A brief good-bye

Dear followers and friends of my blog,

I recently lost my love, dear friend and companion and will be stopping my blog for a time as I go through the challenging and harrowing process of grieving and mourning.

Thank you for always being so faithful in stopping by to read my words. I promise to return when I feel I can catch my breath and not feel so overwhelmed by sorrow.

Until then, cherish each other and life. It’s all a gift

With gratitude,

Marielena Zuniga

 

 

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Resting in God’s breath

When I was in my 40s many years ago, I worked in a fast-paced, high-stress job. Our corporation sponsored a seminar with focus groups to determine needs, in and out of the workplace.

The number one need? Sleep. We were all walking around exhausted.

I never forgot that response.

Life by its nature takes a physical, emotional and spiritual toll. Whether we are working more than 40 hours a week, working two or three jobs, doing all the chores and caregiving for children or elderly parents — we all yearn for an island of peace, quiet and vast blue oceans. Ah. To be there even for an hour.

Doing. It seems our culture is obsessed with doing. We have become a people of “doer-ship.” Yes, much of it’s necessary. But even with that “doing” we must carve out spaces of “nothing-ness” and quiet.

I know. I know. How are we suppose to do that given the zillion daily demands on our lives? I get it, believe me.

Before I retired and was working full-time, I barely could do the things I needed when I got home. Now, I’m one of the primary caregivers for my father and my time is filled with a variety of medical and health-care needs.

People will look at me and advise: “You really need to take care of yourself.”

Right.

But the truth is, I do need to love myself enough to give myself nurturing and good self care. You do, too. How we do that will be individual to each of us. And it will demand a bit of courage. If we are by nature a giving person, we may find it a challenge to give to ourselves as well.

Underlying that act may be a layer of “I don’t deserve this” as well as some guilt in not doing what we feel we’re asked to do. Many of us grew up learning how to be super-responsible and somehow, giving to ourselves may feel like we’re not being accountable to whatever or whomever we’re tending.

When any of us fail to make space to tend to our own needs, however, we are at war with ourselves. And that’s exhausting. In his book, Sabbath: Finding Rest, Renewal, and Delight in Our Busy Lives, Wayne Muller writes:

“… a successful life has become a violent enterprise. We make war on our own bodies, pushing them beyond their limits; war on our children, because we cannot find enough time to be with them; war on our spirit, because we are too preoccupied to listen to the quiet voices that seek to nourish and refresh us.”

It’s far too easy to fall into this pit of exhaustion when we fail to stop to hear that “small still voice” of the Divine within. We become so consumed with “doing” we spiral into fatigue without giving ourselves an opportunity for renewal.

In her book, Feed My Shepherds, Flora Wuellner writes that those moments of renewal may be “gazing at a sunbeam on the floor, looking at a beloved painting, smelling a flower, touching a leaf, listening to a bird, stretching and breathing deeply, holding our hands under running water …or just quietly sensing God’s breath upon and within us.”

All beautiful advice. And I am listening to those words because I am often guilty of not heeding them. But instead of beating myself up for not taking time for self-care, I am being gentle with myself and learning. On this beautiful sunny Spring day, I went to the park and did something I’ve been wanting to do all winter.

I took off my shoes and felt the coolness of the new-green grass and warmth of the soft rich earth beneath my feet and toes. I felt a soothing breeze sweep across my face. I took deep nurturing breaths, filling my lungs with gratitude.

It was only for an hour. But it allowed me to be at peace, to center myself. Giving myself that nurturing time gave me the strength to go forward.

So, this day and in the coming weeks, may we each find what brings us peace and nurturing, whether it’s listening to sweet bird song, losing ourselves in a good book or the brilliant colors of a sunrise, or simply taking a much-needed nap.

May we make time to feel God’s breath upon us and within us. We deserve it.

The gifts of American Idol

I don’t watch reality TV shows.

Except for American Idol.

I love music. Played classical piano and some guitar in my younger days. And almost every one in my large family plays a musical instrument. So I appreciate a melodic voice, the masterful playing of the strings and notes that soar from the soul.

American Idol has that kind of amazing, genuine talent every week and I’m always in awe. But what I really love are the stories of those brave souls who are auditioning.

Catie Turner from my hometown of Langhorne, PA, makes it to the final rounds.

If you’ve seen the show at all, you know that each person has a story. Some come from broken homes, were homeless, have disabilities, have had parents or siblings who recently died, or are raising a child as a single parent. And yet, despite these challenges, each has a gift he or she feels compelled to share with the world.

Even as some come closer to making the final rounds, others are cut. And they leave the show heartbroken and in tears. They have a right to be sad. What they don’t seem to understand in their youth, however, is that other opportunities will come.

Or, perhaps, this is not their life path. After all, American Idol is about show business and celebrity and all the trappings that go with it. Some may not be ready for it. Or be ruined by it.

As a writer — and a person who believes Spirit is always with us and guiding us — I understand this process. When our creative work or gift is dismissed, we’re often crushed.

I can’t tell you how many times my novels have been rejected by literary agents. Or my personal essays dismissed by websites or editors. It’s a tough business.

So, after decades of writing, I finally came to this question: Why do I do this?

Many days I’ve thrown up my hands in exasperation and told myself: I don’t want to write anymore. We, who are creative types, often feel like our work is falling into a black hole. Is anyone out there, does anyone care? Perhaps not.

So to answer that question, why do I do this?

I do it because it’s “in” me — part of my nature. I can’t deny who I am. It would be like telling me not to breathe. If any words I write reach or touch anyone, that’s not my business. It’s God’s. I do my part; the Divine does its part.

And when you come down to it, that’s all we can do — our part. We are filled with the gifts given us by the Creator and then, at least as I see it, we give them back to be used for the greater good.

So, no, I may never write a best-selling novel. Or you may never star in a Broadway play. Or paint a masterpiece. Or play guitar like Eric Clapton. The Divine may have other ideas for the best use of our gifts other than our ego-driven agenda.

But each contribution, no matter how small, truly matters.

Art by Carly Dresselhaus

We are a kaleidoscope of gifts that are meant to prism out onto others and perhaps one small piece will illuminate someone else. Bring laughter. Joy. Hope. Each part is integral to the whole.

Spiritual teacher and author Marianne Williamson was once asked by an audience participant what he should do to become a famous actor. She asked this young man: What’s stopping you from acting now, even if you’re not famous? She told him: Perform in local community theater. Start a theatre troupe for young people. In other words, if you really want to act, you’ll act whether you become a celebrity or not.

This is not to deny dreams. If you want to become a star in your area of talent, you can do that. But it will take tremendous tenacity, drive, talent  — and some luck.

The truth is, many of us will never stand on a stage and perform. Instead, our gifts will be used in the ordinary moments of life — when we teach, parent, listen to someone in distress, cook, play a sport, dance, make others laugh.

Society does not shine the spotlight of success on these gifts. But they are just as important as singing, dancing, writing or painting. So, we can use our talents in the present moment. We can be authentic and true to our own voice, not someone else’s. Have fun. Use any failures to learn and grow.

And most important, offer our gifts in service to others.

When we do this, we are idols of the best kind. Living up to our God-given potential. And what greater gift is there?

 

 

 

Watch and pray

(I’m re-posting a blog from two years ago during this sacred time of Holy Week. May we open to the mystery of the Divine presence in our ordinary, daily lives.)

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Last year when dad ended up in the emergency room, I watched.

I remember him on that hospital bed, writhing in pain, soaked and feverish. I looked at the wall clock as it ticked away the hours — 1 a.m., 2 a.m., 3 a.m. as we waited for a room to become available. I sat by his side, trying to comfort him, as his fever spiked to 103 or more.

And I prayed. For him to be out of pain. For peace, for him and for myself. Thankfully, dad did recover.

I share this story because I believe many of us in our lives have watched and prayed with and for a loved one.

Perhaps a family member who was ill or struggling through a personal problem. Watched and prayed for a child to be born. Or watched and prayed with a parent or child in the dying process. And how many times lately have we watched and prayed as wanton terrorism has taken lives?

I’ve been reflecting on those two words — watch and pray — as we end Holy Week in the Christian tradition and head into Easter. Jesus asked his disciples to do this with him in the garden before his death. They weren’t very good at it because they fell asleep. I suppose a heavy Passover meal and plenty of wine will do that.

But perhaps the disciples didn’t get it. Maybe we don’t either. And does watching and praying make any real difference in the fabric of our ordinary days?

I believe it does and that we are called to do both. But they can be challenging. Why? Because watching and praying require a certain attentiveness to the present.

Watching is an awareness that is not so much of the eyes but of the heart. It is an interior waiting and listening to the Spirit where we are deeply paying attention. We are the silent observer to a deep mystery, an experience that confounds us that we may not completely understand.

And in that watching, if we allow ourselves, we are changed. We become more human, more compassionate, more loving. When we move in this direction, we open to prayer.

What is prayer? I find labels dangerous, and semantics are often misconstrued, but for me prayer is simply this: A communion with the Divine — however you find it, wherever you find it.

You may discover the Divine presence in nature, in a chapel, in the woods, in rote words, with beads, or in a monastery. It’s anything that takes you to the interior space where you are fully present to the God of your knowing.

One of my favorite writers Anne Lamott says there are only two prayers she uses: “Help me, help me, help me.” And “Thank you, thank you, thank you.”

I love these prayers because they cut through all the theological jargon that God probably dislikes. They are honest and real, and if anything, I believe the Divine loves honest and real.

Throughout our day, we have many invitations to watch and pray. I did the other day. I chose the line at the grocery store I thought was the shortest, but as usual, the one that moved the slowest. The cashier seemed to be taking his time. I found myself becoming annoyed. I began to pray, “Help me!”

But as I waited, I also watched — him and my own feelings. He took his time with each customer, especially with the elderly woman ahead of me. He joked with her and made her smile.

I found my heart softening and my impatience melting as I watched. And now I prayed “Thank you” — a heartfelt prayer of thanksgiving that he had been sent as my teacher and was a light in a very dark world.

We are each called to be that light, not just at Easter, but in every moment of our lives. And we are called to be that light especially as we watch and pray through the mystery of it all — the births, the deaths and the petty annoyances in between.

Anne Lamott has said: “On this side of the grave we’re not going to understand the mystery of God and grace … we know so little.”

But that “not knowing” can also be a gift. It beckons us to trust. It is an invitation to open our heart to a Divine Power who loves us and is with us, in our personal daily struggles and in the world at large.

A loving force who even as we watch and pray, also watches and prays with us through it all — in the Garden and in the empty tomb.

Dying with us. Rising with us.

Spaciousness of soul

When I was a little girl, dad would take us on a Sunday drive through the vast Texas countryside. The earth stretched out on either side of us, and ahead of us, unending to the rim of a severe, hot horizon.

We were swallowed by the spaciousness, immersed in it. Allowing ourselves to revel in the endless openness — and possibilities — of it all.

Later, as an adult, I moved to cities where life and buildings were crunched and crammed. I found myself yearning for spaciousness, not only of location but of time. Work demanded deadlines and my desk was anything but expansive, cluttered to its edges with words I was struggling to write.

One morning, while sitting on the train on the way to work, I watched the sun rise above the Philadelphia skyline like a glowing red jewel. And my soul stirred in me. I recalled my childhood summers in Tennessee, when I had more than enough space. And time.

I would stay in bed, watch the sun gently bathe the room in light. I breathed. Listened to the trill of birdsong, felt the coolness of the morning breeze through the window before the day grew hot. Heard my own heartbeat. I paid attention. And space opened up within me.

Art by Eduardo Rombauer

I began to realize how little I had been allowing space in my life. And when space did open up, how quickly I filled it with clutter or things or activities. Even vacations could end up being a to-do list. I hadn’t been listening to what spaciousness had to show me. Or teach me.

A few years ago, I took a mindfulness meditation course. We were urged to stay in the present moment, simply observe what was happening and not judge it. My lower back had been bothering me and the instructor asked me create a “spaciousness” around that ache.

She urged me to experience the discomfort as a small part of who I am. Instead of contracting around the pain, the teacher invited me to expand my awareness into spaciousness. And it helped. No, the pain didn’t go away. But it became manageable.

Spaciousness can do one of two things: Invite us more deeply into a rich intimacy with ourselves and the Divine. Or repel us because it may challenge us to listen to our deepest fears — and longings.

It may open us up to look at our own aging and death or whatever might need healing and forgiveness. Or, challenge us to muster courage to write a book, piece of music, or fulfill the secret desires of our hearts that we’ve shoved aside.

How do we create more spaciousness in our lives? Perhaps we first need to invite it and listen to it, says Christine Valters Painter. In her book The Artist’s Rule, she writes:

“Listen past the first layer, which may sound ugly or painful, and tend to the layers underneath. This takes time, much like growing in intimacy with a friend… it is in this place of hospitality to the unknown where we encounter God… we learn to make space within ourselves because on the other side of the voices that disturb us we find the gift of wisdom waiting for us.”

This type of listening and “making space within ourselves” requires radical courage. And discipline. The late spiritual teacher and author Henri Nouwen writes:

“In the spiritual life, the word ‘discipline’ means ‘the effort to create some space in which God can act’. Discipline means to prevent everything in your life from being filled up. Discipline means that somewhere you’re not occupied, and certainly not preoccupied… to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.”

It’s a letting go of our own agenda to make room for the possibilities — and gifts — waiting for us.

When we enter any space, we can breathe into it and allow it to simply “be” before filling it with our own judgments or agendas. We can pay attention to how we fill space with things or thoughts and be gentle with ourselves in ways that might open us up to “aha” moments. We can allow spaciousness in our conversations or on social media.

Ultimately, I believe we are all yearning for that spaciousness of soul, which makes us free for God.

It isn’t always easy. And I’m still learning. Life will and does make demands. But even within those demands, I’m allowing an ever-more deepening space for love to make a home within me.

I am making space for many deep breaths and paying attention to the space between the notes and even the space between these words.

That’s where the music is. The magic. And the mystery.

 

Life comes together; life falls apart

I bumped into a friend a few months ago who introduced me, in turn, to a friend of hers. She exuded a peaceful energy that I later learned belied a deep sorrow. Her friend had a son, in his 30s, with cancer. My friend asked: Would I pray for him?

I did. Every day. With fervor.

But her son died a month ago and I questioned my prayers, and God’s plan and purpose.

I have no answers. I never will. As I grow older the human journey becomes more mysterious, fraught with more uncertainties, laden with yet more questions.

But I do know this: Life comes together. Life falls apart.

We will go through long stretches where we are caught in the hum-drum web of our ordinary existence. A job. Housework. Raising a family. Caregiving. Whatever it may be. The stillness of ordinary days can be numbing at times.

Then “something” — whether it’s a death, diagnosis, or divorce — will splinter us, shatter us into jagged pieces that we feel will never come together. And usually those life events, personally or globally, will make great noise. They get our attention.

When these challenges make themselves known, we are moved to compassionate action. Or not.

Here is a story told by poet and author Mark Nepo:

“Two monks studied long and hard and finally had an appointment to meet the Buddha at the top of the mountain. They trudged up the mountain when one of them tripped and broke his leg. The two rested, staying on the side of the mountain overnight. In the morning, the one who broke his leg wasn’t doing well. The other was torn: Should he stay and help his brother? Or should he keep his appointment to meet the Buddha?”

What would you do? For each of us, the answer will be individual.

Perhaps none of us knows right action until we “sit with” it a bit, not let our decision to be clouded by fear. We must see with right vision and the understanding that life will always be a push and pull, struggling to find balance.

I see that in my own life, caring for my father. I had other plans when I retired, but dad had a stroke and I felt called — and continue to choose — to stay on the side of the mountain, to be present to him and to help care for him in his old age.

Even with that loving choice, here’s what I continue to learn.

I’m not good at trust. I like to control. When I do fail at life lessons, however, I attempt to be gentle with myself, not judge myself. To accept that I — like most of us — am doing the best I can, in the moment.

And I am learning to “make room” for the uncertainty, the not knowing, to offer space for the human experience in all of its glory and misery.

Buddhist nun and teacher, Pema Chodron writes:

“We think that the point is to pass the test or overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy.”

I think of my friend’s friend often. And yes, I continue to pray for her. My heart goes out to her as she mourns the loss of her son. As does my heart to most of the unanswered questions and miseries of life. Mass shootings, terrorism, a world gone amok with greed and power in some spheres.

But in the midst of it all, I’m also struggling to be present to the joys. To dad’s smile when he sees me; to the small shoots of green poking through ground even as a violent March N’oreaster rages outside; to a cozy nap; and a friend’s uplifting phone call.

In the Old Testament, it has been said that the Israelites wandering in the desert were given enough “manna” to last for the day. When they hoarded it, the manna became inedible, filled with maggots and worms. Psychiatrist Carl Jung also used the word “manna” but described it as the luminous spirit that is inherent in all of life, how it is an unconscious influence of one being on another.

Today, I tell myself, I don’t have answers. But I have enough manna for the day. And I can choose to be manna to others and to myself.

So. I will sit with life in the moment. When things come together. When they fall apart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Love and ashes

(I started this post early in the morning and was pulled away from it many times for dad’s care. It is now late evening on Valentine’s Day/Ash Wednesday, but I wanted to finish it, to share my heart with yours. May we know the blessings and gifts in both love and ashes.)

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I stare down into the cup of yogurt, stirring it. Never have I been more in the present moment, noticing its creamy texture, the bits of peaches that glop through it.

Outside, a winter wind whips around the corners of the house and I follow dad’s gaze to the window, then back to me.

He opens his mouth, like a small bird, his eyes wide. I scoop up a small portion of the yogurt and spoon it into his mouth. My heart breaks as he takes it, slowly swallows it.

This has become the “new normal” in dad’s ongoing care, five years into his stroke. He has been stripped of everything — his ability to dress or toilet himself, to walk without a walker or wheelchair — but he could always feed himself. Until now.

During his hospitalization last week for a heart condition, he almost choked to death. Throat muscles and swallowing after a stroke are often compromised. And even though we had always cut dad’s food into small pieces and monitored him, he had been aspirating food and liquid into his lungs. We didn’t know.

Now, his food must be pureed and he must be spoon fed, all liquids and all foods. And so, we face another challenge in this caregiving journey.

*****

It is Lent in the Christian tradition, and today many receive ashes on their foreheads, reminding the world of the fragility of life. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

It is a time of stripping away all that keeps us from focusing on our true goal and essence — a relationship to our Divine creator, however we name that Source of Love — and remembering we are here for a short time.

Lent is a time to have a change of heart away from those things, whatever they may be, that block an authentic relationship with the Divine. It is a time of “metanoia.”

The word, metanoia, comes from two Greek words: Meta, meaning above; and Nous, meaning mind. Metanoia invites us to move above our normal instincts, into a bigger mind, into a mind which rises above self-interest and the ego.

You might say, then, that metanoia is about “letting go” — and if anything in life invites us to let go, it’s suffering. No, we don’t ask for suffering. We’d rather it go away. But the truth is, it’s part of the human experience and how we choose to respond to it, matters.

Franciscan priest and author Richard Rohr writes: “I define suffering very simply as ‘whenever you are not in control.’ Suffering is the most effective way whereby humans learn to trust, allow, and give up control to Another Source. I wish there were a different answer, but Jesus reveals on the cross both the path and the price of full transformation into the divine.”

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Today is also Valentine’s Day, a day of expressing and reflecting love. I find it fitting that both Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day come together this day. Pure, authentic love is born of a burning away of the ego, many times the result of suffering.

Author Sue Monk Kidd writes: “I don’t hold to the idea that God causes suffering and crisis. I just know that those things come along and God uses them. We think life should be a nice, clean ascending line. But inevitably something wanders onto the scene and creates havoc with the nice way we’ve arranged life to fall into place.”

That re-arrangement of our life will be unique to each of us. But, when we are stretched, when we are nailed to our own personal crosses, we can be born into deeper levels of compassion and love — if we allow it.

Now, I scoop up one last glob of yogurt for dad. I spoon it in his mouth and he swallows, slowly, mindfully. I am mindful, too, that this time, although tedious, is a precious gift.

Dad is silent. Since the stroke, he is often quiet or has difficulty finding words. This time, he surprises me. He takes my hand and kisses it three times. My heart breaks and I want to drown in tears.

“Thank you,” he whispers.