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.

*******

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.)

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Avatar in a wheelchair

I met a neighbor walking her dog the other evening. I asked if she minded company and we began chatting about life. She’ll be 70 soon — I can’t believe in two years I’ll be there — and she seemed a bit down.

“I didn’t do a lot of things I could have when I was younger,” she said, the dog tugging at her leash for us to move faster.

“I studied art, you know, pen and pencil, pastels and I loved it. Even got my degree in fine arts. Then I married, had children, divorced and put the art away. And now …”

“And now?” I prompted her.

“It’s just too late to do anything with it. So in the mornings I do my crossword puzzles, read my books. I won’t ever go back to art and I’m fine with that.”

When we parted ways I felt sad about her words. She may be content with what she’s doing with her life — and if so, that’s fine — but my motto has always been: It’s never too late.

If art is an activity she enjoyed, why not do it again, for the sheer, delicious pleasure of it? She may never have a show in a gallery or sell her work, but so what? If art nurtures and feeds her soul, what more wonderful gift could she give herself at this stage in life?

The week before I happened upon another neighbor, this time in the hospital lobby. I spend much of my time it seems in hospitals as I care for aging parents.

I was rushing to get dad in his wheelchair and into the elevator to his doctor’s appointment when she snagged my attention from the periphery of my vision, a frail, almost elfin-like woman, lost in an enormous wheelchair. A ding of recognition — do I know this woman — hit me, but I let it pass as I had to get dad upstairs and settled.

After I spent the afternoon caring for dad at home, I had to return to the same doctor’s office at the hospital to pick up some paperwork and I saw her, still there. I was almost sure I knew her and walked over to her and asked, “Aren’t we neighbors? And have you been here alone, all day?”

We were neighbors and yes, she had been sitting at this hospital alone. All day. She was waiting for a medical transport, but she had missed the last van. I volunteered to drive her home, but she told me she had already paid for the service and she was OK, even though she had another hour to wait. I asked her if I could get her coffee. Wheel her to the bathroom? She assured me she was fine.

I sat down next to her and we began to talk. Within a few minutes I realized I was in the presence of a special soul, someone who talked of God always being with her, a God who never failed her.

Someone who had been through great pain but physically felt herself being cradled in God’s love. Who had sensed God’s presence deeply with her throughout her life. Someone who told me that most us in the world are walking around asleep and need to wake up to the miracles around us.

I listened in awe and wonder to this avatar in a wheelchair. When her transport arrived, I leaned over and hugged her. She had shifted my heavy, sad energy of caregiving in that one hour to light and hope. I didn’t want our conversation to end. We promised to pray for each other.

Life always brings challenges. And choices. Some of us are bound by our limitations in thought — what we think we can or can’t do — and some, although bound by wheelchairs, are free and unlimited.

When I was in my 20s, my first love introduced me to Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. I never forgot Frankl’s famous quote:

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

I’m always humbled by the people God puts in my path, teachers who come in the most interesting guises. Both these women continue to inspire me in different ways. They leave me questioning: What am I choosing? As a people what are WE choosing? And are we awake or asleep?

Missing my mojo

My self-confidence has taken a beating lately. It’s been insidious, starting perhaps with the perfect storm of retirement, my own aging process and caring for my dad who had a stroke.

Since then, I haven’t been able to find my footing. The ground beneath me often feels like gelatin or worse yet, like the crossroads that Dorothy meets on the Yellow Brick Road trying to get to Oz. Which way to go? What to do?

Before all that, I seemed to tackle whatever presented itself in life with some gusto. Travel overseas? No problem. Move to a new city and discover the culture and people? Many times.

But as I grow older, and especially the last few years, my mojo feels like it’s left the building. Depression? Perhaps. Sadness? Definitely. This time in life presents a lot of loss — youth, energy, friends and relatives who become ill and die — so sadness comes with the territory.

I remind myself: Be gentle with your precious being during this time. The last five years since dad’s stroke have been rough. In hindsight I’ll probably ask myself how I did all this. And even in the midst of it I have to remind myself I have accomplished some goals.

Two years ago I spoke to a group of 200 politicians and lawmakers, sharing my personal story about caregiving and actions that need to be taken. Later, I spoke at a local press conference about caregiving issues. And I actually finished the first draft of a new novel.

From the outside looking in that may seem — well — important. But truth be told, I’m just not feeling it. I’m proud and happy about these achievements, but from where I’m sitting, what I’m speaking about here, is an inside job. A feeling of elation, motivation and thrill that comes from a deep inner sense of confidence, of knowing you’ve got this, whatever “this” may be.

I quaked through those talks on caregiving. I still think the draft of my novel is total crap.

So there you have it. Truth out.

But as I sit with this process of feeling incompetent and no confidence whatsoever, I know this will pass as everything does. Not that I will ever be the life of the party. I never was  someone prone to blustering and bragging, but hopefully I will reach a point where I can start to feel solid ground beneath me again, feel a stronger sense of self.

The saying goes that “when fishermen can’t go to sea, they mend their nets.” For now, I’m mending my nets, honoring that maybe for this day what I’m doing is enough. I got up, cared for dad, made phone calls to doctors. Came home exhausted and took a nap.

The truth is, I’m in new and foreign territory at this stage in life. The 9-to-5 jobs of my entire writing career gave me structure, but now I’m forging a new and different self in the midst of challenges and a vast sea of possibilities. It’s scary out there. But I’m learning, and honestly, sometimes struggling, with whatever arises.

I know in time I will find my way back home to my self. And my own brand of quiet confidence. I know it never left, perhaps just resting, as it needs to, as I need to, as we all need to. Life can weary us. But a major event — divorce, death, diagnose of an illness — can all but exhaust us.

Again, I go back to being gentle with myself. And invite you to be gentle with yourself if you’re going through any major life challenges. Or even the small hardships that daily life presents.

So tonight, I’ll finish writing this blog post, read a bit and set some small goals for tomorrow. Go back over the manuscript of my novel and cringe through every word. Take a walk. Care for dad. Take a nap. Pray and meditate. Breathe.

All will be tiny steps toward center. I don’t know when my confidence will awaken within me again, but when it does, I’ll welcome it with open arms and heart.

For now, my prayer is to be at peace where I am in life and that you may be, too. Life is hard enough without putting pressure on ourselves. In Divine right timing, all will unfold and as my favorite medieval mystic Juliana of Norwich said, “All shall be well.”

It really will be, you know. Mojo or not.

******

(Blogger’s note: If you want some handy tips on building self-confidence and other sage advice, check out my friend Patti Villalobos’ Coaching Page on Facebook. I think you’ll like her suggestions. And her.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tipping point

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel powerless. And weary.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Haven’t got time for the pain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Glennon Melton Doyle says:

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

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

 

 

 

The grace to remember

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

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

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

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

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

And then.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m still struggling with that question.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A small joy amidst the sorrow. I smiled.

 

A season of acceptance

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

*******

A sadness always settles on me this time of year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am sad for all of it.

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

Most likely not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To pray to enter the severe mercy of acceptance.