Thursday, December 31, 2009

Joy and a new vision for 2010

There are some years that I am ambivalent about. Then there is this year. I am so glad it is on its way out.

After working at a job in human services that couldn't meet payroll, I left mid-year with no job prospects. This is the year of the recession. What was I thinking?

In our culture of Can-Do, you'd think I could make things happen - like find a job or get my private practice to grow faster. After attending a clinical counseling workshop, several therapists told me that it took them 5-7 years to develop their practice. So paying for more strategic planning consultations or spending lots of money in advertising didn't seem to be the answer. The clients I have came from word-of-mouth or prior contact.

As my identity crumbled around my usual "paid work" ways of seeing myself, I found myself more engaged in family life, community, and the creative arts. These are things I have always done. I just had more time and wanted to experience it with less guilt while indulging...

But let me give you an example of how this worked: My husband encouraged me to see my sister after leaving work. Go ahead while you can, he said.

Going to Seattle to see my sister felt decadent since it cost money to travel out there. But it also felt incredibly important. It had been four years since I had been to her home to visit. It was nice not to have the pressure of having only two weeks of vacation at some stressful job and feeling torn about how to spend those prescious days while recovering from burnout.

It would also be nice to say I went free from worry. But that would be a lie. I obsessed about the money, finding work, and not being a burden the whole time. It followed me like Pigpen's cloud in a Peanuts cartoon.

Instead of flowing gracefully into the unknown, I found myself in knots for most of the year. My usual reaction is to feel guilty or get upset that I don't have work or somehow feel like I failed in fulfilling some life goal. There were times when I found myself teary and afraid. What if we run out of money? What if time keeps trickling and I find myself alone, poor and ugly. This seems funny to me now, as I write this - especially the ugly part, as if this had anything to do with work. But the feelings of despair grabbed me and shook me senseless at times this fall.

I grew up with the notion that money is the root of all evil and the Calvinistic view that prosperity is a sign of being faithful. Neither of these extremes makes sense.

My problem probably has less to do with money than becoming comfortable in my own skin. And at age 48, what a time for that as I enter into the Change of Life. What an opportunity and a curse!

I still don't have a real income at this point. I depend on my partner in many ways, but also in using our dwindling resources. I am trying to figure out how to make a living. The world is changing faster than I can keep up.

There have been so many experiences of heartache this year that I want to try joy. It has never been a priority. Life has been pretty practical or functional, or about fulfilling expectations - often what I think others want from me.

Our little meditation group had a Buddhist retreat on joy. I attended this about a month before leaving my job. Many participants seemed to genuinely be able to access joy or they were desparately seeking it.

My response to the group was that I was at the session to just focus on my breathing. At the time, I had a quiet sense of pride - there was no grasping, no attachment. And yet, my inner child longed for play or a release from the grinding sense of responsibility an oldest child often feels. Perhaps I could bring this into my adult life somehow. Seeing happy Buddhist teachers is what drew me to this practice to begin (Fruedian slip -wrote being) with.

I love learning and playing the harp. I love writing and self exploration. I am grateful for the times I've had to be with my kids and grandson or visiting friends and family. My grandson's interest in playing with me astounds me. My sporadic civic work has been deeply rewarding. I have loving friendships in my life. My partner's tender kisses are small miracles. The seeds and the roots of joy have been planted, tended to, and now need nurturing.

These past several years have been like trying to make a square peg fit in a round hole. I am so done with this, I keep telling myself. I pray to God that I learn some kind of lesson that I can't even articulate because I want to fit, to find ease, to breath, to be kinder to myself and others. I want to be of service, but in a way that is sustaining. There are some plants that need to go.

So while the past few years feel like work hasn't come together, it has created the energy to push me into a new way. And maybe instead of a grinding, life-sucking way, I want to do this in a way that is easier, more relaxed, loving and joyful.

My hope for you and all those you love in 2010 is to find your place, accept your whole self and shine with joy!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Holiday Message

This is the season of lights and hope just as the winter darkness peaks. In the faith tradition I grew up with, a little child represents the power of vulnerability and the message of a new beginning.

Jesus of Nazareth inspired people of all walks of life. But his story starts before he ever came into the world. And, his story is still living in the hearts of many around the world.

The Bible is split into two sections, the Old Testament with its stories of living in community and connecting to God through Law, and the New Testatment asking followers to live from the heart - to stretch beyond the Law and take bigger risks for compassionate service to others.

Everyone comes into this world as a vulnerable child, an infant. If we are reading this, then we also have grown physically, mentally, and cognitively. These, too, are gifts. The wisdom is in holding the infant and nurturing that within ourselves and in others while encouraging maturity.

Jesus' name means teacher. As an enlightened person, he offers important lessons and messages about how to care for the least of us. His life inspired the likes of Dorthy Day, Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr. just to name a few in recent times.

My prayer this season is that as we fill our oil lamps or celebrate freedom from slavery or the birth of a teacher or hope that once again the light will stay brighter a little longer and warm us, that we be strong enough to leave the womb and tend to those whose needs are greater than our own. May we be brave enough to continue writing the Living Word in our hearts and in the world.

In Peace and Light,

Monday, December 7, 2009


There are times that just beg for reflection. Illness does that for me. One of the things I have learned about my body is that it reflects internally and externally my condition. At important points in my life, it has helped me gather the strength to make changes or shifts that I would not otherwise do.

Carl Jung used the Chinese intuitive method of divining called the I-Ching. The Chinese developed an ancient system to look at the various cycles in human endeavors that mirror nature. It's been a while since I dug out my books, but after two weeks of a viral bronchitis, it was time.

My question was: what purpose does this illness serve?

_ _ Fu or Recovery/Returning was the sign. A new beginning after stagnation.
_ _ Working with one's essential nature, one can heal by gently resting,
___ reviewing the past, allowing energy to return and build without forcing it. The Chinese sign FU is thunder energy that is nourished under the docile nature of the earth and is renewed. At its very essence, the sign refers to the apparent pattern of the intelligence of heaven and earth - made manifest in love of life and in all forms of goodness.

Not only had I suffered with a nasty physical illness, I had been in a funk for quite some time. My world view was as stagnant as my lungs. Sure, I'd had some positive things go on. But for most of the year, I had simply endured a series of overwhelming events.

I wondered if I was loveable, yet there was no reason to believe that the people in my life didn't love me. Turning 48 years, I wondered if I was competent in anything as I struggled with trying to find a professional identity, express myself in writing, or take on new things like the harp.

In many ways, I had returned to my adolescent self - changing hormones, overly critical view of myself and the world, and feeling like I wanted more, but was very impatient with my less than perfect self. I had lots of health problems as a teenager and young adult. It took a lot of work to pace myself, focus on the things that were truly important, and take good care of myself. It is a lesson I am relearning.

Instead of circling back to the beginning, this felt more like a spiral. I certainly am not a teenager. Instead I am a mother of adult daughters, a grandmother, a wife of almost 30 years. I am aware that I have only moved twice in my adult life - both times within 20 miles of the farm I grew up on.

Somehow, this circling is something to reckon with. Home. One can never return home. Yet, I seem stuck in never leaving it. I have images of my youth that seem as fresh as yesterday. My work with others says that you can't forget those memories, yet they cannot control your life in the here and now. So how does one move forward without integrating the past with one's current life? I think what I am missing is a future. It has felt futile to have any attachments or hopes for possibilities when doors seemed to shut instead of open.

According to the I-Ching, there is a natural order in the rhythms of human endeavors that open and close, grow and decay, or bring light or darkness. I am so ready for an opening, growth, light, accepting the love that already exists in my life, and maybe accepting love that I don't even know exists in the world. After working with so many suffering people, it has been too easy to take on others' pain.

Where is the joy? It is already there. I just need to catch my breath and allow it to seep in.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Deep change

It has been an interesting past six months - one in which I could have never have predicted happening. It really evokes a humility that I did not have in my youth when it was so important to know everything, to plan everything, to control my life and destiny.

It started with arranging a brief meeting with my first adolescent love this summer.

I don't think we intended to break up, but were forced to at the end of a head-long thrust into that magic elixir called love. We met at a music camp in Greensboro, NC in the summer of 1976. He was a brown city boy and I was tan farm girl. At the end of camp, we went home and could not hold together a long-distance love against difficult odds. Apparently, my Christian family could not make the completion of their faith journey from advocating for interracial healing to include their daughter's new boyfriend. I was so hurt and angry over the loss of this friendship.

Fastforward to 2009. We are meeting at a concert by the stage.

My old boyfriend had been faithful to his musical gifts. He was the person I had dreamed I wanted to be: creative, playful, beautiful, and a world traveler.

Seeing him spun me. He was a youthful as ever and I looked like a "pastoral counselor." I know he probably meant it as a compliment, but I felt dull, boring and sexless. What did I expect?

I had pursued an education I thought I had to have to be complete - leading to a great deal of professional frustration. Plus, I was ever the devoted mother and wife in the family - home births, long-term nursing, a mix of private, public and homeschool education for my kids over the years, working around my kids' needs to support their growth and our family values, attending to the family. They are adults now and I am a grandmother.

Yes, what did I want out of this exchange? I wanted healing. I wanted a chance to set the record straight. But it seemed that I wanted closure on one hand, and on the other hand, I wanted to see if we had anything in common, a spark - perhaps friendship, a muse. Both of us were getting ready to turn 48 years old in a few months. What did he see in me when I was a teenager? What had I lost over the years that I wanted to find? Who had we become? He didn't make me feel dull, I did that to myself. What happened?

The time together included hugs and rushed attempts to tell each other about our life's story in 5 minutes or less. It ended in several failed attempts to listen to each other. Our pain was exposed. And yet, I was so grateful to touch this person who has a place deep in my psyche. He was real and not a figment of my imagination.

The journey since our meeting has cracked my tightly-held identity. Jung's mid-life work has begun in earnest. I have railed at God asking what the lessons of my life are about. Where is the joy? Where is the energy? What if I never find that again? I am afraid, a rare acknowledgement of my vulnerability.

In the midst of this seachange, I am held up by relationships. I view my experience of the Divine through people and nature. What I can say is: I am grateful for the patience and love from people who travel with me on my spiritual journey. My husband has exhibited tremendous faith in me. My spiritual-nurturer friends have generously opened their hearts to me. I thank my meditation group for the gentle, open love and acceptance I receive. My writing companions help me clarify my thoughts. The birds still sing and the moon glows.

I find myself saying that whatever I have been doing for a very long time, I can no longer sustain. The skin of the past is shedding and I am itchy all over.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Change and the Abyss

A parking lot is being graded across the road as I write this. No one in my community was aware that a little gravel parking lot was being upgraded by the Maryland State Highway Administration until the construction trailer moved in and the earthwork started. How did this happen?

Well, the State Highway Administration doesn't have to get permission to spend half-a-million dollars for property the State already owns. They just have to come up with the reason and the money.

In this case, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy wanted to upgrade their gravel parking area at the Weverton Cliffs trailhead for "dignitaries." You see, this nice little hike to the overlook of the Potomac River and local mountains and valleys is convenient to the Washington D.C. big shots.

What irks me is that local citizens were not informed. Maybe we don't want the all-night sodium lights in our relatively undeveloped area. Maybe we would have questioned putting a parking lot with blacktop next to Israel Creek that flows into the nearby Potomac River. Maybe we are having enough problems with crime in the area with break-in's and prostitution pick-ups and drug drops since we are so close to Rt 340 and a three-state jurisdiction with relatively little policing going on.

I mourn the possible loss of seeing the Milky Way. Having moved off of our family farm near Frederick, MD, I saw the development encroach with housing and industrial development grow to the point that at night if there was any moisture in the air or snow on the ground, it looked like daylight outside. In our little gap nestled in Pleasant Valley, there are no big box stores nor fast food chains with mega lights.

With a heavy heart I sat in meditation with my little weekly group. What to do? My mind was racing for things to do. Fears about speaking out. Anger about the audacity to require night lights when the "dignitaries" will leave before dark and leave their lights behind.

Someone spoke about mountaintop removal in the Appalachian chain and mineral rights trumping landowners. Once the mountaintop is gone, now what? Anger? Grief? Sadness? Change? The sense of hopeless I was feeling was deepening.

My sense of seeing some Buddhist teacher sitting quietly and smiling, like Thich Nhat Hanh, felt condescending. I had been trying to practice a partial smile during meditation last week. Now it just felt like being constipated. I could imagine some roshi sitting and smiling, waiting for me to spend myself as I my emotions control the show. My hope is that there is a teacher waiting for me.

Meanwhile, I am experiencing loss of control, change, the great abyss. I still communicate with elected officials, neighbors, and the media as I clarify what the issues are. I am grateful that in this dark space, a Raging Granny is forming. I don't know if Buddha could appreciate this, or if Jesus would understand, but it feels like the beginning of hope.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Today is the first day of Autumn, a shift from the brilliant colors and deep solar heat of the summer in the northern hemisphere to the cooling weather and warmer tones of fall. Each year the back-to-school feeling from my youth turns into a back-to-the-grindstone feeling of my adult years.

This morning in meditation a stink bug sat on the front of my cushion. I would love to say I was so non-violent as to have no thoughts of exterminating all those stink bugs that have begun to congregate at my windows and sneak into my house. But I did.

At first I thought at least the stink bug was sitting facing forward. Maybe it was meditating with me. But no, soon afterwards it started moving around my cushion and towards my lap. Ugghh. Go away.

With Thich Nhat Hanh's word fresh in my memory, there is only now. Just breath in and out. I am breathing in. I am breathing out. I am...watching that damned stinkbug move all over my legs and then head back to the front of my mat. Good.

Judgement. Good, bad, stinkbug, damned stinkbug. Just words. The truth is that I don't really mind their smell. Sure, it is strong. But it doesn't really bother me. I grew up on a hog farm. I don't really register smells in the same way others seem to do.

So what bothered me? Why did I have an urge to get rid of it, exterminate it?

It seems to be my tendency to want to get rid of things that bother or inconvenience me. This is a hard thing for me to face. I want to be helpful... to a point. Then I get overwhelmed and want to walk away or get rid of the "problem."

Thoughts. I am breathing in. I am breathing out. I am breathing in. I am breathing out.

The thoughts came back. It was time to end. I took the stinkbug by its shell and put it outside.

The work is always here no matter the season.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

While Waiting for the War to Stop

While waiting for the war to stop

Dedicated to the women and children who have struggled and perished in war, and to the peacemakers risking their lives to prevent or help others heal from the wounds of war.

While waiting for the war to stop she:
patched clothes, made gruel
sought refuge from the midday heat
played with the kids hide and seek while on the run
gathered wood, tried to find water
nursed her sister's baby and her own baby
and cried.

On the road
Dried hide in the dirt
Run over, walked over, baking in the sun
Leather that once was a child.

The second part of the poem is based on a story told to me by David Zarembka from Friends Peace Teams. He said that Alison Des Forges an expert on Rwanda (and who died in the Buffalo plane crash last year) said that she was called in to help after the genocide. When she stepped out of her car, she stepped onto a dried carcass that she recognized as the body of a very young child. This story is the genesis for the poem.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

I am learning

I am almost 50 years old and still learning to live with family members with mental illness.

A recent turning point was finally getting up my nerve and attending a local National Alliance for the Mentally Ill (NAMI) meeting. This group provides peer support for family members of those with mental illness. No one would go with me from my family.

In many ways, my family members have found ways that work for them right now. All of my siblings and I have found our way to therapists to help sort through the ashes of our family life. One sibling moved to the west coast. Another family member has created a schedule so full that she has no room for anything but work, caregiving and church. Attending NAMI was my work to do.

Recently one of the untreated, aging family members was in need of additional support for physical problems. With more intense involvement, new issues were brought up and old ones re-ignited. Here I am a therapist. Can't I figure out how to manage or deal with this? The answer is no, not alone.

That first meeting was difficult. The participants asked hard questions, pointed out patterns of behaviour that they had experienced themselves and listened. They challenged some of my rationalizing of certain behaviors. Instead they emphasized the need for a good psychiatrist who worked on medication issues, along with a good therapist and support services for their loved one. They also advocated setting clear boundaries.

At one point this felt like an Al-a-non meeting, the family support version of AA, where family members are encouraged to not let those with mental illness control everyone else's life because of their inability or choice not to follow-through on treatment or make good decisions.

I was surprised by the attendee's knowledge of mental illness. In the process of caring for their loved ones, they had become experts in medication and treatment that worked for that person.

It was strong medicine to sit in their company and humbling to be a therapist. But also, we were all there as a family member struggling like everyone else in that room to love someone who has mental illness. In some cases, the loved one's illness tore the family apart. We all needed each other.

I've been on this journey my whole life. I often want more for my loved ones than they want for themselves. I cannot do their work for them. I cannot prevent them from their life lessions.

I still have a lot to learn and it has to do with my responses. I can love them, but I am learning to be supportive while not losing my self in the process.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Showing Up and Impermanence

Showing up.

This morning I got a late start.

At first I thought I was getting an early start by getting up at 5:15 a.m. with my husband. But after some work around the kitchen, the fatigue from a poor night's sleep and the thought of my two-year old grandson coming for the holiday weekend, I headed back to bed. This would be my nap since I had other things to do later today.

I rise from sleep the second time today at 9:45 a.m. After getting a cup of cocoa, I start my practice of sweeping the patio outside for meditation. This is done on nicer days. The breeze was working against the sweeping. I notice the mortar breaking up between the stones in some spots. "What am I doing?" I ask myself, as I notice that my sweeping was missing leaves. "Sleepwalking?" I answer to myself.

I prepare the meditation spot by placing a candle on a wooden box holding kindling and a bird's nest. I put my mat on the patio facing east. Chimes and a book I read from sit beside the mat.

I bow to the east, the south, the west and then the north before sitting on my mat. I ding the chime once.

The book I'm reading from is called Wabi Sabi: The Art of Everyday Life by Diane Durston. The section I read from is called Impermanence.

Two of the quotes really resonate for me:

To what shall I compare this world? To the white wake behind a ship that has rowed away at dawn? - Priest Mansei

A ruin is not just something that happened long ago to someone else; its history is that of us all, the transcience of power, of ideas, of all human endeavors. - George Schaller

My minds drifts into deep thinking: Yesterday many of my friends and family posted a notice on their Facebook sites to give attention to the need for accessible healthcare in the United States. I am too tired for this fight. I've heard analysts talk about how the reform is about all the stakeholders, except the patient or the consumer. I have lots of thoughts about this around who is in power, who controls the dialogue, what ideas are missing from the public conversation, and how when one is in the midst of an illness insurance often adds to the problem, not help.

A female hummingbird hovers by the feeder to my right. I hear first the rapid quiet buzzing of her wings. Then I see her shadow by my mat. Her wings flutter so fast that the shadow looks larger than she really is. I look for her in the light. Oh, there she is. She is not much more than three feet from my shoulder.

I worry that she might come closer. Why, I think, am I worried about whether a hummingbird would hurt me? What am I so afraid of?

But she moves away to drink from the nectar nearby.

How old is she? Will she be back next year? In a few weeks, the hummingbirds will be gone for the winter.

I shift my eyes downward in front of me, trying to relax my gaze. I remember the sweeping of the stone on the patio and relish the thought that I am now trying to sweep thoughts and attachments out of my mind. Even though the dirt and leaves blow back in my mind, the act of sweeping polishes the stone.

This feels like a sacred act of participating and witnessing wabi sabi - recognizing the impermance of the world, but living in it respectfully anyway, seeing it for the deep imperfect beauty that is always there. I did not make the stone so beautiful. The stone was organic material heated and crushed over eons. Humans cut it; use it to build a patio; people walk on it; I and others sweep it.

My act over a lifetime won't make an impact. But I think of the sacred sites around the world with stone worn by pilgrims, wearing the stone down, creating a path for others to follow. This is very slow and invisible work shared by many.

With this deep thought, I look at my wooden box and realize that I forgot to light the candle. Do I get up and light the candle or let it go. Would this count as a proper meditation if I didn't light the candle? I catch myself going down the path of beating myself up over this and attempt to let it go. The sun will have to do as the meditation candle for today.

Soon enough, the chimes ring three times. It is time to pack up and start the day, again.

I laugh. I do not know what to make of these pieces of impermanence, human endeavors, a hummingbird, forgetfulness and showing up.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Self Care and Breathing

Wow. I keep having to learn the same lesson over and over again: I can't help anyone if I don't take care of myself.

It is counter-intuitive for mothers to put the oxygen mask on themselves first and then their charge if an airplane drops the masks. Or, continuing with this metaphor of breathing, ... as a person who works with elders, I learned that many pulmonary doctors ordered anti-anxiety medication for people with breathing disorders. Apparently, it is human nature to feel a little panicky when it is hard to breath.

This brings me back to self-care. I've been missing my morning meditation. Sure I get to sweep the patio and sit outside under the blue sky on the cool mornings - when I can. But the problem is that I don't get there as often as I'd like.

My meditation practice suffers when I miss too many mornings. Consider mindfulness meditation my medication for anxiety and worry.

Thankfully, I am home for a few weeks and the fall weather is kicking in. While I am a summer gal, there is such beauty sitting outside in the cool mornings with sunlight shining through the trees.

I am beginning to feel like I can breath again. Maybe I will remember how good this feels as I face changes. Maybe I will figure out how to stay in touch with this practice. I will love myself and others enough to keep attending to this practice.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Quaker worship at home

This coming Sunday John and I are hosting a Quaker-style meeting for worship in our home. Lots of new meetings come about this way. But we aren't interested in starting a new meeting. We just want to bring people interested in coming together for a chance to worship without the baggage of their own meeting. We seek to spend an hour or so centering down to listen more deeply for the "still quiet voice" within. John and I feel very lucky to be able to offer our home for such a purpose.

I suppose all times in history are a little crazy, but I relish the opportunity to turn off the electronics, the media, the information-obsessed societal pressures, and turn on a faith system that transcends time and space... Okay, that may be asking for a lot, but I love the timelessness of centering down for worship.

I attend a weekly Buddhist meditation group. That time is also precious. One of the best parts is that there is no pressure to listen for the Divine. Buddhists don't believe in God. The other nice thing about the group is that there are no committees. This small group meets at a local church hall. Someone might bring a reading. A small table with a candle is kept at the church; folding chairs are set-up. Someone dings a bell and we become quiet. Forty-five minutes later, someone dings the bell three times. We might share our reflections from our meditation afterward or some Buddhist principle applied to a recent event. We pack up and leave.

Quaker meeting hasn't been like that for me. Lots of work is made of a decision-making process called the sense of the meeting or what we believe God is calling us to do as a group. All of this is within the notion of living in a faith community where we are accountable to each other in a loving manner, hence the name the Religious Society of Friends. We are told that we find the root of Quaker practice and community by serving on a committee. I've served on many committees. One finds that the practice of Love is neither Utopian nor simple. However, it is as good a practice as the Buddhist form of meditation for plumbing the depth of one's faith, beliefs or attachments.

I have very little expectation for this coming Sunday, except the opportunity to worship with friends. At this point in life, nothing is more precious.