Sunday, December 30, 2012

Sitting Meditation and facing death

A love note to my sangha - meditation group - on 12/28/12 - exactly six months after my dad was found dead:

Wanted to share the news that Partner's dad died peacefully this morning. It was a great honor to be in  the role of daughter-in-law during the last 24 hours with the family. 

One thing I learned: sitting meditation is good practice for those times when staying up overnight in a folding chair, or listening to variations of breathing until there is no more breath or stopping the second arrow. 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Newtown Shootings

It is the Monday after the shootings and the talk show folks are off and running. Gun control and an increased police state are on the table. Mental health is a sticky ball that no one seems to know how to deal with.

All of this posturing. All of this flapping of gums. The children, school faculty, mother or son cannot be brought back. And they aren't the first, nor will they be the last.

I'm thinking of a Sunday School teacher/mother who told me last year that her budding teenage children were going to the gun range and taking gun lessons. These were suburban kids. What did they need to shoot?

I grew up on a farm and knew how to shoot a gun. But I do not own a gun. I know the violence guns do. Probably about 10 years ago, two cousins were hunting doves on my parent's farm. The one thought birds had been flushed and instead blasted his cousin in the chest. By the time the ambulance got to that part of the farm, the man's peppered chest stopped breathing. He was dead to the horror of the cousin whom he considered his best friend.

Down the road from our farm, I can name several more accidental deaths from guns on other farms. One was when a farmer went over a fence and accidentally set off his gun shooting himself in the face. Another was when a farm hand was hit by a high-powered gun's bullet ricochetting off the barn wall, striking him dead. My own mother narrowly missed being hit by a high-powered riffle's bullet several years ago while putting up clothes on her clothes line behind the house. It drilled into the hillside near her.

Sounds crazy to my neighbors. What? No gun? It takes law enforcement 45 minutes to get here, and even then, it has to be for something urgent. Otherwise, we have had the police call back after 3 hours to see if they were still needed.

Four years ago, our home was broken into. A laptop was taken. But it was clear to the sheriff that what the thieves were looking for were electronics, guns, prescription narcotics, and cash. Only a laptop was taken. No guns, no drugs, no cash... because we didn't have any to steal.

We were advised to get a security system. This is a very expensive proposition and with law enforcement taking forever to get here, not really worth it.

A potentially rabid cat tried to make its final resting place here. But we wound up taking it to the animal shelter, even though a neighbor/Vietnam Vet came over to kill it. He couldn't do it because he knew the cat. Later we learned that running over it is a method suggested by some state health departments. There are other options besides guns.

I'm not saying that there is no roll for guns. But there is no need for high powered, multiple shooting rounds of guns for anyone besides law enforcement. Period. We are just escalating the war on ourselves.

Let's put our faith in something besides weaponry. Let's teach kids relational skills and ways of engaging positively in our communities.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Fully Alive

It's the holidays. Advent is in full swing. Mary is pregnant with Jesus.

To all my friends, thank you for the love - seen and unseen, heard and unspoken, felt but not pushed upon. It it a sweetness that is getting me through another set of bumps.

Father-in-law was moved to a hospice facility this week. A daughter had a meltdown. My aunt's brother-in-law was found dead in his chair from an apparent heart attack. Since we all live in the area, extended family is family. Another friend of the family died - went to high school with Dad, took piano lessons from Grandma, his wife went to my Quaker meeting. His funeral was moving and entertaining - Irish Catholic?

Partner and I shared tears of grief and fatigue and fear in the midst of these changes. What's next? With our work schedules (he works first shift and I work second shift), I am feeling alone again. Getting another dog isn't going to fix this. I said, we have to plan something fun. Later, he would say that it was nice to hear this, even if we don't go anywhere.

Things were settling down by the end of the week. We found a new rhythm that now includes visiting at the hospice facility in the country. A beautiful setting. Not convenient to anyone. Yet, the best option at this point. Partner gets that we need to do something besides deal with crisis. A trip would be nice. Can we handle that much down time together?

Waiting. Cutting back on anything that isn't crucial. No more harp lessons for now mostly because of time, but also financial. Writing time focuses on clinical notes, kitchen table messages to feed and let out the dog, and an occasional love note.

The main focus is on work and family  - and Wednesday morning meditation group - the glue that helps me manage work and family.

Yes to meditation. Every morning. The Advent readings are done in clumps when clients don't show up. But meditation is a daily vitamin best done first thing in the morning, like brushing your teeth.

With a dear friend on Saturday, we went holiday shopping in Shepherdstown. I am not fond of shopping - so I can't exactly say this was normalizing for me. But, we managed by eating out.

At the Chinese restaurant, I got a little fortune cookie bit that said:
Your family is very lively.

I suppose that is true. Mental illness and addiction has a lot to do with that. But I have to say, I wondered if boring might be okay, too.

What if this means Partner's dad will stay alive much longer than we anticipate? Goodness knows, my Grandmother outlived expectations by living 10 years after her stroke - requiring almost total care and in pain for much of it.

So this morning's meditation was different. I went on-line and listened to a guided meditation lying down. The instructions were designed to bring the focus of the breath up into the body from the toes to the top of the head and into the heart space. At once, softening and attending to releasing tension, and feeling the energizing sensations of breathing throughout the body, it was delightful.

With this exercise, I remembered that I tend to use meditation and Quaker worship practices to tamp down any strong feelings, experiences, or thoughts. Yet, as I both relaxed and energized my body this morning, I can see how I have been putting an awful lot of energy into the practice of staying, no matter what.

I feel like I have created a multi-year retreat based out of my home and carried into my work and community life. This kind of practice is like the modern cross between contemplative and activist living. It also comes out of the necessary limits  of not enough ... fill in the blank. Of testing myself with: what do I really need? And learning, what is already abundantly available here?

I experienced my tension and where it was held. I could see where I had created armor around parts of my self and how this impacted my relationships. What have I been doing to help others maintain their own stuff as a way to avoid my own inner pulse? With all of the suffering and death surrounding me, I want to fully live.

And in the deepest part of my heart, I came into contact with the love that I have to give, am waiting to give, and wish that I knew how better to engage with.

My mind flashes an image. The words Crazy Love. Visual image of a pretzel. Not so much crazy wisdom. I'm not looking for trouble, just a better world. Perhaps I will become the lively family member that the fortune cookie warned me about!

Won't you join me?

Friday, November 23, 2012

Thanksgiving requires perspective. The holiday itself was yesterday. But the soul of Thanksgiving lives in the heart.

My sister had a lumpectomy two weeks ago. She now has an oncologist and a radiologist. Thirty-four radiation treatments are in store for her future. Her kids came home the week after her surgery, so she has cherished her time visiting with them before starting treatments.

Last week I learned from graduate students that some work I did in college several years ago should count towards my clinical license. For giggles, I called the state licensing department and wasn't told anything helpful. So I called my graduate school program and they deciphered what might be helpful.  I was almost giddy thinking I would be finished my post graduate work towards my clinical counseling license.

However, as I was learning this positive news, my partner left a message on my phone that his dad is in the hospital. Austin turned 85 last month. He's the one who was diagnosed with colon cancer last January and almost died from septic shock. He's had a quiet spring and summer.

I felt betrayed by the Universe. Happy, then before I can digest it, more sadness. Of course, I as worked through the counseling requirements, I realized that I still have other commitments to honor before submitting for my license. Sigh. I had been briefly imagining gifting myself a week-long Zen retreat the first week of December with a dream team of teachers. Like a kid circling Sears catalogue toys, I'd been circling this. But alas, not this year.

The next day, I burned my finger pulling out a dish from the oven. I didn't do it once. I did it twice. In the same spot. On the knuckle. And, I had a harp concert on Saturday.

I would be playing two trios and a solo. I had been avoiding solos saying that five years of lessons and practice would be needed before I would be decent enough to go public. I called my harp teacher and left a message asking if I could nix the solo. At the harp lesson the next day, we didn't talk about it. The solo sounded acceptable. The program already printed.

In the midst of Austin being in the hospital, Partner decompressing from his company's warehouse moving the prior week, and work to be done, I had a workshop to prepare for. But it was hard to focus.

A complex emotional rollercoaster ride was waiting for me that Thursday evening when the local community college's flute department was hosting their holiday performance. The theme was, "Yes Virginia, there is a Santa." The program was dedicated to my dad's memory. He was supposed to have dressed as Santa and do the reading. Mom was asking her kids to show up. With a sister recovering from breast surgery and the other in Seattle, that left me.

With Dad's death, the teacher wanted the family to share a toast in his memory at the end. The college flute choir, of which he had been a member, played in the sweltering heat at his memorial service this past summer. The teacher was convinced she needed to do better. So, Mom, Parter, and I, along with a niece and her baby witnessed the program and came on stage for the last song. During the final piece, a huge picture of Dad as Santa holding my grandson was projected on stage. It made him look larger than life. It reminded me of a brief moment of preciousness that has passed and will never be again.

The evening was beautiful, touching, and funny. Dad hated The Nutcracker which was so prominently featured in the program. Dad was also a lousy flutist - he was breathy and made gutteral sounds when he played. But as the teacher said, when she met dad at his first lesson, he was dressed in overalls with zinnias from his garden to give her. She said she knew then that she had her Santa for this program which had been in her mind to do since then. He had charmed her with his crazy heart. His name for her was Lady Jennifer.

Thankfully, I had a day to gather emotional strength for the harp recital. Several friends would be in the audience. I'd hoped to warm up my hands before performing, but the teacher had her own agenda. Bad idea. My solo was before the trios.

Plainly put, the solo was awful. My fingers stuck to the strings as if rubber glue kept them from releasing. I couldn't actually remember how the piece was supposed to start. I looked at the notes I'd been practicing for the past several months as if they were strangers. I started and stopped. Started and restarted.

As a kid who has been on a stage since 4 years old, I have had wonderful, okay, and terrible performances. This one was pretty bad. Basically, my hope is that the kids felt like geniuses when I finished. Once I finally got through to the end, I stood up and took a dramatic bow and about knocked over my teachers v-e-r-y expensive harp. She had this panicked look. I grabbed it before the harp could decide whether or not to crash.

The trios were better, having had the chance to warm up.

The next day was fine. I got to give a second workshop on the intersection of Buddhism and Quakerism. It is always amazing to me that anyone shows up. But it was a nice turnout. Folks seemed genuinely engaged. This felt good.

Back to the grind of work with a big mix of life on Monday. Father-in-law was still in the hospital. Hospital reports from the family did not make sense to me.

After a week of hemming and hawing, the surgeon decided to cut Austin the day before Thanksgiving.  They rerouted his bowel around a tumor, but later said it doesn't make sense to keep doing this, he's full of cancer.

So much life compressed into these past 10 days. None of this begins to deal with my holiday issues. Except that I got a sore throat and muscle aches the night before Austin had his surgery. It's been hanging through the holidays. As in the past, the rule seems to be that if I stick around during the holidays, I get sick. If I leave home, I'm much healthier. This time a little Tylenol is all I needed to be get me through the worst of it.

I can live with that. Happy Big-Hearted Holiday!

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Staging and the Unknown

We've got to stop meeting like this.

It's been over a week since I learned that my middle sister discovered that she has breast cancer.

Everyone thought it would turn out to be of no consequence. No family history that she could think of. She nursed her kids. No lumps.

The good news is that she is taking action. She doesn't have health insurance and was able to access community resources to get a mammogram and follow-up biopsy. Now more paperwork has to be completed for Medicaid to cover surgery and treatment. But at least breast cancer is a "covered" Medicaid illness for which she can cut through some of the red tape and not worry about that.

Her breast started bothering her this summer - pain, not a lump, was the signal. She told me it was a shooting pain from the rib through the breast.

My thought has been that as we were dealing with Dad's death, she was quietly experiencing this, too.

A friend of mine and nurse who worked with me in community geriatric care coordination, said she often sees this. A caregiver has a serious health crisis after the loss of the ones they provide care for. In this case, this particular sister has served as a part-time caregiver to my grandmother who died this spring and my dad who died 3 months later.

At any rate, this week is the surgery to "stage" the cancer. This will be done the day before she turns 50 years old. Basically, this is a process that cuts away at the tissue to see if it is just at the site or how far it has traveled. Hopefully, she'll get a zero staging  where cancer cells are only found at the immediate site. Then that will be that. But they have told her to be prepared for radiation treatments.

"So, what can I do?" I ask her.

"Visit me," she responded.

Well then, I will.

It is a lovely drive through the mountains of West Virginia from my home to her home. There are still a few leaves on the trees and we had our first frost last night. Everything has been harvested.

Since she is a Jehovah's Witness, I don't have to worry about how this will impact her holidays since she doesn't celebrate anything except wedding anniversaries. But in the larger scheme of life, we will review what has been gathered from our lives and hunker down for a long winter. Hopefully, we will emerge in the springtime ready for a new season.


Monday, October 15, 2012

To be seen

I turned 51 this past week. This time last year, I was sitting in a week-long silent meditation retreat. It would have been nice to do again, but 51 doesn't really require it.

I kept putting off celebrating my 50th with friends this year. I imagined an open house with art supplies, food, and ending with a worship circle. Only women who could celebrate quietly and walk in the woods would be invited. But then there were hospitalizations and deaths and more deaths. Who had time for a party?

Instead, I bought a German chocolate cake from a local bakery and took it to my Quaker meeting for snack two weeks ago. This was the last Sunday while still 50. I didn't tell anyone, but my heart knew.

Happy Quietist Birthday!

Bringing attention to myself is fraught with all kinds of emotional landmines.

This year my mother sent a card with a little note. She wished me a happy birthday and year. That was nice. But then she went on to write about how she remembered digging out my father in the silo while pregnant with me.

Being trapped in a silo was serious stuff. He could have died. But he refused to let her call the local fire department for help because he couldn't bear the teasing he'd get.

The thing is, I was there. I remember sitting on a bale of straw in a cold damp barn with my second sister. I was 4 years old and my other sister was 3 years old.  We were there, miserable and afraid, for hours. Mom was pregnant with my baby sister.

When I read this, I thought it finally has happened. Mom has lost her marbles. And, she is now projecting anything difficult in her life onto me.

I called my second sister: Can you believe it!  and I think Mom has finally lost her mind.

She laughed and said Mom told her ten years ago that she dug out Dad while pregnant with her.

As crazy as Dad was, he at least could tell stories with some accuracy.

Partner came home and listened. He noted that it was an honest mistake and I could get upset about it or accept the initial message of wishing me a happy birthday.

I reread the card:
Have a wonderful birthday and year. The years have flown by since I forked silage to rescue your father a few weeks before you were born. Ah! What memories.  With love and admiration, Mom

Thanks for the memories, Mom. With love and admiration back at you.


Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Wishing things were different

Wishing things were different. But they aren't.

Sat on my cushion today. Flickers were picking at the ground. A flock of flickers. Five. Pecking for bugs. Right outside my window. A reflection of my mind. Survival. Eating. Very busy. Digging with intensity. Strong beaks. Peck, peck, peck.

Wishing the drive for survival was easier.

The birds were in the shade of trees. Their markings, like the shadows or autumn leaves, allowed them to search without the crying hawk in the distance bothering them. So, they've got something going for them.

The breath. I am breathing. The repetitiveness of the news seems stuck on crazy, sucking the life out of me. No wonder our kids are fascinated with zombies.

Can you imagine the moment when the breath ends? Perhaps a crushing pressure from a  heart attack or asthma attack or an earth quake's final blow as buildings collapse? Or as prisoners in secret detention camps, who live daily with death defying moments pushing down on them, drowning them?

We just don't know what we are doing. We just think we do.

Our bodies live in a zone where life goes on until it stops.

Dead is dead is what I thought with certainty as I sat across from my father's dead body. Not Dad is dead. What the hell?

Finally was another thought. You always talked about death. But after 76 years on earth, it finally happened.

Don't you bother me, I silently threatened his dead body. Yet three months after dead is dead, you showed up in my dreams like you did in life with a sinus infection and strong coffee on your breath. His signature blend of the living and the dead.

I think I almost prefer the scent of pure death and it's finality.

Friday, August 31, 2012

The story of should's and how things are

It has been a trying summer. I'd love to say that I have enjoyed walking the dog along the trail or writing or trips. But things haven't turned out the way I had envisioned them.

This business of having a story about how life should be gives me big trouble. I used to think lots of things with certainty. Lately, I seem to feel a little unmoored without the comfort of my story.

I hate coming to the realization that I am not in control. I know it intellectually. But  I keep getting the same life lesson reinforced so much that I feel like my rigidity has turned to mush. I worry that in the process I will lose my moral fiber or integrity.

I can't prevent the people I love from making life choices with impacts that portend more hurt and suffering, ... and even death. Of course, we all will suffer and eventually die. But why increase the likelihood? And then, I am off to the races worried about their health, their mental health, and their souls. It is like watching a train wreck taking place.

These feelings didn't start with my father's death this summer. This has been a cumulative piling up of things falling apart. But Dad's death reminds me of his impact on my life and this business of hypervigilence and the belief that I need to try to control life.

In the midst of the chaos in life, my heart still feels. It feels love. It feels betrayed. It feels confused. I can't tell if this is between me and the people in my life, or if this is between me and God.

On the other hand, things could be worse. I took the dog to the garden with me yesterday off-leash. He stayed close for a while and sniffed deer tracks nearby. Before I knew it, as I became engrossed in picking squash, he left me. When I realized he wasn't there, I whistled a call he usually responds to. But no Finn.

I walked around the area. No rustling of leaves in the woods nearby. I rushed to the house and got my daughter and the car. We drove to look for him. Our first check was a neighbor's down the hill. I tried to stay calm, but inside I was panicking.

My mind was busy imagining how he had low vision and might get into trouble if he went too far. What if he made it to the C&O trail, and as friendly as he is, got in the car with someone? Another thought was how he'd been picked up at a shelter before the Collie Rescue folks got him. Maybe he was a runner and was just waiting for the right time to leave us. Or, I have a million things to do and I don't have time to be doing this right now. Then there was the persistent thought, I am so in trouble with my family and the Collie Rescue people if I can't find him.

Our neighbor said he had been visiting his place but went back up the hill towards our home.

Sure enough. He was back near the garden, looking happier for the expedition. And, my thoughts were: bad dog, you gave me quite a scare, and damned if you don't look happy.

Monday, August 6, 2012

No time for grieving or Sherman's March


My dad was a complex person. He could be tender, sweet, and loving. He could also be temperamental, fierce and violent. He did mellow with age.

However, it was no surprise when a rare violent wall of weather hit the region the day after he was found dead.

Derecho. I never heard of it until afterward it struck. A wall of wind associated with thunderstorms. As soon as I heard about it, I thought Sherman's March. Then I immediately connected it with Dad and his death.

Dad died on a Thursday. His body was found mid-afternoon. In what started out as a typical day turned into a long and exhausting day. EMT's, followed by police, then the funeral home staff, and finally, the new parish priest responded over a period of several hours. All made their way into my parent's rustic farmhouse at the end of a dirt lane.

The day had built up lots of heat and the family house has no a/c. The EMT's stayed outside, instead of with me and my sister and Dad, to wait on the police who had difficulty finding the farm. A fly was starting to hang around his body. Who knows how long he'd been dead. But when the funeral home staff moved him, the unmistakable odor of death was compressed out of him and hung in the air longer than the undertaker said it would.

Partner went to work the next day and I took off to meet with Mom and a sister to make funeral arrangements. Mom was determined to have a traditional timeline as if he was being buried, even though he was being cremated. Funeral home visitation would be on Saturday afternoon and evening with the memorial service at the little country church Sunday afternoon. And, we would be providing the food and setting up/tearing down at the church ourselves per Mom's wishes.

Family had been notified and the out-of-towners were coming in. There was a plan.

At our evening meal that Friday, I told Partner how wonderful the yard looked and fortuitous it was that the house was clean. We could relax about being host and hostess in the midst of whatever would be unfolding.

Later that evening, Mom and I were checking in by phone about details regarding the next few days.

Partner kept saying in a steady voice, "a really big storm is coming," as warnings were flashing on the internet.

Lightning and winds picked up until the weather was howling. Our electric began to flicker. Meanwhile, I had been trying to get Mom to realize that a storm would likely be hitting the farm which is about 12-15 miles east of my house. With the phone propped between my shoulder and ear, I started filling containers with water at the kitchen sink in case we lost power. (Wells need electric to pump water.) Finally, the lights went out and I told her to get serious and fill her tub with water in case she needed water to flush the toilet.  People were coming to stay and we would need the basics. Then I hung up.

The lights did a little more flickering and then there were bright flashes as electrical sounds and smoke began to fill the kitchen. Partner walked around the house muttering that we had a problem.

In an even tone, he told me, "Call 911," as he went from one electrical box to another. Because he was so calm sounding, I almost didn't hear him. Then I realized that his stress response is to sound quiet, calm, and unconcerned.

Using my cell phone because my land line was now dead, I found myself talking across state lines to get a 911 center. The person stayed with me until she transferred me to my own state and county's center, saying that the 911 centers were flooded with calls.

The new 911 person stated, "The fire department is on its way. Go out on your porch.”

I told the 911 lady, "You've got to be kidding!"

We ran out to the car with the dog and a flashlight since our porch is unprotected and the wildness of the storm made the idea of standing out on it unfathomable.

As the lightning seemed to create a constant source of illumination, the devastation was sinking in. Large limbs were down. Green leaves were shredded lying on the ground. A limb landed on our tractor crushing the canopy. Trees had been uprooted.

After the rescue squad made it past downed limbs in our driveway, they then began the process of seeing what was going on. In their muddy wet boots and clothes in the midst of the storm, they tromped through every room and closet in the house.

There had been a flash fire in the house, but it was out. A large surge protector by the major electrical box in the laundry room had exploded, but the wires to the box had not melted. Sandy-like dirt was everywhere in the laundry room and now tracked throughout the house. Our air conditioners and lights had been damaged. But we wouldn't know that until the next day when our power returned.

We went to bed at 11:30 p.m. exhausted, not worrying about the stuffy heat in the house. The house and the yard were a mess. But, we were okay.

The family gathered the next morning at the farm. Mom was also without power. We would learn that the church where the memorial service was to be held was dark, also.  It would be days before they would regain electrical service.

And so, that morning, before the afternoon and evening funeral home visits were to begin, our family worked.

Did I mention that a heat wave started in earnest? There is nothing like no power, no water, and conditions hotter than hell to add to an already grim situation.

We moved food from the farm to my recently deceased grandmother's home 20 miles away because it had power. We would clean the main floor of the house which just had the estate sale the prior weekend - no furniture, but crud left from 60 years of living. There would be air mattresses for sleeping and showers/toilets for all of us without power. We told the kids (now adults) that this would be just like camping.

When I called a friend during the peak of the storm on Friday night, she suggested, with some humor, that I tell the angels to help move Dad on to the other side. With Dad's death, I felt like a vacuum had formed and all kinds of chaos would be ensuing.

What would happen now that Dad was gone? If the storm was any indication, what next?

The day the EMT's were at the farm, one of them asked why a step ladder was on the front porch roof. My mom used it to sweep snow off during those big storms in 2010.  She'd been harassing Dad to remove it. The derecho blew the ladder down for her.

But the big surprise was the large bank barn. Dad's barn has been trying to fall down for the past 20 years. Family members often gnashed their teeth about the danger the barn posed. He would ignore them. I remember praying for a lightning strike to finish it off, probably five years ago, thinking this might minimize the risk of someone getting hurt. The main barn wall facing the house still stood at Dad's death. The storm finally finished it off.

As a nephew said after Dad's death but before the storm, "now maybe the barn can fall since he is no longer here to keep it up." Who knew it would be down the next day?

During the initial days after Dad's death, I reflected on the ancient wisdom of "out of chaos comes order" or the cycle of life model where there is birth, death and resurrection leading to new growth. I had the feeling that we were still in the midst of the death part.

With only more chaos to come, my attitude evolved into let the hilarity/fun begin which made curiosity and flexibility a core aspect to coping over the next few weeks. I probably also looked a little disrespectful and just plain weird to others. I just hope I was able to keep most of it to myself.

As someone who has worked in the field of pastoral care and geriatrics, I've seen all kinds of ways people approach grief. But so far, the map called Normal doesn't seem to be working for me. I'm told that map isn't particularly useful to others, either.




Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Farmer John died

My father died suddenly almost two weeks ago now. He looked like he was asleep when he was found on the couch in his farm clothes. The only difference was that his farmer's tan went missing and his body was cold - probably because his heart was done.

Some of what we can piece together is that he had planted soybeans in the field in front of the house, that he had purchased 10 bags and planted 9 1/2 of them some time within the 24-hour period before his death, that he died with a packet of soybean inoculant in his overalls pocket and that his hands were black from mixing inoculant in with the beans to help with them grow.

If there was a year to grow beans, this is the one. With grain prices topping new levels, there is the hope, this time, Dad's beans may do more than break even. Farming is a risky enterprise, so even with fantastic prices, there is no guarantee of profit.

He has always been dependent on custom harvesters - the guys who run the combines to harvest crops - and because he has a relatively small farm, he would have to wait until they decided to harvest - often losing grain to weather or other conditions deteriorating the quality of the grain.

Today I went with my mother to the local farmers' co-op and then to the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS) office - now the Farm Service Agency under the Department of Agriculture that oversees farm programs including conservation plans and crop insurance. We needed to cash out the tiny Southern States stock he owned and determine the amount of acreage planted to turn in to the Farm Service Agency. The crop acreage figure was due at the end of the week and had something to do with his "approved" farming plan with the Feds. Whatever happened to the independent farmer?

I saw farming friends at both agencies. Just hanging out with these guys almost made me want to farm again. I grew up as my father's "son" and learned the lingo, the rhythm and the lifestyle these guys live. Plus marrying into a farm family, my understanding of community has been deeply tied to the farming community.

These men all looked older and exhausted. Some of this is because they are older. Having turned 50 years old myself this past year, these folks were ahead of me in school or 4-H. But the exhaustion could be from the heat wave and the trials of a nasty storm that hit the day after my dad's death. And, I'm guessing that a lot of the fatigue is from the sheer amount of hard work and long hours they put in.

Some were still dealing with a recent storm that disrupted power for several days, downed trees, and with wind, hail and hard rain that destroyed crops ready to harvest.  Running several generators to milk cows is an expensive proposition with the high cost of fuel. The heat wave that struck effected both crops and animals. In addition, a neighbor talked about caring for his elderly parents and disabled sister nearby in between milking and crop farming. Another farmer talked about a neighbor in hospice.

While I enjoyed catching up with my old neighbors and friends, I knew that my dad's little farm could never make for a sustainable way of life - not enough land at 97 acres; it certainly isn't organic; and, it has rocks, ridges, wet spots, and clay-type soils - some not tillable, many not terrific for high yields. What will happen to this farm?

My mother swears she is done farming. She was done years ago, really. I sure do hope those beans amount to something - not just for her, but as one last try from Dad.

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Making a cup of green tea

Making a cup of green tea, I stop the war. - Paul Reps

This line was reportedly a written statement by the poet while trying to get into post-WWII Japan to visit a Buddhist temple. The story goes that he was turned down by the immigration officer since only military advisers were allowed into the country during this period of fragile reconstruction. On the back of a piece of his rejection paper, he wrote those words and handed it to the officer. 

The officer slowly read the note. He responded by stamping his passport and paperwork to allow him into Japan. The  the official told him that more keepers of the ritual would be needed to help in the rebuilding of the country.

After stumbling upon the story in one of Peter Levine’s books on Buddhist approaches to death, I wrote the quote on a recipe card and propped it up on the kitchen window sill. Whenever I see it, I am reminded of how powerful rituals can be in the healing process.

In an era of globalization and hyper-fast lifestyles, these words strike me as  important   - and a koan. I understand a koan to be a philosophical puzzle with paired ideas that do not make logical sense. One frequently cited example of a koan is: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

How on God’s green earth does one person clap with one hand or by making a cup of tea to stop the war?

I don’t know but I think the tea ritual has something to do with hospitality. Serving others with a pure heart has the potential to nurture the sacred within. In making the tea, I am involved in wanting something for the other person. 


I’d like to think it is a positive action. Goodness knows I've witnessed and experienced "giving" that didn't feel so wonderful.


Sometimes I think it is a placeholder to keep me from doing harm. Maybe no one wants the tea and I am avoiding the war. 


Except, the koan says that the action stops the war. Perhaps loving action diverts war energy. Compassion in a respectful way leads to something nurturing or nourishing.

I wonder what the poet would have written if he was trying to enter British colonized India and just wrote tea. What spiritually/culturally relevant practice would have connected with an Indian officer in such a warm way?

In a time when all cultures seem to be afflicted by commercialism and globalism resulting in a loss of the sacred, will groups be able to maintain their long-held traditions of hospitality with the stranger that are ingrained in their rituals and stories? Will they lose their rituals used to create sacred relationships? In times of trouble, how will we know what to do? Who has the time for this? Do I?

A friend who hosts family members on a regular basis had a month-long stint of having the family in her home. I sent an e-mail asking how it was to play the Domestic Goddess. Her reaction wasn't exactly a happy one. 


To so many of us, this is a place of feeling abused, neglected, and taken for granted. I know that place. As a girl, I avoided housework and opted to hang out with my dad doing farm work. There was no glory or fun, as far as I could tell, cooking and cleaning.

Becoming a mother s-l-o-w-l-y changed that. And now, as a grandmother, there is something comforting about those tasks. 

At this point in my life, cooking and cleaning, caring for the dog, etc. are part of my meditation practice. It's not that I always love doing these things, but I love how these acts help create a nurturing space or are opportunities to open my heart up and stay in the present moment. The phone rings, it is a friend struggling with depression. Or, someone is lost and seeks direction. A community group seeks a meeting space. Come on in and have a cup of tea. 

Actually, my personal style at home is to tell everyone where the cups and tea are and they can fix what they like. So, I probably have a long way to go in understanding the depth of this practice. 

How does one create a rhythm carrying out ordinary acts of home life and taking that energy out in the world? Is there a difference?

The trick for me is not to try to save the world by "fixing" anyone or by rushing around and then feeling angry. These are huge habitual behaviors for me to work on.

This koan keeps drawing out more questions. But like a jewel, this koan is keeps drawing me in to its beauty. I invite you to share your understanding of this little gem.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Spirit and Religiousity


I'm struggling with religiousity. In this case, questioning my own religiousity-essness.

I never really understood the extent religion could be misused at the personal level in unhealthy ways, just like any other patterned thoughts and behaviors, until my mid-40’s. It wasn't until attending Loyola in Maryland's Pastoral Counseling program that the subject came into clearer focus.

How is one's religious ideas helpful - to themself and others - and when are they not?

This feels like it is coming to a head since I keep trying to figure out why I live such a small life as a pastoral counselor. My identity is tied to this question in profound ways. I didn't just become involved in spiritual work, I grew up in a family with a complex set of messages around religion, work, and connection to community.

At my Quaker meeting a few months ago, I spoke at meeting for worship.

First another woman spoke up about her conviction that the Genesis story blames Eve for original sin and that it is still with us today. She asked what to do about it. She sounded pretty upset by the state of affairs for women, especially when it seems women's rights are losing ground in the United States and particularly in the meeting's home state of Virginia.

I felt moved to speak from a place of personal experience - that radical place where George Fox spoke about the Living Word which took him beyond what the words said in the Bible, and encouraged people to experience the Living Word for themselves.
(Fox's quote can be found at: http://www.qis.net/~daruma/foxfell.html )

I spoke about the life-changing experiences of giving birth to my daughters at home. Not only was I testing my faith in a loving God and my body, but I knew that the research on homebirth challenged the fearmongers.

My own daughters were born at home, despite my family’s doubt. But most important, my experiences of those births were not the painful, dreadful events that had been impressed upon me. The first birth took place in less than 7 hours from the water breaking to birth. The second birth was 3 1/2 hours from beginning to end. I likened the physical experience to having the flu.

Most remarkably, the second birth also had elements of pleasure!

How could that be? Paradoxically, as the baby came out with her hand beside her face, I stretched more, feeling like I was giving birth to a rock. But this same stretch also brought about tingling and pleasure. No one ever told me this was possible!

My point in sharing this story simply was to test the text (Genesis) with my own lived experience. How does this square with the overarching message of freedom through faith in the Spirit? Fox points to God's word, yet parts of the Bible don't make sense from a literal perspective. He interpreted  scripture in his on unique way, which includes the unique position of women in ministry since the 1600's.

I found other texts to be useful. The Hindu-influenced book, "Spiritual Midwifery," prepared my heart and mind and body so that I could more fully experience birth, including the pleasure - one not bound by a Judeo-Christian mindset. It helped that Sheila Kitzinger's work, a social anthropologist studying women's experiences of birth and nursing, was available to help me make sense of my experiences. Later I would learn that the Buddha also encouraged people to test for oneself to see what is true.

This experience radicalized my faith. It shifted my understanding of the Biblical narrative. I was a young mother, but was developing a Feminist understanding of theology. Who wrote these oral stories? What was the purpose or message implied? Who was served by the stories? Who was left out? What do they say about the human experience?

After we left meeting for worship, my Partner said in a very kind voice that he had noticed an edge in my voice when giving the message. It was a question about whether my voice was changing or if I was missing tenderness or if there was something else going on.

Truly, I don't know, but it feels like all three could be true. My throat has been bothering me;  I often have to strain my voice to talk to loved ones with hearing loss. Then there was the was lack of tenderness in my message - the anger that 30 years later and there is still an assault on women and homebirths.

But, when Partner said something about the edge in my voice, I immediately experienced it as my mother's voice. I was taken back to the piercing element of her words as she recently talked about contacting my grandfather's half-sister about my grandmother's death -  someone who hasn't been in contact with the family for decades - and then, she added that the husband was affiliated with a hate group. Did the sister share her husband's beliefs? Did she encourage and enable violence? Why did my mom feel compelled to tell me about this? Was this a message related to my life's work?

At a time when the Southern Poverty Law Center cites record numbers of hate and extremist groups, I can really scare myself and get angry about it. It's never as far removed as we think. I just had no idea the level until my grandmother's death. It's in the family tree.

Later, I thought of a news story I heard this past week of the Sande Society in Liberia still having bush schools to train their girls to be good wives. Part of their initiation involves female circumcision. For more on this, go to:
http://www.theworld.org/2012/03/female-genital-circumcision-temporarily-stopped-in-liberia/ Nothing like taking away any potential God-given pleasure sources for women.

There are so many excuses for threatening and imposing one’s misguided beliefs on another. It’s exhausting to hold the many stories I come across in my work, let alone the ones I carry in my heart from my family.

Coming home, I experienced a continuation of feeling frustrated, anxious, and lost.

The kingdom of God is within. The kingdom of God is within. The kingdom of God is within. I look around at the trees and flowers and honeysuckle and think of my home. For a brief moment, I realize that there is too much to do and I am paralyzed with grief.

In the midst of all of this internal drama, my thinking becomes clouded. Is my searching for meaning and purpose lost in self-absorption? How can I be useful if I am not open and loving? Is anger masking depression which is masking hurt? Is this just self-doubt because I shared something personal and made myself vulnerable to the meeting, a group I sometimes see as privileged or different or judging? Am I doing the old finger pointing outwardly trick when I need to examine my own issues? Do I need to be doing anything?

Yet, I seem to be driven to be useful or helpful.

One of my greatest fears is hurting others. Yet, I don't know how to live or be myself without hurting others. Is it even possible? My faith and clinical skills seem to be particularly lacking here. One thought is to relax and let God be in charge. Yet, the fear of inviting more difficulty seeps into my consciousness, the fear of being tested.

Sometimes I just want to meditate and pray (more religiousity?). Other times I just want to be someone else. My weaknesses kick in and I find myself in the kitchen or reading books or sitting at the harp. On a good day, I go for a walk. And, in moments of clarity, I can see that God doesn't care about my religiousity. It's something I put on myself.

One way through this mess is to follow my own admonition and seek out clarity through connection with others from my faith community. I need to test the health of my thinking and behavior. The antidote to obsessive thinking is opening this up to the Light with those who care for both me and the beloved community.

You'd think giving up the yoke would be easy! But what yoke am I giving up? Labels? Roles? Religiousity? Pastoral counselor? Quaker? Woman? Hopefully, I'm ready to give up whatever is no longer useful for I still live in this world and in this body.

Didn't Jesus die on the cross for our freedom?

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

The biggest kid there

This weekend I had the pleasure of performing on a student recital with a variety of learners. The instruments on the program included voice, piano, flute, saxophone, cello and harp.

I was the only adult on the program. This would be the second time that I played at this venue. The school director loves having me on the program because she can't get adult learners to participate.

This would be the first time I performed solo in public on the harp.

I'm practicing the personal disciplines of just showing up for things, no matter what, and letting go of ego/pride to the best of my ability. So this was great practice time.

However, I have to confess that I encouraged friends and family to stay home. Mostly, I didn't even tell them, afraid they would come and I'd just get nervous. Nothing is worse than trying to find the correct strings on a harp with shaking hands.

Like recitals that I grew up with, the kids were adorable. The little ones were so earnest. The handful of teenagers were serious looking.

I'd gotten to the school early to warm-up before the program started. It takes me 20 minutes or so to run through scales, chords, etc. to get my hands oriented to the harp. I'd be playing on my teacher's large pedal harp, not my own little lever harp.

Basically, I barely got to run through a few runs, before I was told to just go through the pieces. Time was running out.

The recital started.

The setting was beautiful with a huge window at the back of the stage where the view of the mountains and fields were shining through. The side doors were opened to a patio and a slight breeze cooled the hall.

Some teachers had their students identify themselves. Others had them say the song title and composer. One teacher had the students say what key the piece was in - A minor or C major.

As each kid stated their name, it felt like a 12-step program with children. Hi, my name is Mary and I'm playing March in A minor by Joseph. I had to catch myself and redirect my mind because it seemed wrong to mess with this innocence.

I was next to last on the program. The kids were getting better. Dang if that kid before me on the piano was really good.

And then time for the show.

As a kid doing recitals, I don't remember the awkward walk to the stage. But at 50 and none too graceful, I tried to pull my look together before marching off to the stage.

Once on the stage, I briefly had my back to the audience to set up the stand and bench while my teacher moved her harp. Quickly, I realized that was a bad idea. There is a reason performers face the audience. I certainly didn't want folks seeing my backside.

Sitting down and taking a few relaxing breaths, I started. The first song went by in a blink. I did fine. The second song was a series of 4 brief variations. I let the audience know to hold their applause until after the fourth ditty and to... enjoy themselves. And while I was aware of a few minor problems in the middle section, the last two variations were flawless.

As I stood up to bow, I was aware of my hot, flushed checks. My harp teacher looked really pleased. I felt it went better than I predicted.

Afterwards my teacher leaned over and said, "You know, with that rough warm-up, you really surprised me. It was great."

The best part: unlike all the little kids whose parents were hoovering over them, taking video, lining them up for photos, and dealing with grandparents, I got to get in my car and ride off. I love being a grown-up sometimes.

Friday, May 11, 2012

One-legged Birdy

This week in meditation near the very end of the discussion, someone brought up one of our favorite topics: synchronicity.

While sitting at the breakfast table talking to his wife, he was jarred by a loud WHAM on the window. Red feathers were stuck to the window. His wife went outside first to find two scarlet tanagers dead at the base of the window. They weren't knocked out, as people in the group offered upon hearing the story. No, the birds were completely lifeless.

Everyone in the room mulled this situation over. On first hearing the story, people were assuming that a male cardinal had hit the window because they are prevalent and known for attacking their reflection in glass, often ramming their heads repeatedly into windows. But our friend assured us that these were scarlet tanagers. He'd picked one up to check for life.

The person sharing the story talked about how many spiritual traditions suggest that the outer life is reflected in the inner life and vice versa; that in the cosmos, what we think of as reality is a dream but we get glimpses into this larger reality when reality knocks on our door. And it is always knocking on our door. The great spiritual leaders point to this in their teachings, if we just used our senses to take it in.

Not to be crass or insensitive to the reality of any situation, but he pointed out that metaphor is everywhere. Two birds smacked into the window and died this morning. But these are not common birds in the area. Is there a message? Was it for him? For the group? Just in his sharing, something stirred amongst us.

Afterwards, I had the opportunity to talk about this a little more with him.

I shared my story of a little junco who'd been visiting my bird feeder outside my kitchen window throughout the winter. I was so happy that it had survived the winter and was able to find food at our feeder.

It would hop on one leg clumsily picking up seed on the ground, getting out of the way of larger or more dominant birds. It had to be pretty careful since hawks were known to visit the site for a meal of tinier birds. None the less, I found great joy is seeing this little grey bird show up each morning at our feeder.

The past two weeks it has been missing. I wondered what happened to it. I'd felt it had been on borrowed time ever since I saw it. We live in the woods with lots of predators. A fox has been showing up regularly about the same time I noticed the junco was no longer visiting.

We all have our own stories and sense of meaning. Humans are hardwired for meaning making and causality. However, I can only wonder what happened as I've found no little one-legged junco, dead or alive.

As I reflected on the mystery of the little junco who was hobbling on one leg on uneven ground, I couldn't help but associate it with the weak, the sick, the other as outlined in the Beatitudes. Then I thought about the two brightly colored birds my friend associates with the aggressive part of the male ego.

I can't help but watch the world stage and wonder what to make of our messenger friends, the birds.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Food and a Corpse



Death and food are weird partners in my family. Let me explain.

An understanding recently came to me: when my grandmother died a few weeks ago, that while her dead body was still cooling off in her bed and the funeral home caretaker was in her driveway sitting in a hearst, my parents and sister were eating lunch just a smidge away from a corpse.

I guess at one level it doesn't matter. I grew up in a farm family with life and death as a constant part of our drama. Memories of trying to eat our 4-H projects would be just one example.

Grandma died just before lunch at 12:15 p.m. The hospice nurse had been called. She did her thing. An uncle came and wailed. The funeral home was waiting to take the body, but a cousin wanted to see the remains at home before final departure. My sister called and left a message on my phone to return her call.

It didn't dawn on me when I returned my sister's call at 1:25 p.m. that when she said she needed to get off the phone for lunch, that Grandma was still in the bed, just a few steps away from the kitchen.

My diabetic dad and hypoglygemic sister were famished. The food was already ready.

"Gotta go; gotta eat," she said with urgency.

It wasn't until the next day when we spoke that I "got" the timeline and scenario. This was the same conversation where we were talking about mom's insistence to hold a meal after the funeral for family only back at the house.

There would be no public gathering for my very public grandmother; no sharing of food with others or connecting with friends for support. Just the family, back at the house - something my mother had been trying to organize for the past ten years. This time the family would submit. And they did.

Thinking back to the post-death scene, I'm not sure that lunch was necessary. Maybe a stick of cheese to hold the blood sugar. A piece of fruit and some veggies. But I know my immediate family. This was a full-blown Sunday meal.

For some people, personal safety requires a security system, guns, police, or the military. For my family, it is food.

The production of food (farming), the selling of food (grocers), and the consuming of food (often with health consequences) give us a fragile sense of security. Which, paradoxically, also creates great anxiety when anything messes with any of these variables.

This isn't normal. It's a reaction to something.

Marion Woodman, a Jungian analyst, points out that anorexics have an underlying death wish. They want to evaporate, go away. Those who overeat or are bulimics actually have a strong desire to live. They keep eating to connect with life, and want more, more, more, mindlessly stuffing themselves, filling the hole. Neither are healthy.

But, my grandmother loved food. Perhaps this was a legacy of her love.

This isn't any more morbid than Jesus saying, "Take, eat, this is my body. Take, drink, this is my blood.

Communion. A creative act of imagination, a mystery, that touches the heart. Or, just a basic act of living another day.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Filling big paws


I love my meditation group. It's mine in a way that simply means I feel a part of a community. I also enjoy learning about life's mysteries with them.

I'd forgotten about one of the mysteries until this evening.

I clipped the tip of my thumb pruning back flowers. (There goes harp practice for a few days.)

It wasn't until I'd cleaned it up and bandaged it, that I thought about a mini-revelation the group shared with each other last week.

After talking about lots of things, the eldest in the group mentioned that the last job she had required fingerprinting for a background check. They had a hard time getting her finger prints from her fingers. She said she was told that the elderly lose their fingerprints.

She proudly held up her 80 year-old hands and proclaimed that the ridges were barely there.

This seemed to capture the interest of the rest of the group. Everyone started looking at their hands.

Someone about 78 years of age commented that, indeed, the ridges on his fingers were pretty smooth. Others looked over their fingers a little harder squinting through their glasses and moving their hands closer and further to gain better clarity.

How cool!

I'm struck by the similarity of watching a small group of children compare developmental changes in their bodies or excitement from learning something new about themselves.

As I bang my sore thumb on the keyboard writing this, I am reminded that should I live long enough, I too, will probably wear off the ridges of my finger prints - if I can keep my fingers intact! I just hope that a group of friends will surround me as we explore these changes together!

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Beautiful Send-off


Lots has transpired since last writing. The flow of winter to spring, with an unusually warm period, has the flowers blooming way ahead of time.

During this time, my grandmother began her final passage. She began refusing food and drink - if you count droppers of water as drinking over the past few months - in earnest about two weeks ago. Her children met with the hospice social worker to discuss the changes taking place and to prepare for the next stage. My sister, a home health aide, would be taking care of my grandmother in her final days.

It has been over ten years since Grandma's stroke that rendered her with the need for almost total care since then. Once she used up her rehab period through Medicare, she was sent home, where she wanted to be.

Pap and her uncle built the stone house they called home for the past 60 years by themselves back in the 1950's on a plot of land that she had lived on as a toddler. My grandmother furnished and decorated that home - inside and out. She loved flowers and had several flower beds that she tended over the decades. Her colors were pale pinks, mauves and fern green.

Grandma died around noon on Sunday March 18, 2012, peacefully, as she slept her way through the last week. Winter was just ending.

It's amazing that she died when there was so much warmth and color on the day of her passing. The temperature outside was in the upper 60's and the flowers were radiating their colorful faces towards the sun. What a resplendent send-off.

She was buried on March 21, the day after spring officially started in the Northern hemisphere. This was one funeral with lots of flowers. In this day and age, most people want their legacy to continue through donations to a church, non-profit or cause. In this case, because of her love for flowers, flowers were everywhere in the funeral home.

She would have loved every one of them.

Grandma, wherever you are, I see your spirit in every flower that blooms and sends its scent on the air. You were my last grandparent to pass over to the other side. I am relieved that you are no longer suffering, and are free to sing and laugh surrounded by beauty.

Monday, March 12, 2012

Teachers


It's a good thing to have a teacher.

In this case, I am very lucky to have a skilled teacher (she asked not to be named) serve as my meditation guide. She started the meditation group (sangha) that I sit with. When she moved out of the area, she maintained her deep roots to this group.

We talk by phone, when we can, as she listens to me describe the quality of my meditation practice and how it is being lived in my daily life. Yesterday was such a day.

Talking with her, I described how I wasn't sitting (as in sitting meditation) regularly since getting Finn-the-dog. Life has been busy since Father-in-law's illness. I explained how walking Finn was my meditation practice. I even talked about how other meditation teachers talked about walking meditation and doggy dharma as part of their practice.

She asked how my walk with Finn was experienced as meditation. I talked about how I'm his set of eyes outside since he has low vision and that I need to watch for sticker bushes since he could damage his eyes further if he walks into them. I tell her that I feel the tug on the leash which snaps me into awareness. Having Finn MacCool gets me outside and out of my bubble of going from house to car to store or work and back. I feel invigorated when a cool breeze blows across my skin or hear the birds singing and soak in the sun's rays.

She sounded encouraging and said this offered a mindful approach. And ever so tenderly, she reminded me how important the practice of sitting on that meditation cushion really is.

I would like to share what my teacher sweetly said. Watch how she gently shifts the focus while remaining positive.

1. It all counts, mindfulness is a 24/7 practice.

2. Awareness slowly shifts over time, so keep at it.

3. It isn't necessary to make meditation "count" by walking the dog. It is what it is. You can bring mindfulness to it.

4. She would not call taking Finn for a walk as walking meditation; walking meditation is a formal practice, is very focused, and is concentrated on the practice with the body.

5. An intentional meditation practice cultivates the conditions for off the cushion (the other 23 1/2 hours in a day) mindfulness and lovingkindness, including time with Finn.

6. She's been reading Sylvia Boorstein's book called, Pay Attention for Goodness' Sake with her meditation group. Perhaps that would be useful as a way of learning the paramita's or virtues for the path to enlightenment or joy.

Near the end of our conversation, my teacher said she often thinks of me and sends metta (lovingkindness) my way. Thank you.

In the great spiritual tradition, I send metta to her. May she live a long and happy life. And, may you be happy, healthy and whole, too.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

He's coming home!


He's getting ready to go back home - my father-in-law, that is. After almost two months of hospitalization and rehabilitation, he's ready to step foot in his own home.

My father-in-law is something of a miracle man in my book. After all that he'd been through, I was ready to say goodbye to him in January. I told my partner that I wouldn't have put a two-cent bet on his life. So many things were working against him.

After abdominal surgery to remove a cancerous tumor, and a whole host of problems afterwards including hiccups that delayed recovery, septic shock, and then shingles, I'm surprised he's living at all.

Then there is this business of his attitude towards the surgery and likely cancerous tumor. He consistently said that he didn't want the surgery - before and after the surgery. In my counseling training, I learned that our thoughts can be critical to recovery.

These were just the problems that took place during the first month when he was hospitalized.

Then he was moved to a nursing home that had available space. This was not his first choice by any means.

Welcome to our patchwork-of-services healthcare system where you really don't get a choice unless you are uber wealthy and have access to the ritzy long-term care communities. In that case, they will hold a bed for you. No, he pretty much has the standard Medicare insurance (as much as he bitches about the government and watches Fox News) and possibly a supplemental policy to help pay his co-pays and deductibles.

Once he was moved to the local nursing home for rehab, things didn't really settle down. After the move late in the day on a Monday, the family returned the next morning. His wife found him moaning in pain.

Now this is a farmer who could suffer pain silently and did so in the hospital, so something was up. He thought he'd been dropped on his bed when moved with a hoyer lift (a sling with a hydraulic lift used to move people who can't transfer from a bed to stand or sit on their own). His shoulder was killing him.

My mother-in-law was beside herself with anguish. Something was wrong. This wasn't like him.

After much ado, it became clear to me that whatever had happened, his thinking wasn't very clear. That didn't mean that he wasn't in pain or hadn't had a hard landing, though. My first thought was that he had a urinary tract infection (UTI).

The problem was that staff assumed that this was his normal behavior (weak, confused, no appetite) and didn't get that this was something to pay attention to. (Read: this is why it is important for families to be involved - only you know your loved-one well enough to know what seems in line with their normal behavior.)

UTI's are fairly common in older adults and particularly those with urinary catheters. His was still in at the time. Yes, he was still on antibiotics. But after testing, the results came back the next day that he had a UTI. So he got another antibiotic to address this strain of infection.

He complained that the night shift sounded like they were partying all night in the facility. Rest was tough to come by.

A long-term care ombudsman was involved in working with the family to find another place. A few days later, one was found that met with the family's approval.

After several weeks of watching this tough and, yet, ever so fragile man struggle with one thing after another, he was moved to the other nursing home for rehabilitation.

Everyone was holding their breath. Would this nursing home be okay or would we be in for more in a series of aftershocks that kept rolling since his cancer shook our world?

It was a good sign when everyone reconvened in father-in-law's room the next day and talked about getting their first good night of sleep in over a month. A collective exhale was felt across the family tree.

Even better has been his progress in doing the repetitious exercises that are strengthening him in targeted ways. After worrying about how his Parkinson's might be made worse from weeks in bed and the infections he kept having to fight, his family now believes that he is stronger and steadier than he has been since before the surgery.

On a physical level, this has been quite a ride. Yet there is something more to add.

The rest of this story is about a mysterious bond called love. His wife and sons participated in daily vigils watching over and attending to their beloved husband and father.

The sons talked about how he had never had the time to really be present to them emotionally while growing up on the farm. If he hadn't been present to them throughout much of their lives emotionally, they were certainly present to him.

His wife of 10 years has her own daughter with whom she is close. The sons and she never really had to deepen their relationships. Not that they weren't cordial. This crisis created an opportunity to knit this family together with him at the center and in ways that seems to be moving them along.

Finally, there was the circle of love in the form of various prayer groups praying for his healing. I've always heard the saying about "God works in mysterious ways." With so many people praying for him and the family, I'm in awe of the outcome in this situation. In fact, I am humbled.

Who would have thought he would have lived through all of this and that he would have come through this stronger? Amazing.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Search for the Perfect Pet


Ahhh. Finn.

What's not to like? He's a lover. He sticks close by. He loves to be petted and long walks. He refused the crate, but has slept in the bedroom on his doggy bed all night without interruption. He's not a barker. He doesn't "surf" the kitchen counters. He listens pretty well. In fact, he is very well behaved.

How did we get so lucky? Finding a good pet is a bit of a crap shoot.

Getting Finn through an on-line service called Petfinder.com reminded me of the stories I'd heard of adults finding each other through Match.com and eharmony.com.

There are photos posted with a fetching description of the great qualities and interests of the pet. There is the obvious attempts at capturing the best sides of an animal, trying to get the animal to smile or look cute with scarfs or a pretty collar.

I have to say I was totally smitten by those Great Pyrenees. Gorgeous, big-boned dogs with beautiful expressive eyes. I couldn't get enough of them.

But alas, meeting Pyr pups and their parents in a barn near Lancaster, PA and talking to the owner, I realized that these dogs were not a good fit. It was like going on a first date and meeting the family all at once - in their home environment. I got to see for myself what I was inviting into my life.

So back to the Petfinder.com lists of dogs. Somehow I found myself looking at a Bernese Mountain dog who was blind. I was captured by it's warm, friendly looks with a built in smile. Up until then, I hadn't considered a dog with different abilities.

There was a video on the website to see how this beauty got around. Basically, the rescue group wanted to make sure people saw how the dog handled taking a few steps in his foster home. It stumbled down a step, but caught itself, too. The dog had arthritis in the front legs - probably from knocking those front legs around so much.

This sensitized me to the challenges a blind dog might experience and of something Bill Thomas, a geratrician doctor, talks about -that aging isn't so much about a gradual, predictable loss as much as it is the inevitable dings (basic human level & cellular) in life we get that build up over time. The more dings that build up, the more damage occurs, the more chance we will hurt ourselves some more - and at the cellular level, the more likely we will get disease. These dogs were taking some dings!

Searching for a pet got me to thinking about lifespan. One animal on the Collie Rescue site was listed as outliving her owner and was rescued from an estate decision to put her in a shelter and possibly be euthanized. I'm guessing she wasn't young herself, but still. Thankfully, they were fostering her until she could find her "forever home" - a new term I was learning.

Now I was planning on what would I do if something happened to me and I didn't even have a dog yet. I'd like to think that I have family or friends who would take my pets in. Perhaps I need to make more specific plans. Just looking at the various photos and reading the bios got me to thinking about things I hadn't thought of.

I had put in applications for various rescue and foster dogs through organizations. Some called. I even considered getting an older female Pyr who was incontinent. We didn't have the fencing needed for an active Pyr with 5 or 6 foot fencing suggested, so I figured this was my way of getting a Pyrenees. I had this fantasy of having a dog assisted-living home briefly. Thankfully, my family reined me in on that one.

My daughter talked me into putting in an application for a rescued greyhound that she was interested in. She printed up the bio on the dog and almost had me. This dog was a black and lithe. But I knew in my heart of hearts that a greyhound wasn't my type. I needed some fluff. She could get her own dog.

And then Finn's bio showed up and I applied. This was the second dog I'd applied for through the Collie Rescue folks. After a telephone interviewed, we passed the initial stage, and moved to the in-home visit. Before bringing Finn home, I just had to meet him and see him eye-to-eye and get furr to skin hugs.

And, I am glad I did. He was everything his publicists said and is more. To see Finn's profile cut and paste into your browser http://www.savecollies.org/adopted.html Type in "Finn" to bring up his information.

I just hope I never have to go through this looking for a human. It makes me even more grateful for being in a relationship with Partner these past 30 years!

Monday, February 20, 2012

Welcome Home Finn MacCool


Bringing a new being - person or pet - into a household changes the atmosphere. How can it not?

There is an adjustment period for everyone. Rhythms of eating, playing, working, toileting and sleeping are all things to factor in when someone new becomes a part of the family. Just ask any new parent!

Bringing in Finn as a 7 year old dog with an unknown life history reminds me of my work as a social worker in the long-term care field. We can get some of the history from family, if they are available, and from medical records, if there has been much of one. We can get some history from the person, but if dementia or communication problems exist, it can be difficult if not impossible. Besides, the heart and soul of a person's life cannot be written down on forms.

That's how it is with Finn our newly adopted dog. All that we know is that he came from a shelter in WV and that they called the Collie Recue, Inc. The shelter folks said he was depressed and not going to be adopted because he wasn't happy enough. The foster mom with the rescue told us that he wasn't depressed; he probably didn't have enough stimulation.

He sure does love being petted, brushed, rubbed, and pretty much touched most anywhere. And that makes sense given what the rescue vet said. Basically, our guy has very low vision and may eventually lose it completely.

So what if he refuses do more than a step or two. He has been willing to get in and out of my little car now that he knows it is low to the ground.

He has bumped into things, but usually things higher than his head or branches at eye level. He already knows the main pathways in the house. He's pretty amazing on trails outside and even did great on the C&O Canal yesterday. He is fearless around tree stumps, hills, and rocky surfaces. He is curious and energetic outside.

There is always the question about how anyone could give up or let go of such a beautiful dog, one with such a sweet nature.

In the early morning, I heard Finn make sounds from his doggy bed - muffled - that sounded like yelping, like he had been stepped on. Then it seemed like he was trying to bark in his sleep, but again, was stifled.

I wondered if he was dreaming or if he was re-experiencing a trauma.

We haven't heard him bark and were told he's not a barker. I've heard him groan or have a low growl.

He won't take treats from anyone's hand and only eats them on the ground. Is this because he can't see them or because he was trained not to or this is his own little quirkiness?

Tiny little insights. So much we don't know.

I'm reminded of insight meditation and it's focus on the here and now. Observing what is. Dropping the storyline. Accepting the quirkiness of life.

The dance our family does from learning and growing and now aging with each other always offers more to practice with. Partner and I are in our 50's and watching our vision, hearing, and physical agility change. Our pace is a little slower than it once was.

If it is true that Finn is 7 or 49 in dog years, then we are about the same age. Finn's gentle nature and desire to be loved and love is a tremendous teaching in the face of the changes he has experienced.

As I am writing this, Finn is chewing out a beef bone with all of his might. My daughter and her friend dropped it off for him, knowing that he would love it.

Across from where I am sitting - on my refrigerator - I see a most vivid picture painted of a colorful sky, bright yellow sun, deep blue water and green trees. This picture was given to me by an elderly blind and deaf resident where I worked. Her work inspired me to have faith in adopting Finn.

Oh, Finn. I'm so glad you are sharing your life with our family.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Finn MacCool


I'm not sure when the dog thing kicked into gear, but it has really taken a hold.

As the dog path has been unfolding, I started with an attraction to big dogs. I even visited a litter of Great Pyrenees puppies on a farm near Lancaster with my youngest daughter. The farmer tried to talk me out of them saying they were bred for guarding animals. My daughter discouraged me saying those are working dogs and I don't have the right kind of work for them at our house. She said they'd be miserable.

I submitted applications for Pyr Rescue adoption, but I don't have a good fence. Someone said that while a 5' fence was okay, a 6' fence for Pyr's was better.

I looked into XL Dog Rescue out of Baltimore as a foster mom. But wasn't sure I was ready for the unknowns of a large dog coming out of a shelter environment from unknown circumstances.

Then these cute pictures of collies kept showing up through Petfinder.com with a link to Collie Rescue, Inc. Growing up on a farm, my first exposure to a dog was a rough collie - like Lassie. Pooch was such a good natured dog. As kids we could do anything to that dog without upsetting it. Later on our own kids played with great collie mixes who were also gentle souls.

I applied for a collie through Collie Rescue. But again, the lack of a fence was the barrier.

Then this past week, I put in for a collie named Finn, who has Progressive retinal atrophy (PRA). He's estimated to be 7 years old and described as sweet and affectionate. He'd been pulled from a shelter seemingly depressed. Foster mom says he just needed some attention.

He currently has some vision, but may eventually lose his sight completely. He doesn't like steps. The rescue folks were looking for a place with only one level... Hey wait, our home only has one floor. We bought the house with the idea of aging in place ourselves. As someone who works in geriatrics and has family members who are blind, I thought, he's our guy!

I'm not sure how much time I spent on phone interviews, but I am grateful the Collie Rescue, Inc. folks are so thorough.

The enthusiasm collie folks have is incredible and infectious. I would have rolled over and begged for a snack or pat of approval if they would have asked, and done it joyfully!

This past weekend, we had the home interview with everyone in the household there. We were told it would only take 30 minutes. The weather outside was bitterly cold with snow showers and gusty winds. Our friendly Collie volunteer Mary came and asked a few questions, which turned into a talk about life.

Why this dog? If I am really honest, I want a quiet, friendly, middle-aged dog. Someone to go on walks along the canal with me. Maybe one who will sit in on my counseling sessions, or go to eldercare facilities, or befriend with a dog's non-judgemental approach someone who needs a listening ear. I want a partner to play and work with me at home and out in the community. I want some doggy Buddha time, a teacher.

Four hours later, Mary knew who we were and we knew who she was.

I felt like we were now "in" a club I never knew existed before. The collie rescue lovers club. I already knew that if I could, that I would be at their annual collie rescue picnic. I also knew that if I needed help, she and a whole team of folks would be available to answer any questions.

Later in the day, Finn's foster mom called to say that we had been approved. Yippee!!!

With Foster Mom on the phone, I knew that while we wouldn't be bringing Finn MacCool home until next week, that I needed to meet him in person to help me and him have an easier transition. I just had to know if we had "chemistry." Partner and I changed our plans for the next day and arranged to visit Finn.

As everyone says who describes meeting Finn, what's not to love?

Whether it is because of low-vision or because it is his nature, Finn loves to love and be loved. He will crawl right up in your lap. He lays at your feet. He nudges for pats. He rolls over for belly rubs.

My heart opened so wide playing with him, I thought it would pop out. A physical feeling of his goodness was overwhelming as we played on the floor. It brought tears to my eyes.

Foster mom asked if it would be okay if she cried when he left. I said of course not. He's just that sweet.

When I got home with white dog hairs all over me, I spent some time on the couch with the family. My youngest daughter laid down on the couch looking at funny videos on the laptop and rest her head on my lap. It had been ages since she's done that. She's too ticklish for the rubs that I gave Finn, but it was sooo tempting.

So, I expect to lose the battle of keeping dog hairs cleaned up. We've already lost that one and he isn't even here, yet. I knew that bringing in another soul meant a whole lot more messiness in my life. But that is exactly what I need - a less orderly, predictable life in response to a one that has been growing ever smaller and tighter.

Yes, that is what I have been missing. The synergy of open-hearted love that creates even more love, where loves come pouring out of new cracks and creates a larger place to live from.