothing but “hold space” for her. I could be present to her feelings of anger and grief and sorrow. I could allow her a healing process that was hers and hers alone. And I could “be” with her through her pain.

That day in the park, after the music had stopped, I rose and walked some feet to the other side of the lake to look for my bagpiper. I wanted to thank him. It had only been a few minutes since he had gifted me with the strains of “Amazing Grace.” But as much as I looked — in the parking lot, in the picnic area, in the woods — no one was there.

Had he been an angel? Or human, practicing on the pipes? It didn’t matter. I left the park that day feeling light breaking through the darkness. I could breathe. And I came to understand that even in the darkest parts of life, even though we may not always feel it or see it, that we are always heard. And loved. That the Divine is always “holding space”  — for us all.

 

 

How, then, should we love?

Many years ago, when I was in my 20s, I had an encounter that made an impression on me. One that changed me and made me realize the power of presence and how we are each part of a larger, spiritual family. Here is that story.

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The day-long conference had been uplifting. Spiritual speakers. Healing energies. Positive thoughts. I walked from the hotel into the dark of the city. And into a relentless, monsoon-like rain. I had blocks to go before reaching the parking garage.

As I scurried down the dimly-lit street, wind and rain buffeting my umbrella, a bundle heaped against the wall snagged the corner of my vision. What was it? I hesitated and glanced. It wasn’t a “what” but a “who” — a person, hunched in the downpour. A woman.

Homeless-womanShe was one of the many homeless in the city and my heart dropped to my knees. Should I help her? What should I do? What could I do? She was drenched. But I had just left a workshop about loving others, about helping the world become a better place. Shouldn’t I do something?

I stood there, momentarily paralyzed, the urge pulling me to ask her how I could help against my own better sense to keep moving. And then, as I stood there, a car pulled up to the curb. A couple got out. They asked the woman if she was OK. They had sandwiches and hot coffee. Could they take her somewhere, to a shelter where she would be dry and safe?

I watched for a few minutes as the woman shook her head. She seemed to want to stay there, although they kept pleading with her to come with them. But she took the food. And they gave her blankets and an umbrella.

I turned and continued walking to my car, a mix of deep emotions. I was touched by the compassion and courage of the couple who had stopped and asked this woman if she needed help, and I was ashamed that I had not. These many years later, I regret not acting.

What stopped me? In hindsight and all honesty — fear. Fear of the unknown, of my safety, of what I might be called on to do. Decades later, this particular woman has stayed with me and hopefully I have gained some wisdom since that experience.

As a journalist, I went on to write articles about the homeless and after interviewing them I discovered this: They feel invisible and they want to be seen. They want their presence to be acknowledged, even if it is a simple “Hello. How are you today?” Instead, they have watched many of us walk by in discomfort. When we see them on city streets we rush by because it dredges up many issues — judgment, guilt for not doing more, not wanting to become involved and also the frightening reality, “This could be me.”

The truth is, it is you. And me.

That rainy night I indeed could have acted. I could have offered not money — not even my umbrella — but something even more powerful, the gift of acknowledging that woman’s presence as another human being, as a sister made in the image of the Divine, as I am.

Life will always give those moments that will test our spiritual center. It’s never an easy call. I’m sure each of us has had this inner struggle, seeing someone in need and gauging it against our safety. Or wondering how much we should HANDSTOUCHINGS-33_000extend ourselves. Sometimes common sense should and will prevail. And sometimes we will act with courage, no matter the cost.

But those moments — however they present themselves — will draw from the deepest parts of our being as to how we are living our lives. They will help us see our rough edges and where we need to soften. Those moments will help us grow. And deepen.

Most of us all, if we are open, they help us see ourselves in one another. And witness the presence of love in the face of another. No matter the guise.

 

A love story

I’ve been asked to write this particular story — many times. But I haven’t until now. This morning, before my exercise class started, a woman next to me asked about my name, where I was born, about my parents and then — hearing that dad was from Texas and mom from Tennessee — how they met.

I asked her if she really wanted to hear it. She did. After I was finished, she said, like many others have said, “You need to write that story!”

I had been wondering what to share next on my blog because, the truth is, I never know what stories will invite me. My writing is much like life’s journey with its detours and unexpected insights and vistas. The woman’s urging this morning felt like an invitation to take a traveler’s rest and share this now. So. Here is the amazing story of how my parents met.

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Antonio and Mayme Zuniga at St. Mary Medical Center

My mother and father — Mayme and Antonio Zuniga — at the hospital’s meditation garden after dad’s stroke.

My father and his friend Dan, both seniors in high school, were heading to the movies. World War II was nearing its end; the year was 1945.  As they walked the streets of the small town of Donna in South Texas, they spotted a green panel truck parked in front of a restaurant. At that time “tinkers” would travel in such trucks, selling all types of wares, from pots and pans to jewelry.

Dan was drawn to the many names and addresses written on both sides of the truck, from all the places that tinker had stopped.

“Hey, look!” he said to my dad. “There are names here of people who want pen pals.”

My father kept walking, not paying attention to Dan.

“Hey, c’mon, Tony. Let’s write our names on the truck with all the others. It’ll be fun,” Dan said. “What kind of girl do you want to write to you?”

My father, who wanted none of this, stopped and said in defiance, “A green-eyed blonde! Now let’s get to the movies.”

So Dan wrote my father’s name and address on the side of that panel truck. And he asked for a green-eyed blonde.

Meanwhile, the tinker traveled north to Red Boiling Springs, a nondescript town hidden in the hills of northern Tennessee, near the Kentucky border. My mother was sitting with her friend Peggy in her front yard when the panel truck stopped and parked in front of the Utopia Café.

My mother and Peggy were curious and walked to the truck to see what the tinker was selling. When Peggy saw all the names asking for pen pals, she said, “Let’s write to someone. C’mon, Mayme Alice! Choose someone!”

My mother picked my father’s name because it sounded exotic, like the movie stars of that time, Ricardo Montalban or Caesar Romero. She mailed her first letter to my dad, writing “I’m the green-eyed blonde you advertised for.”

On receiving the letter and reading it, my father was annoyed. He wrote and told my mother that he had NEVER advertised for a girl in his life, nor would he ever, and told her not to write again.

At that moment, my mother had a choice. She could have walked away. But she didn’t. She wrote back. She told him that she lived in the hills of Tennessee where it often was lonely. It was war time. She wanted a pen pal and a friend. Nothing more. So, they began writing and wrote for three years, love deepening with each letter, before meeting for the first time in Puerto Rico where my father was a radio operator for Pan American Airways .

handsThis August my parents will celebrate their 67th wedding anniversary. They have nine children and eight grandchildren. And their strong belief in God has been their center, through joyful and painful times, including dad’s stroke two years ago.

Are some life events meant to happen? I don’t know. But I do know that God’s grace is always available and how we respond — with a yes or no — can determine our future and the lives of so many others. Those moments of grace can surprise us. But they give us hope that we are always dancing with the Divine, always in relationship with that force of love that guides us in mysterious ways, if we are present and open. And if we have the courage to say yes.

Kissing Shirley Temple

My father spent the majority of his career in TV and radio broadcasting, behind the scenes. For many years, he worked at KYW-TV in Philadelphia and was there during the days of The Mike Douglas Show. As a result, he met many celebrities and movie stars. This is the story of one such meeting — a story some of you on Facebook have already read — and about holding on to your dream, no matter what.

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Dad grew up in Donna, a small, impoverished town in South Texas. As a little Mexican-American boy, he helped his father in his grocery store — la tienda — after school. But on weekends, as a child of 7 or 8 years old, when he could afford it, he would go to the movies.

One of his favorite movie stars was Shirley Temple. He would walk out of the sultry air and blinding sun into another world, a shadowy, air-conditioned theatre with black-and-white images on the screen of Shirley singing “Good Ship shirley templeLollipop” or tap dancing with Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

Dad was smitten. And in love. Sitting in that theatre, he made himself a promise: One day he would meet and kiss Shirley Temple.

Fifty years later, he was the station manager at KYW and was in charge of all the producers and directors, for the news and for The Mike Douglas Show. He would come home from work and tell us how Bob Hope needed some new shirts, so dad walked him through the streets of Philadelphia and found a store.

Or, how dad — who used to love to give one silver coin to the guests of the show, dad’s signature gesture of welcome — gave one coin to Yul Brynner who said, “Nobody ever gave me anything. Everyone always wants something from me.” Or how he gave a coin to Lawrence Welk, who said, “I’ll take it but I have to give you something in turn” and gave dad his pocket knife.

One day, dad walked in the studio and found out Shirley Temple Black was appearing on the show. Dad waited in the hallway and when she came in, he went to her and said, “I’ve been waiting 50 years to do this,” leaned into her and gave her a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

She was flustered and taken aback. But when dad explained his story, she was deeply touched. “Really? You’ve been waiting 50 years to kiss me?” she asked. “You really don’t give up, do you?”

And dad never did. Nor does he now, even with the stroke. This morning on the deck as I sat with dad, I was reminded of this story. I often try to get dad to talk, to help with his cognition and speech skills. Sometimes he responds and Dream-01other times he doesn’t. But I asked him about meeting all those famous people when he worked at KYW and who he  liked the best. It took him a few minutes, but he beamed and said, “Shirley Temple, of course.”

Sometimes we have dreams and we let go. Life gets hard. We get discouraged. Sometimes we give up too soon when a dream is just within reach, and had we waited, we would have realized our dream. And sometimes, we hang in there. We believe. We dream. We wait. Even if it is 50 years. And we kiss Shirley Temple.

Writing laid bare

A few years ago I tired of writing. I had done it for decades, mostly for others. I took early retirement in the hopes of tapping into the creative, heartfelt and sacred space of my words. Life intervened with some personal matters and I wasn’t able to fully involve myself in this type of writing.

The post below shares what I had hoped to do. I wrote it one frigid winter morning and sent it to a few publications. But it was rejected, which is much of a writer’s life.

So I am sharing it now on my blog. It is a story about my writing. But it is also a story about courage and bliss, however they may touch your lives. May you find what you need in these words.

*******

I am sitting at my computer glancing at the saying pinned on my bulletin board.

“You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

Eleanor Roosevelt said those words. I’m not sure when or in what context, but they still rattle my soul, take my breath away like stepping into a frigid wind.

birdsongOutside my window the trees are barren, a sky smudged with the pinks and grays of early dawn. A bird twitters, loudly breaking the silence. It is being true to its nature. It is not afraid to sing. I sigh and tell myself that I must “do the thing I think I cannot do.”

After writing all my life for publications and organizations and now, well past mid-life, I must accept writing’s invitation to a deeper relationship. I must write these words.

As I write I ask myself, why am I so fearful? And what is my worst fear? I think it is twofold. The first is sharing my soul. In the past, I have hidden behind the words of others in the pieces I have written. To write from my heart means exposure, revealing the flesh-and-blood of who I am.

But then, I comfort myself with the words of spiritual teacher/author Marianne Williamson who said:

“Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented and fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be?”

Williamson goes on to say that we do not serve the world by playing small. There’s nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around us. In other words, she is telling us that we all need to step forward and claim our gifts in ways that may make us uncomfortable.

Which leads to my second fear. Dying without fulfilling my potential. This fear, I believe, is universal, especially as we plunge headlong into our 50s and 60s. We do not want to leave this planet without following what educator and mythic storyteller Joseph Campbell called our “bliss.”

Following our bliss takes that courage of Eleanor’s words. For me, writing has not always been my bliss. It’s simply paid the bills. My words have been printed for years and informed the public about countless issues.

But they have not always healed. Perhaps in some cases, but for the most part they have been the humdrum drivel of print. I have not done what Eleanor said at another time and place:

“No writing has any real value which is not the expression of genuine thought and feeling.”

follow-your-heart-print-300x300Writing must now come my heart. In my early 60s, I no longer want to sink into the abyss of my many false selves, but into the depth of my spirit and write from that sacred space. What I write must be laid bare, exposing the marrow of life. It must be hallowed or it will be hollow. And there is enough hollowness in the world today.

If writing is ever to be my bliss at all, I must summon courage to speak to an even deeper reality. I want to give the gift of hope, a glimpse into the spiritual and earthly journey we share and I want us all, as Campbell said, to talk about God and not be afraid of that. I want to write words that will open our hearts to love.

Williamson said:

“As we let our light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Lofty goals? Perhaps. But if we are not loving, who are we? If we are not living our bliss, what then?

So I look at Eleanor’s words once more and take a deep breath. I type. And the birdsong gentle caresses me forward.