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.)

*****

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.”

*****

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Waiting

I’m still waiting for results from some medical tests. I’ve never been good at it. Waiting. I get anxious. Uncertain.

So I went back to read a blog post I wrote in 2015 about “waiting” and what I still need to learn. It seems a good time to share this again.

It’s also Ash Wednesday in the Christian tradition, a time to remember we are simply passing through here, and that in some sense, we are always a waiting people — waiting to return home.

And may we know, in the waiting, we are never alone.

*****

The schoolyard felt vast, a desolate ocean of concrete, as I sat there, waiting.

A five-year-old, I clutched my Cinderella lunch pail to my chest as I saw buses leave, parents pick up their children. And my insides churned. Where was dad?

As he pulled up in that 1950s station wagon, I jumped in the front seat and fretted in sing-song style, “I waited and I waited but you never came.”

Dad told me in later years he raced and rushed from his job so he could get there in time to pick me up after kindergarten. But sometimes, his work delayed him or traffic was heavy — and he was late. And while I waited, alone, I was filled with an overwhelming loneliness and anxiety.

Of course I healed from that experience and as an adult, it became a private joke between dad and me, especially if I was running late for some event with him and he would say, “I waited and I waited ….”

pain and sorrow womanI share this story because it seems we are always a people of waiting. And yet, we often see it as an inconvenience.

Let’s face it. Waiting is not popular, especially today.

Stuck in heavy traffic, at the airport for a delayed flight, at a doctor’s office, waiting for the cable repairman. You name it, and we wail and bemoan all this “wasted time” when we could have been doing something else.

The truth is, waiting is not lost time, but valuable if we choose to make it so. Waiting can be rich, inviting us to live in the present moment and to trust in the process of life — to surrender our timetable to the agenda of a Higher Power.

In other words, when we are forced to wait, we are no longer in control. The Divine is.

girl by oceanBut waiting is not all drudgery. It can often be filled with hope. And promise. In the Old Testament, the Israelites waited 40 years in the desert to reach the Promised Land. Mary waited for the birth of the Christ. The Buddha sat under a tree, waiting for enlightenment.

In this way, waiting is not passive — but active. Spiritual writer Henri Nouwen puts it this way:

“Active waiting means to be fully present to the moment, in the conviction that something is happening. A waiting person is a patient person … impatient people are always expecting the real thing to happen somewhere else and therefore, want to go somewhere else. The moment is empty. But patient people dare to stay where they are. Patient living means to actively live in the present — and wait there.”

Without this period of waiting, whatever wants to be “birthed” cannot be fully formed. Some examples that come to mind are the chrysalis of the butterfly. A child in a mother’s womb. A work of art or book in process. In Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, writer Annie Dillard quotes poet Michael Goldman:

“When the muse comes she doesn’t tell you to write. She says, ‘Get up for a minute. I’ve something to show you. Stand there.”

If we were not to “stand here” and wait to see what is being shown us — to cut short any of our waiting time — we thwart whatever wants to take form and shape.

When we patiently wait, however, we are gifted and graced. One of my favorite authors, Sue Monk Kidd, writes:

“When the time is right, the cocooned soul begins to emerge. Waiting turns golden. Newness unfurls. It is a time of pure, unmitigated wonder.”

transformationI have to admit that I’m still not good at waiting. But I’m getting better. I have come to understand that the things of God don’t come suddenly. Often, the Divine is more of a mid-wife than a rescuer, one who patiently guides us through the process to new life.

And yes, like many of you, I wait. For many things. But I also know, as Jungian analyst James Hillman wrote, that “our soul is the patient part of us.”

So I try to listen to my soul more often, to sit with it in silence. But this time, unlike the little girl, I know I’m not alone. The Divine is always with me and within me.

With this inner knowing, with this sense of presence, I trust. In stillness. In anticipation. Waiting.