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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Who are you?

Strange things happen as you grow older. You start to lose things. Hair, energy, car keys, lists to help you remember, and why in the world you walked into that room. What was I going in there to get?

But sometimes, loss can be a blessing. It strips down and shows us what is no longer necessary.

Most important, I believe we begin to lose our false self. What is that?

In his book Adam’s Return, Richard Rohr, the Franciscan priest, says:

“Our false self is who we think we are. It is our mental self-image and social agreement, which most people spend their whole lives living up to — or down to.”

For many of us, this becomes an all-consuming effort. We create this other persona that we feel society wants, or our family and friends expect of us. For me, it was years spent working in the writing field, for newspapers and magazines, and a few stints in the corporate world.

As an ambitious young working woman, my persona was about fine clothes, a good salary, making an impact with my words, earning writing awards, my by-line.

Were those wrong? No. All of those were necessary and part of my journey. I had to pay bills after all. And on some level, writing offered me an avenue to use my gift of writing to educate and inform many people.

But at some point, I began to realize there was more to life than this. These “things” were not at the deepest level about my true self.

One of my favorite authors Sue Monk Kidd writes: “In our youth we set up inner myths and stories to live by but around the midlife juncture these patterns begin to crumble. It feels to us like a collapsing of all that is, but it’s a holy quaking.”

That “holy quaking” can lead us to our true self. And what is that?

Simply put, the true self pulls us closer to the Divine, to God. I think children and animals show us how to do this best. They have no hidden agendas, take no offense at slights, but simply delight in the purity of being themselves. They are who God created them to be.

A friend of mine scolded his dog one day for jumping into a basket of clean clothes. But the dog didn’t know she had done anything wrong — she was living in pure innocence and joy as God had made her — and just as quickly forgot about her “mistake” and went about playing and wagging her tail.

I’ve also had the privilege of knowing a handful of people in my life who I sensed were living in the integrity of their true selves. They accepted themselves, knew who they were, both flaws and sanctity — and in their presence, I felt an ease and grace.

As we move closer to our true selves, I believe the more loving parts of ourselves are magnified. And we begin to accept those parts that hide in façade or selfishness. Or they simply disappear in the light of that love.

Discovering our true selves is not so much about what we do, but what God does, says Rohr.

“And what God does—what life does—is gradually destabilize the supposed boundaries of the small self so we can awaken inside of the Large Self, which we call God. This usually happens through experiences of great love or great suffering or inner prayer journeys that allow the private ego to collapse back into the True Self, who we are in God.”

For me, the journey toward discovering the true self has come late in life in caring for my father. In honesty, all facades and pretenses crumbled in the call to be of loving service and this ongoing experience has graced me to see myself as I am in God’s eyes — holy and flawed, sacred and scared, selfish and loving.

But I am — like everyone else — always in process with this. Living from our true selves is a journey, or as Rohr says, “a dance between the loneliness and desperation of the false self and the fullness of the true self, which is ever re-discovered and experienced anew as an ultimate homecoming.”

So, I find as I am growing older, I am also growing up — spiritually. Even better, waking up. And like most of us, I am still learning to navigate the mysterious pathways to who I really am. Warts and all.

Home to my true self. In God. In the divine. In love.