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.

 

 

A work in progress

I bumped into a friend walking her dog last evening. When I asked how she was, she raised her eyebrows in exasperation and said, “I just had a birthday.”

“I didn’t know. Belated happy birthday.”

The dog tugged at the leash and came to me, wagging her tail and begging to be petted.

“That’s OK,” she said. “It was the last birthday of a decade. The next one is the BIG 70.”

I smiled with understanding. I’m next — in a couple of years. The thought of 70 seems foreign to me since my spirit still feels and sometimes acts like it’s 21.

As I petted the dog one last time and she walked away, I got to thinking about life and what I’ve learned. Truth be told, what I’m still learning. Here are some thoughts.

Psychological-NoiseWebI KNOW NOTHING

That used to be the humorous saying on some TV show that I can’t recall. But seriously, I’ve found as I continue to age that I know nothing. In my earlier days I attended a wealth of seminars, workshops, devoured all manner of spiritual, psychological and self-help books, tapes and CDs.

In the end, they weren’t wasted. They helped me grow.

But if I’m honest, life has had its way with me, sometimes painful, sometimes joyful, and I’ve come to the point where I realize wisdom and knowledge are far beyond this frail, human mind and spirit. As Joni Mitchell sang, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now …” And sometimes, I really don’t know life at all.

But that’s a gift. Ironically, it’s only when I’m in that space of not-knowing that the Divine’s love and grace can have free rein.

LISTEN UP

I’m not seeing a lot of listening these days. This distresses me. We live in chaotic, uncertain times. It’s difficult to hold and open space to really listen and hear what the “other” is saying.

But when we’re in that space (see above, I know nothing), only then can we come to a fuller understanding of the other’s feelings or point of view. That takes some humility. And courage.

It doesn’t mean we have to agree. A friend and I had a heated political discussion the other day. It was difficult for me not to want to jump in and state my point of view. But I took deep breaths. Dug deep. Listened. We both found a bit more understanding.

An obscured figure behind frosted glass

PEOPLE WILL DISAPPOINT US

This one comes under the category of “expectations” and “acceptance.” Many times I’ve expected someone to do something or act in a certain way, only to step back and tell myself, “You’re not giving that person the freedom to be who they are.”

Another tough one. Yes, people will disappoint us. But it was Mother Teresa who said, in part:

“The good you do today will often be forgotten. Do good anyway. Give the best you have, and it will never be enough. Give your best anyway. In the final analysis, it is between you and God. It was never between you and them anyway.”

LIFE IS SHORT

Blink of an eye. Really. If you don’t have that realization yet, you will. And I don’t like it, not one bit because my ego tells me there are all manner of things I haven’t done yet, like writing my best-selling novel or traveling to Spain or Scotland. Any or all of that may or may not happen.

But the truth is, I can only “be” in the present moment and live from there, plan from there, love from there.

arms openBE GRATEFUL

For it all. Even what we call the “bad stuff.” I’ll end with a story I’ve always loved.

Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch watchmaker and Christian who, along with her father and other family members, helped many Jews escape the Nazi Holocaust during World War II.

Because of her actions Corrie and her sister Betsy were held in a concentration camp where they lived in barracks plagued with lice. Lice were everywhere—in their hair and on their bodies.

One day, Betsy said to her, “Corrie, we need to give thanks to God for the lice.”

Corrie said, “Betsy, you have gone too far this time. I am not going to thank God for lice.”

Betsy said, “Oh, but Corrie, we are supposed to give thanks in all things. That’s what the Bible tells us.”

The thing is, the sisters had been trying to hold prayer meetings in the barracks but were concerned about the guards breaking in and shutting them down. But Corrie later found out, because of the lice, the guards refused to go into those barracks. And they were able to hold their Bible studies.

letting go open handI admit I’m not always good at giving thanks when things seem to go wrong. But I’m learning to be thankful for the metaphorical lice in my life.

And learning that I really don’t know a danged thing at all. And still learning to listen. To be in the moment. To accept all that is.

But that’s OK. I’m a work in progress. We all are. We can find comfort in that. We really can.

Because we are loved, right now, exactly as we are. Isn’t that amazing?

So we can take a deep breath, a sigh of relief. We can let go. Of our agendas. Expectations. Inability to listen. Our need to know everything.

For that, we can be truly thankful.

 

 

Don’t it always seem to go

Life can blindside us. There we are, moving along in our daily routine, and wham. Something — whatever “it” is — calls us to attention.

For me, that “something” was a traumatic fall about two months ago. It’s miraculous — as my doctor has told me — that I didn’t break any bones or end up with a concussion when I hit that cement sidewalk. I’m in walk-feet-2forever gratitude for angels around me when I pitched head first.

But my teeth took the brunt of it, dislodging them and shoving them into my fractured jawbone.

Blood spewed everywhere and a kind lady saw me fall and took me into her home to help me clean up. I ended up in the ER that night with a CT Scan and being assessed and probed. Ironically, I knew the ER doctor from all my past visits with dad, who had a stroke three years ago.

The human part of me immediately kicked into “why” — that nasty question we ask about much of life.

When the shock and trauma of it all subsided, I realized that “why” was a waste of energy and time. It was a “victim” question and I didn’t like that. I decided, hey, it happened And now I was left with how I wanted to respond to the experience.

So how did I respond? Afterwards, not well. I wept, I was angry and I railed to the heavens that THIS could not be happening, not now. I wanted to write my second book. But had I really been doing that? I needed to continue to help care for dad. But really, now, didn’t I need a respite of some kind?

And then, I watched as self-blame kicked in. How could I have been so stupid, so unaware as to allow this to happen?

woman-floating-paperworkI’d process all those questions later. But right after the accident, I was still in shock, or some kind of post-traumatic stress, my body banged up and sore. I fell into periods of the deepest sleep I’ve ever known. So comatose, in fact, those sleeps frightened me.

But I decided to allow it all. I may not have liked it, but I knew on some level that I had to give permission for all this to unfold. I couldn’t — and still can’t — eat solid food. (Silver lining here: I’ve lost a lot of weight that needed to go.) And I needed tremendous amounts of bedrest. No more go-go-go. No more to-do lists.

Just being. Just resting. Just deep listening and deep sleeps.

I’ve had a good amount of dental work done at this point.  There’s much more ahead. And I’m thankful that some of my stamina has returned.

But here’s what I’m most thankful for, believe it or not.

Taking a shower. Cooking a meal, even if it is soup or mashed potatoes. Driving to the grocery store. Dusting and vacuuming. Crazy, right? No. Those simple things I once took for granted, that were part of an ordinary day — now I see them as gifts.

Here’s the point, my friends. We are given lives that, in the main, are routine. We wake, we eat breakfast, we brush our teeth, we go to work. Or we stay home and care for a family. Or we pay bills, call a friend, clean the house, prepare dinner, help the kids with homework.

dishes-2-620These very simple, simple things in life are gifts. Blessings. To NOT be able to do them for what has seemed such a long period of time — and now to be able to do them — is a gift beyond telling.

The fall, yes, was a huge wake-up call on many levels. And I know those lessons will be sifting through my soul for some time to come. For now, one major lesson is that time is limited and we never know what might happen. So, yes, I do want to write that book, many books. And yes, I need to learn to better balance caregiving my dad with my own self-care.

But I don’t want to overthink or analyze all this. I just want to continue to “be” with whatever this experience needs to be — in the moment.

And in the moment, I can say that this challenge fills me with boundless gratitude. I am aware now of the smallest of blessings. To breathe. To move. To laugh and cry.

holdingspaceforyourselffeatureAnd even though I have always been somewhat mindful of those who have chronic health problems, those who are shut in, those who are fleeing their countries and have so little — now I am almost painfully attentive to how much I do have, how so many people in the world would cherish those things I once complained about or took for granted.

In the end, life in all its spectrum will be with us — from dazzling joy to crippling sorrow to somewhere in between. Can we learn to accept it all, to learn and grow through it all, to be kind to ourselves and not judge the experience or fall into self-blame (as I am still learning)?

As I continue to mend, I find that I am in the moment as never before, savoring the crimson and gold leaves of autumn, the crisp cool morning air, the dishes in the sink, a hot shower, a warm bed, the neighbor who stops me to talk even though I am tired, the gift of a deep breath in and a deep breath out.

Gift and grace. And so much more. As Joni sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone.”

Let’s be here now. Thankful, now.

 

 

The circle game — again

I can’t believe another year has come and gone. Joni was right. It is the Circle Game. Faster and faster. So here’s my blog post from last year. Thanks for letting me share it again.

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I’m celebrating a birthday soon. A piece of paper from a Texas hospital tells me I was born on August 18, 1949. You do the math. It’s not pretty. I’ve had some thoughts about aging and share them here. Spoiler alert: There is talk of God in this one.

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I have officially been an older person for some time. I still remember the shock of seeing the “senior citizen” discount on the Denny’s menu and the ads on TV for AARP, realizing I was eligible for both.

I felt like I was having an out-of-body experience, sadly a body that isn’t the one I had when I was 40, much less 50.

old people shadowsThose “forgiving” pants that writer Anne Lamott talks about aren’t as forgiving anymore and I ask myself: How did this happen? I exercise and eat right.

But as I get older I find I have to work extra hard at it with less energy. And wasn’t it just the other day I was a gawky beanpole, going to a Beatles concert or a greenhorn working at my first newspaper job, terrified I would fail at this writing thing? Um. Nope. Happened decades ago.

So here’s the truth of it, kiddos:

Time flies as you grow older. Really. To some of you it may not seem that way, but believe me, I think there’s some kind of Divine accelerator button that gets pushed after each decade. It could also be a quantum physics thing but I’m not sure.

And that’s also part of the aging process. You learn. If you’re open, you do learn. I used to laugh when older folks would say, “If only I knew then what I know now.” Truth.

You learn that life gets messy; people can be loving or cruel; your bank account ebbs and flows; some nights dread and anxiety will drown your soul because you feel you haven’t done a danged thing with your life that amounts to anything.

And then life will turn around and gobsmack you with the birth of a child, the perfumed scent of earth after a summer’s rain, an unexpected $5 you dig out of your jeans pocket.

If you’re a spiritual being — and I believe we all are — you learn that God is in everything and everywhere. Even in that politician or dictator or serial killer you despise.

self loveGod doesn’t play favorites and loves each person with this kind of cosmic abandon I will never fathom.

It’s such a relief to know that this love is totally accepting, always available and beckoning me, even though I screw up a lot and don’t always tap into it.

And as to that word “God.” We seem to have really created messes over that one.

In whatever ways you term that Divine source of love — and how can you define something so ineffable — that Supreme Being starts to become more visible to you as you age, in all creation, from that speck of a spider to raging waterfalls to that person sitting next to you on the train, sound asleep and snoring.

As to my writing: I always thought I’d write a best-seller by now. I smile at that one because while I believe almost all things are possible, some things happen and some don’t for Divine reasons I’m not privy to. I’ve learned the art and craft of writing over 40-some years and feel I’m pretty danged good.

But sometimes, if I’m honest, I get frustrated when I see others being published and successful, and I’m still struggling. Then I say:

“A word with you, God. Time is getting short here. I’m doing my part and I’m writing my little heart out. What about you? Are you doing your part, God? You may be eternal and have a thousand years, but I don’t.

As you approach the end of your timeline, you find that life starts taking more and more things and people away.

letting_go_by_bandico-d5s1eyhYou’ve lost those you love or you look at those you love who are dying and you weep in anticipation of that, knowing it is part of the process and you will grieve and have bad days and then go on again. And you realize your turn is getting closer and you wonder — what will that feel like?

After all, you’ve never had this particular death experience before, and yes, fear creeps in, as well as wonder and awe at approaching another stage of life that is probably pretty amazing.

So two stories to end: A friend of mine lost her mother a few years ago. She was having a bad time of it and woke one morning to find the most unusual, magnificent sunrise streaked across the skies.

Then she heard her mother’s voice: “This is only a small portion of what it’s like here, to be in the presence of God. The face of God is so beautiful I don’t want to miss a single second of it.”

And then there’s Sam, a neighbor who is 95. Lanky and tall, he walks twice a day, if not more, puffing away at his cigar. I asked him once about the secret to a long life.

He told me: “I smoke my cigar, I take a nap, then I take my medicine.” He paused and winked. “And you know what my medicine is, don’t you? A shot of whiskey.”

healing energy handsSo here’s to that shot of whiskey, to not missing a single second of the face of God, right here and right now, and to the insanities and joys of the human experience.

As I head into another year of my life, I hold on to one of my favorite quotes by Ram Dass:

“We are all just walking each other home.”

Thanks to my companions of the heart, who love me, put up with me, support me and grace me as we walk each other home. I love you all.

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(Blogger’s Note: And nope. I didn’t write that best-selling novel this past year. God willing, and if the Circle Game comes ’round again, I will. In the meantime, enjoy Joni.)

 

 

Praying the path

When I wrote this essay almost 10 years ago, I had been in a desperate search for answers in my life. I knew, like the seasons, I had to let go. I share these words with the hope that others who are in this space now may know they are not alone. That healing and answers do come. Here is my story.

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leavesA leaf falls. Then another. I want to hold on, to summer, to my writing, to my life. But lately it feels as if I am losing them all.

The path I am walking winds next to a creek, stubbled with rocks. Somehow, the water finds its way around the stones, not pushing but simply being what it is. I stand there for some seconds, the stream rippling and gurgling and I, yearning to hear what my heart is struggling to tell me.

Another leaf glides down, landing softly in the stream, then floats away. Then another. I want summer to stay. I want the warmth and comfort of the season, the earthy smells of jasmine and honeysuckle, the sun burning my skin, the salty smell of ocean waves, the softness of a summer evening and fireflies flitting through tall weeds — I want it all to stay. But as singer Joni Mitchell wrote, “It’s got the urge for going, so I guess it’ll have to go.”

I walk a little further, up a small incline to a bend in the road. Here, the path splits. Both lanes are shaded and cool, two-paths-5both inviting. I find a nearby stump and sit. I am weary. It seems I have walked this path a hundred times before, searching for answers. It seems I have prayed this path too many times.

Now I must let go of even the prayers. I must rest in faith. I must fall into the uncertainty that is my life.

The truth is I may never find my calling or purpose. Or my writing may never find a home. I call myself a writer, but is that my path? And what does “being a writer” really mean? The world is filled with writers, offering their wisdom or insights. Writing is like any other task — hard work and seldom appreciated.

What I seek is deeper meaning in my life, that somehow my meager existence can better the world in some say. So I ask: “Is there something else, dear God — something deeper, greater — that you want of me?”

But I have no answers. For anything.  Jesus the Christ or Buddha would say this unknowing is good, that we must “lose our life to find it.” They would also advise to “do nothing” or “simply be.” Rilke would say to be patient toward all that is unresolved in the heart — to live the questions and not to seek the answers, not now.

All these seem like well-meaning platitudes. Here, years past mid-life, I want answers. I want ground under my feet.

queen-annes-lace-theresa-johnsonI bend over to pick a flower, Queen Anne’s Lace, and I unearth it, roots and all. This is how I feel lately. As if God has reached down and plucked me whole.

I inhale to feel my own life force, the cool air filling my lungs, then I exhale. With my breath are my prayers. They have become simple lately, so scaled down that at times they are barely audible. This is how I pray:

“I’m here. Help me. Thank you.”

I pray “I’m here” because I feel as if God has forgotten me. I feel the need to remind the Divine that I’m still here on earth, still yearning for a life that matters.

I pray “Help me” because I need God’s help more than ever to guide me.

And finally, I pray Thank you” my small token of hope that somewhere, somehow God is helping me, even though I don’t see it or feel it. Even then I’m not sure help is coming. But I have no other choice. I must be open to God’s graces, trust that my prayers are being heard. It is yet another letting go.

I finally stand. I must walk on water and on the ground, let summer go and trust that perhaps around a bend in the road, there is direction, hope, happiness. But I don’t know. There are no guarantees or promises.

I only know I must take the next step. I draw in another deep breath and choose one of the paths. I move forward. I whisper “I’m here” as another golden leaf drifts down, falling at my feet.

 

Catch the wind

In the 1960s, many of us were trying to find ourselves. Hair was growing longer and skirts shorter. The Vietnam War. Bob Dylan, the Beatles and Joni Mitchell. Indeed, the times they were a-changing. Here’s a story about a high school friend and how, in trying to find ourselves, we found the unexpected.

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I was a freshman. An all-girls Catholic high school, no less, where — as the outside world pounded on the doors with the decadence of Woodstock — inside the regimen and decorum of a convent prevailed.

woodstockI was quiet by nature. Loved reading. Shy and insecure. And then I met Regina, a classmate. She lived nearby so we rode the bus together.

She had long red hair — that she ironed nightly into a crisp, flat sheet — flashing green eyes and a tough exterior. She smoked on the sly, cursed like a sailor and spoke her mind. I wanted to be her.

As we grew older, we loved all things “folk” and “British” and Regina tempted me to a place called The Cellar where local bands and singers performed. The steps downward were steep and the room itself, narrow. Pockets of light poked into the darkness from candles stuffed into empty wine bottles set on the few tables that lined the stucco walls.

We entered a shadowy, smoke-filled world where a guitarist strummed “Catch the Wind” by Donovan or a four-piece band thumped out songs by the Rolling Stones.

Regina started dating the bass player of one of the bands and she tried to set me up with the lead guitarist. But I was painfully shy. Our conversation that night fizzled because I wanted to speak of things like “The Little Prince” and Charlotte Bronte and Leonard Cohen. He couldn’t finish a complete sentence. He wouldn’t have understood.

Like her mother, Regina was political. She protested the Vietnam War. She believed in equal rights. In her rights.

One day during history class, she was sitting in the back row by an open door. We watched as the good sister walked down the aisle and yanked her out into the hallway. I overheard part of the conversation. Sister felt that Regina’s bangs were too long and threatened, with scissors in hand, to cut them. “You’re violating my civil rights,” Regina screamed. “You can’t do that!”

make loveOh, yes, I wanted to be like Regina, outspoken and courageous in times that demanded a voice.

But times do change. And so do people. We graduated. Moved on. Life took me into journalism and writing. I lost touch with many of my classmates, including Regina.

Then one day, I was searching on Facebook for high school friends, and that somehow led me to her name and to another site.

And to her obituary.

Regina had died at the age of 56. She had had a hard life. When she was in labor and about to deliver her baby — a single woman and alone — she drove herself to the hospital. Later in life, she worked odd jobs, doing what she had to in order to survive and raise her son.

When she was diagnosed with brain cancer, she wasn’t afraid.

Her sister had written in her obituary that she saw this not as an ending, but the beginning of new life. Somewhere along the way, Regina had rediscovered what the Sisters had planted in our hearts years ago — faith in God. It had sustained her those last days.

The 1960s were a time we were trying to find ourselves. We had dreams to change the world. But some of us got lost along the way.

We didn’t know that as much as we would try “to catch the wind” that we wouldn’t. That as we grew older, life would have its way with us, that we would love, cry, laugh, fall and get up. Again and again.

And sometimes, in those days of turmoil and trying to find ourselves, we never thought that perhaps we were never lost to begin with.

We didn’t know that being shy or outspoken were all good, pieces of who we were becoming. And in that search for self, in the fearlessness of youth, little did we dream we might find ourselves in death some day. Or so soon.

sorrow-julie-fainI go back in memory to that time and can still see Regina, red hair swinging and bangs intact, challenging me about my vote and the Vietnam War, letting a curse word fly, giving voice to her views about civil rights and women’s liberation.

I realize now that she was one of the first to show me how it was done, one of the first who helped me find my voice.

And in my heart, I know she’s at peace because she finally did find herself. She found her way home. She caught the wind after all.

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