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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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.