Let it be

“Doesn’t everything die at last and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild precious life?” — Mary Oliver

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I ran into Sally at the store the other day. We had been in a spiritual/prayer group together last winter and at the time, she had mentioned her father who was ill. She had been managing his care while he was in a nursing home.

I hadn’t seen her since that group ended and when I saw her, I asked about her dad.

“He died two months ago,” she said, sobbing.

women-huggingI hugged her and listened.

“It was so hard and so easy at the same time,” she said. “We were praying at his bedside and I was in tears, and I felt him go. I knew he was out of pain … still … I cry a lot these days.”

I felt my soul split open, wanting to spew out a river of sorrow. Her father’s death was triggering my own feelings of anticipatory grief about my own father who had a stroke two years ago.

Sally asked about my dad. I told her that for now, he was OK, but declining with each year. And I told her that I knew her experience would soon be mine.

“It will be painful,” she said, “but you will get through it. Let me write down your dad’s name so I can pray for him and for you.”

We said good-bye and I left the store, even more saddened. Meeting her and learning of her father’s death felt like a wake-up call, a gentle nudge from God. For whatever reasons, life has spared me the death of a close loved one. And Sally was a visible reminder to me of my story right now — one that each day knocks closer on the door of my heart.

For me, it continues to be a lesson in acceptance. And to be honest, I’ve never been good at it. I’m not good at letting go, especially of those I love.

I write a good deal about letting go because it’s a lifelong lesson for me. Lately, however, I have come to consider that perhaps it’s not so much a matter of letting go, but rather of “letting it be.” Wayne Muller an ordained minister, therapist and author, writes:

When we die, we need not let go of anything. Death will come when it comes. We are simply letting it be. And it is the same with life. We need not let go of our illusions of immortality. They will go on their own soon enough. But if we can mindfully accept it all simply as it is — we live and then we die — then there is nothing to do at all, only to let it be. This acceptance brings tremendous freedom.

These are fine words. And I yearn for that freedom that Muller describes. However, in this moment, they are just that —  words and not experience. I can only hope they uphold me when my father dies. And I pray I also find strength in God and the support of those around me.

But here’s the irony. Even while I wait — with grief, with dread — I also experience each moment with my father as precious, as new. When I am caregiving and with him, I find life somehow is born again, even in the face of impending death. And this, strangely, is a gift.

In his decline, I am learning to live attentively and deeply in the moment. And when he dies, I will offer thanks for my father’s life, one filled with countless examples of loving service. He truly has taken Mary Oliver’s quote to heart and lived life; he has not wasted one precious second in his desire to serve and help others.Letting-go21

Dad is not always coherent and the last week or so, every time I mention something — no matter the topic — he says “Let it happen. Let it happen.” He used to offer this advice when I would be troubled about the outcome of any given situation.

I believe this has been dad’s way of telling me to “let it be.” With such a teacher, how then, can I not be in gratitude? And how, when he dies, can I not keep from crying — in both joy and loss?

 

 

 

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The Gift

Here in the Northeast, the weather is turning cooler, leaves are falling and geese flock in chevron flight across cloud-streaked skies. This time of year seems right to share this essay again. In 2012, it placed fifth — among thousands of entries —  in the inspirational category of the annual writing competition of Writers Digest Magazine. I was, and am still, thankful.

Some of you have read this before. For those who haven’t, here is The Gift. 

*******

geeseI 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 SnowAngelmoment, 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?

father-and-daughter-walking-near-pond-2_bkdcqpuer__S0000The 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 toholding-a-feather-1 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.

 

 

First love

Sharing this personal story feels tender. Exposed. And yet, I heed writer Anne Lamott’s words: “Write straight into the emotional center of things. Write toward vulnerability. Risk being unliked.” So, yes, writing this is risky. But it also might resonate with you or reach into your own heart in some way. Here is the story of my first love — and the lessons I learned along the way.

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first love 2When I was 19, I fell in love. Seven years older than I was, he was handsome, funny, creative and spiritual. It ended badly. Painfully.

Still, he opened a new world to me. He introduced me to the wisdom and beauty of Hermann Hesse, Kahlil Gibran and Viktor Frankl, to Judy Collins and her Wildflowers album. Because he loved “Desiderata” I placed a poster of it on my bedroom wall; he read me poetry by Rumi and I devoured it. I wrote him love letters on pink stationery.

He was an artist and invited me into a spiritual and creative space that did not exist within my small circle of friends.

My heart was his and I felt the ecstasy of that first love. And then the bottomless pit of abandonment and betrayal. I blundered through it all. I was so young. And because I had no solid sense of who I was at that age — because I handed my power over to him — I blamed myself when he left me for someone else. What had I done wrong? What had I said? Wasn’t I pretty enough? Wasn’t I good enough?

I weep for that young girl. I want to hug her. I want to comfort her. She just didn’t understand. She didn’t know that this experience she called “love” was nothing more than filling the aching, empty hole within her with someone outside of herself. She didn’t realize that she needed to fill that emptiness with her own love and her own beauty and worth.

As I’ve grown in age and hopefully wisdom, this is the one truth I’ve learned that remains solid and unwavering: We need to love ourselves first and foremost. We are — and always will be — our own first love.

So what does that mean or look like? Buddhist monk and teacher Thich Nhat Hanh says, “To be beautiful means to be yourself. You don’t need to be accepted by others. You need to accept yourself.”

I agree. Loving ourselves means accepting all aspects of who we are, yes, the joyful, bright, loving, creative sparks of the Divine within, but also those parts we’d rather hide in our messy humanity, those painful and dark feelings that dwell in our shadow side.

When we offer ourselves the space to simply “be” with whatever is happening within us, whatever it is we’re feeling, we love yourselfsit down at the table of our heart, with all those parts of our being and “break bread” with the entirety of who we are. We hug those orphaned children of our soul — the sadness, the pain, the anxiety and loneliness — and offer them our hospitality. We learn to welcome the stranger within.

In allowing this, we become more whole. More present. We begin to love ourselves. And others. We know we’re not alone in our sadness or pain or whatever it is we’re feeling, because we are in solidarity with others throughout the world who share those same feelings. We are in this thing called “life” together.

And sure, there are times when I jump ship, when I’m not loving myself as I should. I go for that extra slice (who am I kidding — slices) of pizza, think those negative thoughts, tell myself I’ll exercise tomorrow. And actually, that’s OK. I know I’ll do better the next day. Or the next. Part of loving myself is learning to be gentle with myself. Not to beat myself up when I feel I haven’t lived up to my own expectations. It’s all part of that self-acceptance.

To some of you, all this “love yourself” stuff might sound glib. More spiritual mumbo-jumbo. Perhaps. But one thing I’ve learned as a “human” being is that we tend to be hard on ourselves. We don’t often cherish the priceless beings we are. And doing that is very much a process, not a goal. We are always in the midst of growing into the love we so very much deserve.

I don’t know what makes me think of my first love today. It was so long ago and he rarely comes to mind. Perhaps it’s the gentle rain outside. The wisp of a memory tucked inside the heart that escapes once in awhile to remind me of self lovewho I was then and who I am now.

As painful as the parting was those many decades ago, I wish I could thank him for the tender gifts he gave me. I pray he is well. Even today, when I hear Judy Collins sing “Michael from Mountains” I think of him and a poignant feeling drifts through my soul. And I bless him. I bless him for being part of my life’s journey. I bless myself for all I have become.

 

 

 

 

A story of September 11

We all have stories about that day. Where we were. What we were doing. Many here in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, died on September 11. They commuted to nearby New York City and worked in the Twin Towers.

Even now, 14 years later, my heart splits open at the horror of it. But perhaps in telling our stories, we come to some type of healing.

I, too, have a story to tell. It still has a mystical quality to it and like most things in my life, I have no answers. Some of you have read this before. For those who haven’t, here is my story of September 11.

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Dad was driving me to the Newark Airport and we were chatting about my trip to Medjugorje in the region of Bosnia-Herzegovina. I had thought some day I might like to go there, but really hadn’t had any strong desire.

Then, the oddest thing happened. I felt an inner “urging” — one I’ve not had before or since — and an almost palpable invitation with one word: “Come.”

medjugorje 1

St. James Church with its “twin towers” and a crowd gathered in prayer.

It was gentle, yet persistent. The feeling kept pulling me and wouldn’t go away. So I decided I would travel to this small mountainous village near Croatia where the Blessed Mother has been appearing since 1981 with a message of peace, love and forgiveness.

Many miracles have happened there. Physical, emotional and spiritual healings. And I had my list of those I would pray for and for myself.

I contacted a woman originally from Croatia who organized and ran “Mir” (Peace) pilgrimages. She had some openings for August and September. I chose September.

So, on the late afternoon of September 10, dad and I drove down the NJ Turnpike to the airport. The day was clear and bright, with the stark skyline of New York City in the distance. Dad interrupted our chat and said:

“Now if you get stranded there and can’t get back into the country, don’t worry. You’re going to be OK.”

I looked at my dear father as if he had lost his mind and asked him what he meant. He ignored my question and kept his eyes on the road ahead. In the excitement of my upcoming trip, I let it go.

I joined our group of five waiting in Newark. The remainder of our group was flying in from Boston Logan and meeting us in Frankfurt, Germany. Then, we would all fly on to Split in Croatia and board a bus that would take us along the coastline of the Adriatic Sea and into Medjugorje.

WTC-twin-towers1We arrived in Croatia the morning of September 11. As we took in the beauty of the Adriatic, the bus stopped at a hotel so we could use bathrooms. In the lobby, some of our group had gathered at a TV set. Then I heard cries, wails, moans. What was happening? I walked over to see a plane crashing into buildings. My mind couldn’t comprehend what I was watching. Was America under attack? Were we at war?

We got back on the bus, shaken and in tears. We were only a half hour outside of Medjugorje and knew little of what had happened except that thousands had died. Our tour leader, a deeply spiritual woman, said:

“I usually have 60-70 people each month on these tours. When I had only 18 people sign up, I felt ‘something’ was going to happen, but I wasn’t sure what it might be.”

She then asked us all to pray for those who had died. A faint murmur of rosaries, prayers and sobs fell and rose like the winding mountain roads that led us into the village.

Much like Fatima or Lourdes, the town of Medjugorje was filled with pilgrims from all over the world. They descended on us, telling us in many languages that they were praying for us, for our country. At that time, communication to the U.S. was sparse and I was concerned about loved ones I had left behind. And since the president had locked down all air traffic, I wasn’t sure if — or when — I was getting home.

But throughout those eleven days, with an uncertain future before me — before all of us — I remembered dad’s words and told myself I would be OK, no matter what happened. And I came to realize this: I had been “called” there. I had been issued an invitation to pray for the world. And pray I did. With all my heart. Not for the things I had intended or deemed as important — jobs, relationships, income — but for peace. Peace in our world.

Later, I would realize that the three areas where our group had met — Newark, Boston Logan and Frankfurt — were all key spots where the terrorists had plotted evil. And through those airports we walked as a group (not without a few odd looks) carrying aloft a banner before us that proclaimed “Mir” — PEACE. We were indeed, peace pilgrims.

The evening before we were scheduled to return to the U.S., the president lifted the travel ban and we were able to fly home. It was as if a window had closed behind us after we had arrived in Medjugorje, and then opened to allow us to leave.

PeaceHeartsWorld2What do I make of all this? I don’t know. I still have no answers as to why I felt pulled to be there at that time. But I do know this: Our world desperately needs peace now more than ever before. Each day we wake to more mass shootings. More wars. More human and sex trafficking and cruelty to our brothers and sisters and to our planet.

We must find ways to live in peace. We must. We must. We must. This is all the Blessed Mother keeps asking of us in Medjugorje, as any good mother might. To love one another. To live in peace. All of us. All faiths. All religions. All colors and nations. All peoples.

After I returned, I asked dad why he had been prompted to give me his prophetic message on the way to the airport. He always has been extremely intuitive and simply said, “You needed to hear it.”

So what message do we need to hear? And what can we do in our daily lives to create peace? A smile? A listening heart? Refraining from an unkind word? Ultimately, as many spiritual teachers have said, peace begins with each one of us. The choice is always ours. The world is waiting.