Goodness in dark times

Sometimes small gifts of love and kindness show up in life. They give me hope, especially during these days when the world seems shrouded in so much darkness. Here are two stories.

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My birthday promised severe thunderstorms. Windswept rain, lightning and hail. My celebratory dinner at 5 p.m. would now become a late European-style meal at 8 p.m. My friend and I could do nothing but wait out the weather until the roads were safe.

The rumbles of thunder grew distant and with skies clearing, we left for the restaurant. On the way, a rainbow splashed itself across the half-darkened sky, an artist’s palette of vivid and rich indigo, violet, red, orange, yellow, green and blue colors.

The child in me smiled. A gift from the heavens. For me. Today.

At the restaurant the waitress seated us near a table filled with 10 people. They were an African-American family including children, adults and grandparents and their joy was contagious, as they laughed, talked, drank and ate.

I overheard someone say “birthday” and then the waitress brought out a huge slice of cake with a candle to one of the men at the table.

“It’s his birthday, too,” I whispered to my friend. “What are the odds I’d find someone here, born on the same day?”

When we finished eating, I told my friend I was probably going to embarrass him, but I was going to wish that man a happy birthday. It was a risk. A small one. I walked over to him and the family turned from their food and looked up at me — all ten of them — with curious but welcoming expressions.

“Is today your birthday?” I asked the man.

He smiled and nodded.

“Mine, too.”

Without warning, the energy of the family burst into confetti-like joy and they all began to sing boisterously at the top of their lungs. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you ….”

My friend stood aside, smiling and laughing, and the entire restaurant stilled to listen, reveling in our common joy.

I was in tears at this family’s goodness and generosity, but even more so when the man stood up, hugged me and said repeatedly, “Have a blessed year. Have a blessed year.”

*******

This afternoon I stopped by the Dollar General for a few items. I stood there, watching as the man ahead of me, perhaps my age, was having trouble paying with his credit card. The machine kept telling him it had expired even though the card itself had a valid date.

The cashier struggled, trying everything to make the card work. The line grew behind me as we stood and waited. The man pulled out some bills from his wallet, but he didn’t have enough cash for the goods in his bag.

He decided to return some of the items, placing them on the counter, asking the cashier to deduct them from the total cost. I was about to offer to pay the difference when a woman behind me, with two small children, spoke up.

“How much do you need? Here.”

She reached into her wallet and pulled out a $20 bill, waving it across me and at him. The man protested. Adamantly.

“I can’t accept that. I can’t.”

“Yes, you can,” she countered. “Here. I do this all the time. It’s my good deed for the day.”

The man would not take the money as I stood there, in the middle, watching in wonder at this exchange of goodness, of giving freely. The woman, still smiling, dug into her purse and pulled out a $5 bill.

“Well, you can least take this.”

The man bucked at her offer and finally reached out to accept it.

“Thanks. Listen, I work at a local supermarket. Meat department. Steaks. Come by and you get one free.”

*******

We hear much today about hatred. Divisiveness. Racial tensions. The darkness of our times.

But I’ve seen goodness, kindness and love twice these last few days shining in the small, daily moments of life.

The African-American family and the gift they gave me has lingered in my heart. There was no color at the table when they welcomed me, no animosity, no judgment, no hatred. Only love.

This, I tell myself, is who we truly are, in our hearts and souls, people who yearn to share and give love — as well as receive it. No matter who we are. No matter our skin color, gender, religion, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation or religion.

Right now the storms may seem fierce in our world, the darkness overwhelming and sometimes, we may want to give up and drown in it. But don’t.

We are so much more than that. At our core, we are good.

We are that rainbow painted across the world’s dark skies — filled with the rich colors of love and beauty.

We can take any moment and spread goodness in the blackness of this world. We can. We can.

 

 

 

 

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It goes by fast

As some of you know I’ve taken a brief respite from two years of writing this blog. But this post today visited me unexpectedly and asked to be written. Here it is. I share it with deep gratitude.

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Birthdays make me wax philosophical. I become more than my usual existential self. It’s not a matter of “to be” but where I am now, in that “being-ness.”

To that end, a friend and I were discussing the question that seems to have become popular as of late: “What would you tell your younger self if you could?” My mind went through the Rolodex (that’s how old I am) of pieces of sage wisdom.

I smiled and said, “It goes by fast. That’s what I’d tell the younger me.” He turned and asked, “Would you have listened?”

Probably not.

When we’re younger we may not look too far ahead. No need. Yes, we plan, we work, raise a family, whatever it may be, but mostly, our vision is short-term. We have the illusion that life is forever, with many days left, much time to do whatever we need to with our lives.

But the truth is, as I head into the end of this decade of my 60s, I can say, with honesty, life is short.

I’ve seen friends die, or lose their spouses or children. And those deeper, philosophical questions seem to plague me now more than ever: How many years do I have left to fulfill whatever I came here to do? And what is that anyway? Do I have enough time to do whatever “that” is?

When we are younger, we don’t dwell on those questions; in our older years, the questions dwell on us – whether we like it or not.

It’s more than curious to me that I seem to have a history. I can look back with perspective, as if standing on a hill and viewing the landscape of my life. And what do I see?

At the risk of sounding too corny (but I do love James Taylor), I have indeed seen fire and rain. I’ve had moments of joy, deep sadness, longing to belong to something deeper in life, given up hope, rallied, dug deeper, laughed at myself. All these are shared experiences that make us human. That’s what I see.

And sometimes I’ve just screwed things up.

But I’ve learned from that. At least I hope I have. Mistakes are part of life’s journey and in them I’ve discovered parts of me that are teachable, the essence of my being that wants to grow, evolve and become more compassionate and loving.

As I age, I’ve also found that things of mammon, or of this world, really don’t impress me anymore. Call me a curmudgeon or a not-so-material girl, but I’m no longer invested in what I can get.

But what I can give.

And what does impress me? A soft summer rain, the lulling or crashing waves of the ocean, a forest sweet with the smell of earth, my toes in green grass, a child’s giggle, a long, delicious nap, the deep inhale of pure, clean air. Seeing the potential of genuine goodness in others and in myself.

And here’s what I continue to learn.

Life will unfold, with joy or with sorrow and many times with the ordinary hum-drum of days — and that the “powerful play goes on and that you may contribute a verse.”

And what is my verse? I don’t know. Even at my age I still struggle with this. In the end perhaps life’s journey is stumbling in the dark, trusting in a Higher Power that always guides us, love us. That we are where we are meant to be — and I don’t mean that as a platitude or cliché — and that somehow we exist in each sacred moment as intended by the Divine.

And perhaps that verse is simply being love. Every second. Because it does go by fast. It does.

 

 

Finding wings in the darkness

My personal inspirational essay was published online on SheLoves Magazine this morning. Many of you have already read this. If so, I am thankful and no need to linger in this space.

However, for those who don’t follow me on Facebook or Twitter, or who may not have found it, I’d like to share it here with those who read my blog — with the hope you find words that uplift or inspire. With deep gratitude.

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By Marielena Zuniga | Blog

I walk to the dunes by tall reeds, taking in the expanse of ocean before me. The beach is bereft in autumn except for a lone fisherman on one of the stone jetties. I inhale, the smell of salt air and fish stinging my lungs.

I breathe again, realizing how staccato and shallow this process of inhalation has been for me lately, how I’ve not been taking life in. Here I am in my elder years, still seeking meaning and purpose.

What am I here to do?

How can I serve using my gifts?

What is my life’s purpose?

My dreams were to be a successful, published author, to share my journey with a kindred spirit, to travel extensively, to teach spiritual truths in written and spoken words.

Not all have come to fruition as I had thought or planned. And I am still waiting, even as time collapses around me and grows shorter. Beyond the externals, however, what is it I really seek? This is the question that reverberates in my mind in the early hours of the morning, that chants like a litany through the still of the night.

What is truly of worth in life?

Perhaps I am in the process of soul-making. “This is not always a happy thing,” writes philosopher and author, Jean Houston. “Crucial parts of it are not,” she writes. “It almost always involves a painful excursion into the pathos wherein the anguish is enormous …”

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 A friend tells me that I am in “bifurcation.” The word literally means “a fork in the road,” a point where an old life is ending and a new one is beginning. It is the scientific process of the caterpillar–of chrysalis.

Removing my shoes, I slide my feet into the cool sand. Late afternoon shadows bruise the sky as I walk along the shoreline laced with foam. I huddle against the chill. The seagulls, too, brace against the wind. They step on tentative legs toward the waves, waiting for a meal.

A butterfly snags the edge of my vision. Then I see another and another. They flit in and out of the thickets of reeds as if stitching them together.

I take a few more steps along the beach when a movement ahead distracts me. On the bleached sand sits a dab of brown and yellow. It is a butterfly, stranded on its side and dangerously close to the waves. It is injured, lifting one wing, then dropping it.

I sit down and watch it, struggling for flight. The wind pushes against it; the waves move in closer. I pick it up gently between two fingers and move it toward safety, up toward the dunes.

For some time, I wait, wondering what it will do. The butterfly still thrashes, yearning to fly, but it is hurt and needs to be still for it to heal. I want to comfort it, tell it to stop fighting. A sob catches in my throat.

In her book When the Heart Waits, author Sue Monk Kidd writes: “To suffer our darkness is to take the pained and broken parts of ourselves and rock them gently.”

I begin to weep for it, for my own brokenness and pain, for all the suffering in the world, and I rock it gently. We are all in the process of bifurcation, of letting go of what no longer works and finding new wings. We can do nothing but wait until healing unfolds, until life and answers are born.

I am learning, as Jungian analyst James Hillman writes, that our “soul is the patient part of us.” And I must allow myself to go into the unknowing spaces of my life, to live there with their tensions and sorrows.

I must have faith that even though I am mired in the smaller details of “what next,” God views the bigger picture and is comforting me, providing pockets of peace amidst the waiting. God is with me in the darkness and in the birthing process. And I must believe that as mystic Juliana of Norwich assured, “All is well and all manner of things shall be well.”

I finally stand and with one foot, I draw a circle in the sand around the butterfly. I want it to be protected, whether it ever flies again or not. Before I leave, I whisper a prayer for its healing and for all the anguish and hurting on the earth.

I walk a few steps into the wet sand and then stop to look back one last time at the butterfly. But the circle is empty. Somewhere in the wind, my heart is soaring.

________________
About Marielena:
mz head shotI’m an old woman. And to prove it I’ve been writing a long time, for more than 40 years. I’ve worked as a staff writer for newspapers and magazines and earned some impressive journalism and writing awards. For three years (2010-2012) my essays placed in the top 100 of the inspirational category of the annual Writer’s Digest Magazine writing contest.

 

 

See you in September

Sometimes we run dry. Or need a respite.

This is one of those times for me. I’ve been writing this blog for almost two years now, one post a week. That’s a lot of writing. I’ve enjoyed it and still do.

But this feels like a time to rest the words and rest in God. And to spend the summer focusing my writing in another creative direction — a novel in progress.

If you’ve already signed up for my blog, thank you. Don’t go away. I’ll still be here.

I may stop in with a periodic post, an announcement or two or who knows — whatever might prompt me to feel I have something of worth to say. Life can bring surprises, insights and unexpected gifts and I love sharing them with you all, both the happy and not-so-happy.

So even though my intent is to take a break from writing this blog for the summer, an occasional post or two may show up. You never know.

I hope any words I’ve written the past two years have given you — well — something. Perhaps that “thing” touched you, moved you, made you laugh, question or say to yourself, yes, I’m like that, too.

If so, I’m thankful and humbled.

Writing is a great gift. I treasure it and want to spend it uplifting and inspiring.

Until then, see you in September and enjoy your summer, my friends. I’ll miss your reading presence!

 

 

 

Bloom where you are planted

Years ago I was in a lonely space. I was struggling for answers and life’s direction but receiving little inner guidance. I decided to head to a retreat facility — a rambling Victorian house run by a religious community — by the ocean.

But it was October. Off-season. And the house would be empty.

The retreat director asked if I would mind this. I said it would be fine. I needed the quiet and the space to breathe, to pray, to listen.

When I arrived, the house was everything I had hoped for. My room overlooked the ocean and I was a short walk to the sandy beach. But as evening drew on I discovered that indeed I was alone in this big, rambling house. I stayed only one night and came away with fewer answers than before.

I did learn this, however. I didn’t need to travel to another location to find what I was looking for. Oh, sometimes traveling to a new locale gave me a fresh perspective and was helpful. But more often than not, I found that the answers unfolded no matter where I had planted myself.

And sometimes they didn’t unfold at all, which ironically, was part of the process.

I know. I know. Life can be filled with WTH do I do next? Do I turn right or left? Yes or no? Stay or go?

Burning bushes are not easy to come by, for any of us.

Since I retired and dad had his stroke, my time has been filled with caring for him. But I’m also looking for direction at way past midlife, at what else I might want to do with the years I have left, with the talents and gifts I have. I still have much to contribute.

So today I had some time off from caregiving. Although still Springtime, the weather blazed hot but beautiful like a summer’s day. I went to a nearby park with a lake, and toting a lawn chair, blanket and book sat under a shady tree, soft warm breezes caressing me.

Blessed silence. I hadn’t felt such peace in a long time.

Then a sun-tanned man ambled by, about my age, smiling big and waved his hand in the air in a friendly arc. He had a laid-back vibe about him with his straw hat with a feather, jeans and sandals. He started chatting about the beauty of the day, about how he had cared for his mother who at 88 had still belonged to the women’s bowling league, how he enjoyed music.

And how in his 20s he had traipsed off to Hollywood, following a girlfriend.

“What was I thinking?” he asked with a huge grin. “We got involved in show business a bit. She did makeup and I had some background parts. You know, the guy who drives the bus or stands in the background reading the newspaper.”

Part of me was fascinated by his sharing. Another part wanted my silence back. I decided to allow whatever was happening, to happen. Finally, he said “good-bye” and I watched him walk away, wondering about his life, how he had taken another path long ago and had returned here. As I had.

I had moved to many states, for many jobs, for many reasons. And in the end, I came back to the place I know as home.

We make choices for many reasons. None are good or bad. They simply are. In hindsight, they may feel like mistakes, but if we are open, I feel that all our decisions are for our growth. They eventually lead us to where we’re meant to be.

I rose from the lawn chair and did as poet Mary Oliver wrote in the poem The Summer Day. I fell down on my knees into the deep green grass and inhaled its heady fragrance. I stretched out on the blanket, looking up at the green leaves of the tree silhouetted against a blue-blue sky.

I listened to the birds twittering around me, the hush of the breeze in the branches, and marveled at this unique perspective of seeing the world from the ground up.

I paid attention.

And I heard yet again Oliver’s haunting question: “What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

But no answers came.

Sometimes I think too deeply. Ask too many questions. They block trust. They are ways of controlling and of not allowing Divine flow to take over. I’m aware of this.

So as I stretched out on the grass, I decided to follow a saying popular when I was a teenager. It would become my mantra — to bloom where I am planted.

Sometimes I am planted in uncertainty. Sometimes in the hard earth of sadness or the rich soil of joy. And sometimes I am planted in meeting a stranger who simply wants to connect.

I sunk deeper into the earth. In the moment. Blooming.

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THE SUMMER DAY

by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

 

 

 

Something’s lost, but something’s gained

The day before dad’s 90th birthday party, I had to buy some things at the Dollar General. Many family members were flying in from all over the country, many tasks to be done, much anticipation and excitement.

As I waited in line, a woman stood before me with three helium balloons — two silver and the other, a red heart that read: I love you.

“What beautiful balloons,” I said. “I’m sure the person getting those will love them.”

She turned to me, her face changing from a smile to sadness.

“They’re for my son’s grave. Today is the anniversary of his death.”

My heart dropped. Today was also my dad’s actual 90th birthday, on Cinco de Mayo.

“I’m so sorry,” I said.

“That’s OK. I’m going to put these on his grave and we’re going to have a nice chat. He was only 26 when he died,” she said, her eyes tearing up.

I asked his first name and told her I would pray for him if she would pray for my dad.

When I got home, I checked the closed Facebook group for my 50th high school reunion. It had been scheduled for the same day as dad’s party and as much as I wanted to attend, I knew I couldn’t.

Early Saturday morning, after a deluge on Friday, family began to set up outdoor tents, tables, chairs, decorations, while food was being chopped, prepared and cooked in the kitchen.

We had sent an invitation to one of my parents’ friends whom they’ve known for at least 50 years. I wondered why she hadn’t responded. I know her well and it was unlike her.

As I was preparing food at one of the tables, I heard someone say she had been hospitalized. With cancer. It had spread. I felt as if the wind had been taken out of me. How could this be, I thought, as I kept peeling and chopping, preparing for a joy-filled event.

Photo by Lydia Zuniga

The party began. The skies that had been cloudy and uncertain had cleared. The musicians played Latino music, the Mexican food was plentiful, the drink flowed and dad smiled again and again, as friends from his church, his past workplace, and others attended and wished him a happy birthday.

Guests kept arriving when we saw a young Asian man walk down the driveway. No one knew who he was. But I had often seen him biking past my parents’ home to his job at the local grocery store where he gathered the shopping carts.

He seemed alone when I would see him at the store and I wondered if he had any family in this country.

Photo by Lydia Zuniga

He stood there and I asked if he was OK. He spoke little English but from what I gathered he said he had heard the music and liked it. He planted himself on the spot and my sister and I looked in question at each other. Mentally, we must have agreed on the same thing, the only loving thing to do.

“Are you hungry?” we asked. He nodded. So we made him a plate and he sat down and began to eat, listening to the music. Then left.

When the party was over that night, I was exhausted, but checked into the Facebook group to see what had happened at my reunion. I saw photos of the event, of adult women I remembered as young girls with bangs and long hair flipped at the ends, and smiles filled with promise.

And I saw a photo honoring six of my classmates who had died, too young.

Photo by Lydia Zuniga

That night, I couldn’t sleep. Perhaps too much excitement. Too much food and drink. Too many memories. I kept thinking of the woman at the Dollar General store who had lost her son, of my classmates of so many years ago, of my parents’ friend with cancer, and of the Asian man so far away from his homeland.

Of dad, celebrating 90 years of an amazing life.

As I finally drifted off to sleep, I realized that the last few days had shown me this:

Life takes us on many paths, some joyful, some we’d rather not take. Many unexpected. We cry, we celebrate, we love. That, as Joni Mitchell sang “something’s lost, but something’s gained in living every day.”

And each second is precious.

Live it now. Celebrate it. Now.

 

 

Dad

This is not my typical blog post. On Cinco de Mayo, we will be celebrating my dad’s 90th birthday. If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to share with you some of his amazing life.

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When dad was born on May 5, 1927 — 90 years ago — he almost died.

His mother, my late abuela, prayed to St. Anthony. If her son lived, she would offer him to God’s service and name him Antonio. Anthony.

Dad survived. And his life has indeed been of service to others. Interestingly, his namesake, St. Anthony, was the greatest preacher of the Middle Ages and one of the finest orators of all time.

Dad became this, too.

But dad wasn’t always this way. He was a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in poverty. He was shy.

Because of his race, he experienced prejudice in South Texas. Many of his classmates weren’t pleased when he was named the high school’s valedictorian. Mexicans weren’t supposed to be smart.

Dad went on to study radio engineering and worked at Pan American Airways. While all this was happening, he and my mother, from Tennessee, were writing letters to each other and fell in love. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/07/12/a-love-story/ They married and started raising a family in Donna, Texas.

His career then morphed into television engineering at KRGV-TV in Weslaco, and he would often bring us as children there. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2016/04/26/fame/ With a growing family, dad needed more income and left the TV station to find better employment.

He took a job with the Philco Corporation where he worked as a civilian consultant to the military in South Korea. He was responsible for helping set up the first TV station in post-war Korea.

But we weren’t able to go as a family. South Korea was still considered a hardship area. So we stayed behind in Houston, with my aunt and uncle helping my mother with our care. Every day the mailman brought a surprise from Korea — dolls, silk kimonos, toys and books.

After a year, dad returned to the U.S. and the Philco Corporation transferred him to the Philadelphia area.

Among his many duties, he helped develop the high-resolution cameras, attached to an airplane, that detected the growing build up of missiles in Cuba — that led to the Cuban missile crisis. Dad also helped set up the TV monitors at NASA in Houston.

His work then took him to KYW-TV in Philadelphia as chief engineer during the time of The Mike Douglas Show. There, he met many movie stars and celebrities. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/07/07/kissing-shirley-temple/

During all this time, however, dad was also involved in much more. At some point in his early career, he took the Dale Carnegie course and discovered a gift — inspirational and motivational speaking.

From there, dad became involved in a program called Adventures in Attitudes and branched out on his own, giving lectures to help inspire others, to help them become the best they could be.

He offered talks such as “You were born for greatness, why settle for less?” and “The ABCs of greatness.”

His public speaking extended to the Crusillo movement, where he was one of two men to help bring this Christ-centered movement to the Philadelphia area from Spain.

Dad lectured around the world, not only for the Crusillo, but speaking about other spiritual and self-help topics in churches, schools, veterans’ hospitals, nursing homes, prisons, and to troubled youth. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2016/01/18/the-nellie-nobody-knows/

Dad’s sole desire was to help others and to serve. I remember him saying, “If only one person is helped and comes to know God, it’s worth it.”

Stories are told that healings happened when dad spoke. Emotional healings, but sometimes physical healings. After one of his talks, he counseled a woman who had cancer. After hearing her story, he told her she needed to forgive her ex-husband. She found it difficult, but she finally did, from her heart. Later, she reported to him that she had been healed.

Prior to one of his talks — an important one — he was seized with an uncharacteristic fear. While in the shower he heard Mother Mary’s voice: “Do not be afraid,” she said. “I am sending my angels before you.”

Dad wrote two books and recorded numerous CDs of his talks. He was not part of the digital age, but at some point, my hope is that I — or one of his family — will make these available via social media.

Throughout his 90 years, dad has helped countless people, given tirelessly, and helped his nine children along the way. He helped us move, provided money, offered counsel, prayed with us, cried with us, loved us, forgave us when we made mistakes. He went on to do the same with his grandchildren.

The stories are countless and if anything, dad himself was the consummate story teller — until his stroke four years ago. https://mezuniga.wordpress.com/2015/11/23/the-zen-of-caregiving/

That’s the day God took away the one gift dad cherished most — his speech.

And yet, dad still speaks with his eyes and his smile. He is still there, giving. How?

He helped me learn in the deepest way, as I help care for him, that loving service to others is the greatest gift we can give. I now know this in my being as never before.

So this Friday on Cinco de Mayo — Antonio (Tony) Zaragoza Zuniga, true Mexican-American that he is — will mark 90 years of a life well lived. And on Saturday, May 6th, his family and friends will be there to celebrate him. They are arriving from all corners — Tennessee, Georgia, Florida, California, from next door and a few blocks away.

We will honor dad at a party with Mexican food, Margaritas, mariachi music, laughter, family stories. And we will cherish him. We will love him.

Gracias, Papi. Por todo.

*******