A good-bye letter to 2016

Dear 2016,

I had such hopes for you this time last year. You felt fresh, new, filled with promise and possibility.

Instead, you sullied the name of all years past and were downright cruel at times. Unrelenting

cohen-with-guitarYou took away some of our brightest talents. In the music world, too many to mention. Prince. David Bowie. Leonard Cohen. And just a few days ago, George Michael. Please.

Among celebrities, you targeted Gene Wilder, Florence Henderson, Patty Duke, John Glenn, Harper Lee. And now our Princess, Carrie Fisher.

Let’s not even talk about terrorist attacks, refugees, natural disasters and school shootings.

Then there’s the arena of politics. Not going there. This blog is not about that. Let’s just say it was emotionally and spiritually exhausting. Such hate. Such vitriol. Such divisiveness. Is this what the Divine wants of us? I think not.

My personal life was also fraught with challenges. A fall that injured my teeth and jaw. Sickness and then more. Caring for aging parents.

I’ve heard many people say that you, 2016, ranked among the worst year ever for them. They’ve said outright in social media and in person that you can’t leave soon enough. But here’s what I say.

Thank you. Yes, a big, fat juicy thank you.

As tough and painful as you’ve been, as much as you’ve pummeled us, I see you as a tipping point. You’ve unveiled much to us that we might not have seen had you not revealed your ugliest side.

You have shown us that no matter how dark life can be, it can also be filled with incredible light. Your trials and tribulations have pushed us forward with greater goodness and kindness to others and ourselves.

flowers-in-cracksYou may have thought we’d back down from you, not be our best. But guess what? That didn’t happen. We dug deep into our collective soul, banded together — and still are — even more deeply in acts of love and forgiveness.

We formed groups, online and face-to-face, and dedicated ourselves to helping and empowering others. We gave to charities. We volunteered to work with the homeless, in nursing homes and with troubled youth as never before.

We decided to say: Enough!

So, yeah, you were beyond crappy in many ways. But you gave us an invitation to step forward in ways as never before.

In my own personal life there were a few points of light. And surprises. I got to see the Broadway musical Hamilton this past year, thanks to a dear friend. I even was invited backstage to meet the cast and Rosie O’Donnell, who was in the audience.

One of my blog posts about women breaking the glass ceiling was printed in a popular online site and received more than 7,000 hits. Wow.

That’s external. Internally, my life experiences deepened a softness and toughness in me that at times was unbearable. I grew into even more humbling compassion for those hurting in life and found an inner core of strength I never knew I had.

You indeed brought me — and many of us — to a tipping point, 2016, where we were presented with a now-or-never choice. We could throw up our hands in defeat, or instead, say, “We’re going to learn from this. Grow from this.”

I’ve heard people say you can’t leave fast enough, 2016, and it’s true. It is indeed time for you to bid us all adieu because you’ve got 2017 nipping at your heels.

blowing-dandelion-puffsBut in this coming new year, we’ll prove to you that despite all you threw at us, we’re going to be the people the Divine meant us to be.

We’ll be more kind. More loving. And yes, chances are good we’ll find more personal and collective suffering in 2017 and although we may not like it, we now know that we can’t go back, that we indeed can choose a different path — a new way of living and being in 2017.

So, here’s a final news flash for you, 2016. You may think you were tough but you gave us the opportunity to take a new road, albeit challenging, that will lead us higher, deeper, wider into love. That’s worth a big thanks.

In the end, dear 2016, you’re not that big a deal. After all, the present moment is what’s most important and what we choose to do with it. Now is all that counts.

Besides, didn’t you know? Love always wins. Always.

With unwavering faith in the goodness of all people, I remain,

Your faithful blogger.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An unexpected Christmas post

Blogger’s Note: I’m re-posting this blog from last year. And yes, in many ways, Christmas still feels hard to me. But thankfully, dad is still here to celebrate another Christmas, a reminder for me to stay in the present moment.

May we have times of celebration and stillness, solitude and joyful festivities during this “holy” season. And may we open our hearts more deeply to the greatest gift of all — love.

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I hadn’t intended to write another blog post until after the New Year.

Then, this one kept calling me. It’s about how hard this Christmas feels to me. Not soft around the edges, or even warm or cozy or jingly. I got to thinking that this might be the last Christmas with my dad.

For those who may not know, he had a stroke almost three years ago. It’s been a rough, long three years.

heart in snowIn many ways, his care is something I thought I could never do, the endless medical appointments, the physical and compassion fatigue, the sadness of losing the dad I once knew and learning to love the new dad I now have.

As to this being his last Christmas — I know, I know. Stay in the present moment. I try. Still. He is 88. And the thought of no longer having dad next Christmas lingers on the edges of my mind and heart.

And then, there’s what to buy him. Why is it so hard this year? Didn’t I buy him something last year, and what was it? He can’t have the things he once enjoyed like his thick-rolled cigars (although I hated them, the stinky things) or his Bailey’s Irish Cream or even his spiritual CDs because he wouldn’t comprehend them.

So I sank into a heap of despair this past week, all that weighing on me.

Then I ran into a neighbor who lost her husband two weeks ago. I saw her in the driveway, loading up the back of her station wagon with cardboard boxes. I asked how she was.

“Oh, I bawl my eyes out, but I keep going. Right now I’m packing up a lot of his clothes to give away.”

I listened a bit more, watching the sorrow seep out of her eyes. Her grief triggered my own anticipatory grief.

Sometimes it just seems like there’s too much sorrow in the world and not enough happy, especially during this season designated as the “happiest time of the year.”

And yet, while at the mall the other day, I saw a child’s face light up like an angel’s at the sight of the red-suited man himself, and her peppermint-striped leggings and pink cheeks made me smile.

And I thought of a woman who has become a friend, a speech therapist who helped my dad while he was in the hospital. She gives of herself with love, always asking to be placed where she is most needed. Her goodness touches me.

Then I had the thought: Is it possible to hold the sorrow and the happy at the same time?

Yes. Of course it is, because this is the paradox of life itself, to accept the sadness and the joy and everything in between. It is the exquisite price of admission to this journey we call human.

So I finally asked dad the other day: What do you want for Christmas?

Sometimes — despite his lack of cognition and inability to speak coherently — he said:

Your love.

I clutched his hand and caught my breath.

christmas-heart-treeSome things in life we can’t wrap in shiny paper or put a big red bow around them. But when the sadness of life comes calling, sometimes we need to remember — as The Little Prince said:

“It is only with the heart one can see rightly. What is essential is invisible to the eye.”

And when we see “rightly” then life isn’t so hard. In fact, glimmers of joy spark through the sorrows.

So, dad, it may be a pair of comfy sweat pants this year, but the “real” gift will be the one you asked for. You’ve always had it.

This Christmas. And forever.

 

 

Darkness into light

“When the dark is at rest,
the light begins to move.”

~ The Secret of the Golden Flower

 

When I was a little girl I loved visiting my grandparents in Nashville during the hot summers. Dad would take us on day trips, and one of them was to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.

I was in awe of this mysterious, sacred space. The cave’s enormous mouth yawned open with brisk, cold air as we descended into the bowels of the earth. It was both exciting and frightening.

cave1At one point, our tour guide wanted to show us how dark it could be in this cave. So he shut off the modern lights that had been wired throughout the narrow passageways of rock and boulders.

And we were plunged into the blackest-black I can still recall. No matter how I strained my eyes, I could see nothing. I wanted the lights to come back on. Fast.

Sometimes in life we are thrust into this kind of darkness. We experience it globally. Aleppo. Wars. Refugees. Hunger. Terrorism.

And we experience it personally. Loss of a loved one or beloved pet. A diagnosis we weren’t expecting. Financial burdens. Or sometimes, trying to find our purpose and direction in the muck of day-to-day tedium and boredom.

For those of us with sensitive hearts it can often seem too much.

For me, the last four years have been a cave of darkness, of sorts. I love my father dearly, but after his stroke I had to learn to maneuver the shadowy passageways of not only his health care, but the sadness and grief of losing a parent who was once vibrant and vital in the world.

darkness-to-light1And the last four months have plunged me even deeper into the abyss. I’ve had some personal health challenges that have made it seem too much like that dark moment in the cave. Yes, I pray. I meditate. Still, there it was. No escaping it. I found myself struggling to find light and inner footing and much like the lament of the Psalmists kept pleading, “How long, O, Lord? How long?”

To live life — to traverse the hero’s or heroine’s journey — takes inner courage. But how do we find it when we feel there is nothing left to muster?

When we are thrust into loss and grief, we have a chance to descend into the ravine (or “the cave”) of that awful loss or grief, says Mark Nepo, poet, author and philosopher.

“I know for me,” he shares, “in those moments when I have been able to face the travails that life has presented me, sometimes there is a glimpse of an angel that I can hold onto. And in that moment of hold, I have been able to love the part of me that is hurt, the part of the world that is ugly, and the dark side of God’s face that is so difficult to understand.”

letting go open handNepo also suggests one personal way of opening one’s inner courage is through listening.

“To sit on a bench, on any street, to meet with your heart whatever life comes by,” he says. “Not to judge it, not to name it, not to rescue it, not to push it away. Let the homeless person you see touch the possibility of you being them. Let the bird looking for food touch the part of you that’s hungry … this is a quiet courage.”

And sometimes that means allowing and listening to whatever burdens or emptiness or pain we are feeling. Simply “being” with whatever we are experiencing, as difficult as that may be. As frightening as the darkness may be.

In our seasonal world, we find ourselves in days of growing darkness. The light diminishes bit by bit as we approach the winter solstice. And in the Christian tradition, it is Advent, a time of expectation and waiting for birth and light.

Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk, referred to God’s presence in the soul as the pointe vierge. This French phrase refers to the “virgin point” that comes just before dawn, those ripening moments before the first ray of light flares into the darkness.

sorrow-julie-fainWhen we are in the midst of transformation, the process hurts. It is painful. The tug and tension of stretching into some “other” self can be terrifying. While the soul incubates in darkness, we wonder if birth and light will ever come.

This is the “holy dark” that author Sue Monk-Kidd speaks of.  The idea, she writes, is not to panic, but to surrender to it so we can journey through it to the real light.

Do I have inner courage? Sometimes. But many times I don’t. Do I fall into the darkness? Yes. But I’m learning. To listen. To wait, even in the darkest of darks. Even though I’d rather not have it. Even though I’d like it to go away.

And while in that space, I know that more times of darkness will arrive during my journey. But I also have a deep “inner knowing” that the light will dawn again.

In fact, I am learning that the light never left.

 

Grace, letting go and dying

I’ve been humbled as of late. A few health scares have caused me to look even deeper at life and how I clutch on to fears.

I’m doing OK so far — thankfully. But when faced with issues out of my control, I’ve had to face the ugly truth. I really don’t trust. Really don’t let go. Want things to go my way.

What’s so frustrating about all that is I feel I’ve learned much over the years about letting go. But it’s just been that. For the most part, simply head knowledge.

How does one really let go?

prayI had the privilege many years ago of being a hospice volunteer. I had never done this type of work before, and truthfully, I was frightened. But I feel we are often drawn to those experiences we most need to be healed of — and I had, and still have, some healing to do around death and dying.

The first man — let’s call him Sam — was cantankerous. He didn’t like me coming round once a week. Especially when his wife would leave for a couple of hours. I didn’t get “it” then but I so appreciate now why she beamed when I arrived at the front door. Having been a caregiver for almost four years since dad had his stroke, I have come to realize how any type of relief is welcome, no matter how much I love my father.

Sam was on oxygen and coughed a lot. After his wife would leave the house, he cursed at me and then would ask for a beer. I was new at this and called the main office of the hospice group about him drinking alcohol. “Give him whatever he wants,” they gently advised. “He’s dying.”

So I learned. Enjoy life. Now.

The next gentleman tugged at my heart. His hospital bed sat in the middle of the living room, his body hooked to tubes of all kinds. He could barely speak. Other than a nurse’s aide who came to the house, he was alone.

hospital-bedI asked her one day about his family. She said, “He has a daughter on the West Coast somewhere. But she doesn’t want anything to do with him.”

So I sat with him. I cried. I held his hand. One night I told him, “You must be tired. It’s your choice. Whenever you’re ready to go, it’s OK. God loves you so much.”

The next day he died.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of listening to a talk by Kathleen Dowling Singh. She’s written some insightful books on “grace” including The Grace in Dying. She has said:

“We live in a culture where we walk around believing we can choreograph the way things are. If I just rearrange this little piece — then everything will be OK. We have that illusion. That we’re in control. Dying strips it away.”

Many spiritual traditions speak of death as the greatest spiritual opportunity of a lifetime. And in that moment, is grace.

Dowling writes, “In that process of dying, that nanno second of surrender, we are  merging with grace. Grace is always here. It could not be here. In any moment, all we do is pause. That’s grace. We make it so difficult, complicated and out of reach.”

When we pause, when we empty our minds, we are present to the sacrament of surrender, she says. That movement into beyond self is accomplished simply by our willingness to let go, she says. We pause. We surrender. We enter the formless awareness that is sacred. “That is grace,” she says.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs must have been filled with grace when he was dying. It is reported that his last words were, “Oh, wow! Oh, wow! Oh, wow!”

And I recall a personal story of a religious sister I knew many years ago. On her death bed, she was surrounded by her community and told them, “Oh, please don’t keep me here any longer. They are lifting the purple veil. And it is too beautiful to describe. They are calling me. I must go now.”

letting-goTo contemplate our mortality, to surrender our beliefs, our identities to which we are so attached is never easy. But when we pause and fall into the emptiness, the uncertainty, when we “let go” — we fall into the heart and the heart opens.

So how do we let go? Surrender? I have no words of wisdom because I still don’t do it well.

But perhaps some of the insights I have shared by Kathleen Dowling Singh have helped. They are gentle reminders, for myself more than anyone. Simply pause throughout the day. Invite and allow grace to take over. Again and again.

When we surrender to the little deaths in life — disease, disappointment, divorce, or whatever “it” may be — we prepare ourselves for the ultimate letting go. And we learn there is really nothing we can hold on to.

The good news is grace is always present. And we come to see the truth — that we are each a manifestation of grace.