A season of acceptance

I share a personal journey here in the hope that it’s universal, that this resonates for you in some way no matter the source of your sorrow.

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A sadness always settles on me this time of year.

The light of long days dwindles and nature decays and dies. Leaves drift like scraps of paper to the ground, green grass begins to blur to brown, and an undercurrent of chill pushes into the early mornings.

The sadness this season, however, is deeper. It’s also about dad, seeing him decline. He is like a bent-over tree, whose branches bare themselves, whose roots have been withering since the stroke five years ago.

Now, as I sit with him here on the deck as he naps, he is asking me strange questions, erupting periodically as he rouses. Who took your camera? Where did those papers come from? What is that over there?

I look down at the college ruled 3 subject notebook next to me. Students are back in school now and will fill their pages with copious notes from courses in English, math or the sciences.

My notebook is filled with medical notes and appointments, logging dad’s health in bits and pieces, what has been done for his care, what more needs to be done.

I woke the other morning thinking of dad’s INR levels, the many phone calls for his IVIG treatments I had to make and other pressing medical issues that required attention. Who wakes in the morning thinking these things?

I am sad for all of it.

If I’m honest the sadness is not only about the loss of dad and who he once was. It’s also about the loss of the life I once had. I want to wake in the morning with time for creative writing, plan a day trip, splash my feet in the ocean, travel to Scotland or Spain. But even if I did these things, would the sadness go away?

Most likely not.

These words are not complaints or about self-pity, but a simple acknowledgement that sadness is part of life’s journey, a testament, I believe, to how well we love or have loved.

Whether we are a caregiver or not, decline and loss will visit us in one form or another. It will hurt. It will feel horrible. We will want to push the sadness away.

But in the end, accepting it is all there is. A delicate balance of not drowning in the sorrow, but allowing ourselves to float in it, to look up at it, like leaves drifting from their source and finding some peace with it.

In her book The Mermaid Chair author Sue Monk Kidd writes:

There’s release in knowing the truth no matter now anguishing it is.  You come finally to that irreducible thing and there’s nothing left to do but pick it up and hold it. Then, at last, you can enter the severe mercy of acceptance.”

I still struggle with this acceptance. Tears are always at the edges of my life, remembering that I haven’t had a coherent conversation with dad in almost five years since the stroke, recalling the dynamic man and inspirational speaker he was, and the times I would ask his guidance.

Yes, I am sad at all this and at its source is the welling of my heart knowing that days pass, seasons pass and everything dies in its own time.

But all I can do in this moment is walk over and pick up dad’s hand and hold it. To know the truth of this unrelenting sadness. To allow the pieces of sorrow to fall from my heart like the dying leaves.

To pray to enter the severe mercy of acceptance.

 

 

 

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Simple gifts

The other day I walked in the park.

As I ambled by the swings and slides, a woman who looked like she might be a grandmother was with her granddaughter. The child was perhaps four years old. Her blonde hair tousled in the wind as she bent down and picked up a frayed, sad-looking dandelion.

She came bounding toward me — ignoring her grandmother’s calls to come back — and said: “Look! I’m going to give this to my mom when I get home.”

“That’s beautiful,” I said as she held it toward me, beaming.

Then she began stomping on the ground in her purple-and-pink glittery sneakers, looking down at them, trying to make them “do” something.

“No more light,” she said.

Her grandmother came toward me and smiled. “They used to light up more but I guess they’ve lost some of whatever it was.”

I told her to have fun and walked away thinking, how often have I lost my light, whatever it is that I once had. And what has been causing me to lose it?

Perhaps the clutter of many things. Holding on to worries. Agendas. How I think life “should” be instead of accepting how it is. In other words, not letting go, not simplifying.

When I was in the workplace, there was a saying some of you may know: KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid. If I’m going to be totally honesty here, I have a personality that makes things harder than they should be. I tend to make things more complicated.

I used to get frustrated with that part of me. Now I have come to accept that it’s all part of the unique package that makes me who I am. I am someone who still likes to hold on, someone still learning to “let go” and simplify — and someone who is still trusting in faith there is a Higher Power who moves life along in divine right time and flow.

I am also gentle, or at least learning to be, with all those parts of myself, as I would with a young child. As I might with that little girl in the park.

Would I have yelled at her and told her, “That’s an ugly dandelion!”? Never. Then why would I berate those inner child parts of me that need love and even more love? Especially those parts that delight in the simplest of things?

The older woman I am becoming also needs that love, especially as she is often — not by choice — having to let go and simplify her life. In fact, children and the aged both dwell in a certain simplicity that no longer requires agendas, pride, ego, money, promotions, “things” or whatever it might be. They are content with what is, in the moment.

To be truthful, I am still coming to terms with the losses of my life’s journey as I age. A friend of mine told me he feels like he’s lost his mojo. I understand. And one better, I often feel, as the Mad Hatter said to Alice, “‎You’re not the same as you were before. You were much more… muchier… you’ve lost your muchness.”

Sue Monk Kidd, one of my favorite writers, says this:

“Finally, I began to write about becoming an older woman and the trepidation it stirred. The small, telling ‘betrayals’ of my body. The stalled, eerie stillness in my writing, accompanied by an ache for some unlived destiny. I wrote about the raw, unsettled feelings coursing through me, the need to divest and relocate, the urge to radically simplify and distill life into a new, unknown meaning.”

Like Sue Monk Kidd, I am learning to radically simplify, to distill life into a new unknown meaning.

At the heart of it, I believe that’s why simplifying poses such a challenge — we are face-to-face with some “new unknown meaning.” It isn’t how it used to be. We start as pure beings, simple and free, then gather a lot of “guck” along the way.

Now, in our later years, we are being stripped away to uncover the beauty that has been there all along. We simplify. And while it may be challenging, it is also freeing.

Even my prayer life has entered into simplicity. I am breathing in love, breathing out love. And like writer Anne Lamott, I am saying these three simple prayers:

Help me. Thank you. Wow.

I am learning to be like a child again, delighting in a dandelion. And learning to accept and love the older woman, finding it’s OK to lose some of my muchness. To stomp on my sneakers to discover perhaps a new and more engaging light.

When I simplify and let go, it opens up space to be free. To dwell in the now. To be the soul and body I was created to be.

And that simply makes me say “Wow!”

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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.

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

Darkness into light

“When the dark is at rest,
the light begins to move.”

~ The Secret of the Golden Flower

 

When I was a little girl I loved visiting my grandparents in Nashville during the hot summers. Dad would take us on day trips, and one of them was to Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.

I was in awe of this mysterious, sacred space. The cave’s enormous mouth yawned open with brisk, cold air as we descended into the bowels of the earth. It was both exciting and frightening.

cave1At one point, our tour guide wanted to show us how dark it could be in this cave. So he shut off the modern lights that had been wired throughout the narrow passageways of rock and boulders.

And we were plunged into the blackest-black I can still recall. No matter how I strained my eyes, I could see nothing. I wanted the lights to come back on. Fast.

Sometimes in life we are thrust into this kind of darkness. We experience it globally. Aleppo. Wars. Refugees. Hunger. Terrorism.

And we experience it personally. Loss of a loved one or beloved pet. A diagnosis we weren’t expecting. Financial burdens. Or sometimes, trying to find our purpose and direction in the muck of day-to-day tedium and boredom.

For those of us with sensitive hearts it can often seem too much.

For me, the last four years have been a cave of darkness, of sorts. I love my father dearly, but after his stroke I had to learn to maneuver the shadowy passageways of not only his health care, but the sadness and grief of losing a parent who was once vibrant and vital in the world.

darkness-to-light1And the last four months have plunged me even deeper into the abyss. I’ve had some personal health challenges that have made it seem too much like that dark moment in the cave. Yes, I pray. I meditate. Still, there it was. No escaping it. I found myself struggling to find light and inner footing and much like the lament of the Psalmists kept pleading, “How long, O, Lord? How long?”

To live life — to traverse the hero’s or heroine’s journey — takes inner courage. But how do we find it when we feel there is nothing left to muster?

When we are thrust into loss and grief, we have a chance to descend into the ravine (or “the cave”) of that awful loss or grief, says Mark Nepo, poet, author and philosopher.

“I know for me,” he shares, “in those moments when I have been able to face the travails that life has presented me, sometimes there is a glimpse of an angel that I can hold onto. And in that moment of hold, I have been able to love the part of me that is hurt, the part of the world that is ugly, and the dark side of God’s face that is so difficult to understand.”

letting go open handNepo also suggests one personal way of opening one’s inner courage is through listening.

“To sit on a bench, on any street, to meet with your heart whatever life comes by,” he says. “Not to judge it, not to name it, not to rescue it, not to push it away. Let the homeless person you see touch the possibility of you being them. Let the bird looking for food touch the part of you that’s hungry … this is a quiet courage.”

And sometimes that means allowing and listening to whatever burdens or emptiness or pain we are feeling. Simply “being” with whatever we are experiencing, as difficult as that may be. As frightening as the darkness may be.

In our seasonal world, we find ourselves in days of growing darkness. The light diminishes bit by bit as we approach the winter solstice. And in the Christian tradition, it is Advent, a time of expectation and waiting for birth and light.

Thomas Merton, the well-known Trappist monk, referred to God’s presence in the soul as the pointe vierge. This French phrase refers to the “virgin point” that comes just before dawn, those ripening moments before the first ray of light flares into the darkness.

sorrow-julie-fainWhen we are in the midst of transformation, the process hurts. It is painful. The tug and tension of stretching into some “other” self can be terrifying. While the soul incubates in darkness, we wonder if birth and light will ever come.

This is the “holy dark” that author Sue Monk-Kidd speaks of.  The idea, she writes, is not to panic, but to surrender to it so we can journey through it to the real light.

Do I have inner courage? Sometimes. But many times I don’t. Do I fall into the darkness? Yes. But I’m learning. To listen. To wait, even in the darkest of darks. Even though I’d rather not have it. Even though I’d like it to go away.

And while in that space, I know that more times of darkness will arrive during my journey. But I also have a deep “inner knowing” that the light will dawn again.

In fact, I am learning that the light never left.

 

Thanksgiving. It’s a practice.

“If the only prayer you said in your whole life was ‘thank you,’ that would suffice.” – Meister Eckhart

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Have you noticed it? The holidays are starting earlier and earlier. Now it’s no longer Black Friday. The entire month of November is dedicated to shopping. Christmas decorations have been up since the day after Halloween and holiday music is filling the airwaves.

Ah. The holidays. They stir much up in us, don’t they?

And it is Thanksgiving. Already. Despite the blare of commercialism, Turkey Day always sneaks up on me. As do those meetings in life where I am sent. That’s right. Sent.

Each morning I ask the Divine to lead me where I can be of service. It’s not about me, by any stretch. But about being open and present. Listening. I’m still learning how to do this. It’s a practice.

women-huggingSo today I ran into a neighbor. She’s been having a rough time of it since her husband died. She’s moving, plowing her way out of boxes and memories, and she’s still grieving. She doesn’t know how she’ll get through Thanksgiving. I opened my heart. I listened. I hugged her.

I bumped into another woman I know. She’s elderly and when I asked about her plans for Thanksgiving, she said she would be alone. I asked if I could bring her some food, visit with her. She said she had food and would be fine. Should I have pushed harder? The thought of her having no one on this holiday wrenched my spirit. I may still bring her some pie and leave it at her door.

These not-so-by-chance encounters (arranged by a Higher Power) led me to thinking that I am very blessed. But to be honest, it hasn’t felt that way. It’s been a more-than crap year for me. I fell and busted out my front teeth. Then I got ill. I’m still not 100 percent. Because of all this, I haven’t been able to care for dad as I once did.

The women I bumped into are having crap years, too. This isn’t about comparison, about whose suffering is greater than another’s, but about how life can often take away our breath, waylay us with pain, death, loneliness or whatever it is. How we are all in this thing called “being human” together.

arms openDespite hardships, however, we can still find some inkling of gratitude in it all. Through my various health challenges, I had to keep reminding myself, “I have much to be thankful for. I am so blessed.” I didn’t break any bones. I have food and shelter, family and friends. I can breathe. Move.

Indeed, being thankful takes practice. Moment by moment. As one of my favorite authors Sue Monk Kidd writes:

“To internalize something requires practice—doing something over and over again until what was once foreign and difficult has become easier and more natural—second nature.”

Sue Monk-Kidd goes on to say:

“Gratitude is a virtue … it is about how we perceive and how we think about what we encounter. Seeing … that even though we might not have everything we want or the best of everything, what we do have is more than many people elsewhere have, that it is enough, and that what we do have is something that we can and ought to be grateful for if we appreciate it and get beyond our constant craving.”

So on Thanksgiving, I am thinking about my neighbor who lost her husband, the woman who will eat alone, all refugees displaced because of wars or natural disasters, those who are struggling without enough food or warmth or family. I am remembering them to the Divine and thankful for what I do have. And asking, how can I serve or help those who are hurting … in my own corner of the world?

Once I am fully mended, I am going to pursue that in earnest. I can’t give from an empty cup. But in truth, I know each time I am thankful — and of service — I am filling that cup.

sun in handsSo, yes, we have one official day of Thanksgiving. It’s a start. But it’s so much better to be thankful every day and every moment, where we focus on our blessings, all the while mindful that life is uncertain and we are all fragile.

And while the holidays seem to encroach on us earlier and earlier, perhaps we can use that time to gain a healthier perspective.

” … whenever we look at what we have and who we have as if for the last time—when we see people as fragile, imperfect, impermanent, hurt, struggling, and riding on a common train—then we have perspective,” Sue Monk Kidd writes.

So, yes, it’s all about perspective. And practice. The women I met today gave me both. And I am thankful.

 

 

Churned at the crossroads

“Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” ~ Robert Frost

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We all travel life’s journey. And we come to crossroads. They may be thrust upon us with a divorce, a death, a job change. Or, we may feel a need to emigrate to a new universe. Either way, we feel lost. Disconnected. Which way to go?crossroads

In her book When the Heart Waits, Sue Monk Kidd writes:

“If you think God leads you only beside still waters, think again. God will also lead you beside turbulent waters. If you have the courage to enter, you’ll think you’re drowning. But actually, you’re being churned into something new.”

When we’re at a crossroads in life, we can often feel like we’re drowning. But truth be told, we’re being churned into a new being. And it can feel murky and unsettling.

Let me share a personal story. Years ago I came to a crossroads in my writing life. I had been somewhat successful in journalism earning some prestigious writing awards, but I also was feeling burned out and wanted to fulfill my gifts and life in other ways.

Sue Monk Kidd writes about this in her book Traveling with Pomegranates.

“I felt like my writing had gone to seed. A strange fallowness had set in. I could not seem to write in the same way … now something new wanted to break through.”

I had always loved the counseling field and after years of my own personal archaeological dig into therapy, I felt I knew what this was like. I hoped that as a therapist I might make a difference in people’s lives and help them discover their own strengths and gifts.

I loved my graduate courses in psychology. And although I was nervous, I was excited about my nine-month internship at a counseling center.

Then it happened.

I thought I had learned about “boundaries” and how to be objective, but I found I was going home with everyone’s problems. Susie’s addiction; Joe’s bad marriage; Mark’s anxiety and depression because of an abusive upbringing.

Friends told me to give it time — that I would learn to put up stronger boundaries. But how could I do that when I felt such empathy for my clients? That ability to “feel deeply” for others became a blessing and a curse. My clients stayed with me through the nine months because I honored where they were and hopefully reflected to them their own strengths. But me? I was slowly burning out.

Truth be told, fear reared its ugly head and I left the field. A mistake? Perhaps.

But I also believe this. Every experience, every choice in life, whether we judge it as a mistake or not, teaches us and enriches us if we allow it. All detours really are in some way for our greater good and lead us to where we need to be, whether to a new landscape or a new horizon on our souls. Those “roads less traveled” do indeed make all the difference.

scarecrow ozFor some reason, the scene from the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy meets the Scarecrow keeps coming to mind. She asks him the way to Oz and the Emerald City and he points to the left and the right and can’t seem to make up his mind. But he and Dorothy take a deep breath and choose one path.

If they had not chosen that path, they may never have met the Tin Man and the Cowardly Lion. And although they travel many alternate routes and face many challenges, eventually they do end up in Oz.

Here’s what I believe — when we are at a crossroads and choose a path — whatever it is — and if we have an open heart and trust in the Spirit within, we will be guided. Whatever raw material of faith we offer the Divine, we can trust it will be used for our good.

Will the uncertainty of our choice be disturbing? Most likely. Will it be hard? Maybe. But it also might be exciting and fun. And no matter our experience, I believe that life is about growth. We are often placed in an uncomfortable place or space so that our hearts and spirits might burst open. The crossroad is in our lives so that something “new” might break through.

self loveThat may feel like little comfort when fear overwhelms us. But as someone who has stood at countless crossroads and taken many roads less traveled, I’m here as proof to tell you this:

You will survive. You will make it. And guess what? You will discover strengths and gifts waiting to break free, waiting to be claimed by you. For you. For the world.

You will make it to the Emerald City. You won’t drown. And you will be churned into someone new.