Friday, December 27, 2013

Winter and the Rising Morning Star

What happened to 2013?

I'm not sure. I think I spent the year trying to be present to the moment. And now the end of 2013 is here.

Zen flower arrangement
18 months since Dad died; Grandma before that. 12 months since Father-in-law died. So many other deaths in 2012/2013. How does one adjust to such loss?

I got to hold a friend's newest grandson this fall. He was just a few weeks old. So much love. So much beauty. What gorgeous new life. I didn't want to hand him back. But that would be an old person's greed.

There are new grandchildren from an emerging blended family. We got to spend a week's vacation at the ocean. It was the family vacation that we had been planning but weren't ready for until this year. Fishing, swimming, playing, eating, sleeping, watching the moon and ghost crabs on the beach at night. Adjusting to the newness on a land with shifting sands.

Work is settling into a nice rhythm. I have long-term clients with whom I cherish the opportunity to nurture. I feel very fortunate.

Music continues to be an important part of my life.

Home life is interesting with assorted friends and family in and out (human and other sentient beings). Loving the flow and companionship. Grateful for a patient partner.

A few visits with cherished friends. So important for perspective from what one friend once called me -  provincial for having lived in the same area my whole life.

Going on seven years now, I continue to sit with a meditation group loosely affiliated with the Vipassana tradition (loving-kindness practices). I tell people I've ordered my life around this group. They meet on Wednesday mornings. It's the glue that holds me together throughout the rest of the week. The depth of meditation, the tender and humor-filled sharing afterwards, all point toward loving kindnesses that expand the heart and mind.

We spent the first half of the year going over Gil Fronsdal's The Issue at Hand on meditation concepts. (You can download a pdf file of this book at ) The second half of the year, we've been reading Stephen Levine's "Healing into Life and Death."

As we continue to deal with those three unavoidable pains in life of aging, illness and death, this practice becomes so real. We lost our first member the summer of 2012 - just 6 weeks after my dad died. We continue to have close calls. I only half-jokingly say that we are in graduate school for living in this group.

Each one of us is watching the grains of sand slide through the hour glass quickly.

This sense of time and timelessness was evident when I had been accepted for a Rohatsu retreat scheduled for the first week of December just a few weeks prior to the event. Rohatsu is a Japanese Zen celebration of who we think of as the Buddha, the man Siddharta, and his awakening after trying out all kinds of ways to seek enlightenment or realization.

The story goes that Siddharta was sitting for 40 days under a bodhi tree and as he saw the morning star, realized the interconnectedness of all beings and things across time and space. From there, he did what he felt called to do, help others seeking a better way of engaging in life.

There was an open slot just a few weeks prior to the retreat. Yes, I would figure out how to get there.

Somehow, in honor of my father, I found myself taking the train out to the retreat in New Mexico from the eastern seaboard. Heading west,  I listened to people's stories of suffering and could offer a listening ear, a prayer, a kindness. Also, unknown people kept asking me: why are you going to this particular center. Even when I got to the Zen center, I kept running into people asking me why I was there. It seemed to be a question that I couldn't shake.

Why was I there? I was interested in a particular zen teacher. I loved how she embodied the stories she told. Tone of voice. Pithy, concise stories. Laughter. Hand gestures. Her whole body spoke the message.

Soon after arriving, I realized that there was something at this point and time in this retreat center that was off. The teachers had been jet-setting and were exhausted, running on empty. This was also a very important celebration/retreat - almost like a homecoming for long-time students and priests. The week was filled with lots of ritual practices, including practices saved for special occasions. This was a retreat for insiders. The very first night, the lead teacher announced that they would no longer offer the retreat on a first-come basis. It would be by application only.

As a newbie, I was tested in a multitude of ways. No problem. I can clean toilets with Bon Ami and no gloves. Why did you wait until I cleaned them before telling me where the gloves were? Oh, the women's dorm's heater is broken? No problem, I brought a wool shawl, a blanket and warm socks. But why aren't we allowed to use the space heater when everyone else has heat? Two elderly women from the local community dropped in to meditate. They were rudely asked to leave. On and on. If this is zen practice, yuck.

Of course, this could just be more material to work with. Yet, at the deepest level, I could hear the story of Joshu and the request to come in for refuge at the gate, eat if one is accepted and needs nourishment (including spiritual teachings) and then wash the bowl and break it (clean out residue and break old thoughts/containers about how one believes about their spiritual tradition). And then, go out and back out into the world. For what other purpose is there except to be oneself in the web of interconnectedness?

I decided that while I could stay and experience the retreat as it unfolded, that the realization was that I was awake - or awake enough - or awake now and later would fall asleep, as is the rhythm of life. No matter where I am or what I am doing, I have a community and network of friends and teachers. Every moment is a teacher.

So I took the train back two days after arriving and washed and broke my bowl.

As a result, I got to listen to and help others with their joys and sorrows all the way back home. I gave away my sleep on the first night back to deal with an ill elderly woman sitting beside of me. The train car's heating and a/c was broken. It was either extremely hot or frigid. The next morning I gave away the blanket to an underdressed blind man going from sunny California to wintery upstate New York. Over the period of the next day, I gave away food from my backpack and two lucky pennies to a mother of five children in shock from the realization that she would be on the train for three days and that she didn't have enough money for food for the trip.

I listened to stories of sisters living together in their later years, either during or after caring for an aging parent. I heard people shut down when they heard something unfamiliar or didn't jive with their world view. I saw a drunk man removed from the train after passing out and missing his stop, only to awaken enraged. Several individuals and couples were traveling east on vacation and to visit family. I got to sleep the second night after my seat partner got off the train late at night and got to spread out across two seats until I awoke the next morning.

And an amazing thing happened, when I got home midday about 48 hours later, a friend picked me up from the train station while another fixed soup. The three of us got to share a meal together in the most ordinary and sacred way that seemed to be both in the moment and across time and space.

We carry "home" within us. No matter where I was, I felt both at once at home and a visitor. It seems to be something I am training in.

Someone from the meditation group later asked how all of this helped me connect with my father, knowing that my dad's ashes had been scattered at the train station where I departed and returned.

I responded that he was both a troubled and a generous man who reached out and connected with peoples of all kinds. He specialized in talking with outcasts, but would talk to anyone. He took the scripture literally in the section that asks of us: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” The response goes like this: “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

The journey, it turned out, revealed that I am awake enough. I was given the opportunity to connect with the goodness in my father on this trip. Coming to terms with my dad was like landing on the moon and seeing the earth. Beautiful. How sad that we have all these geo-political-interpersonal conflicts on such a beautiful globe in the universe. And yet, that also seems inherently human.

It is my wish that each of our own great awakenings be realized. That no matter how dark the night, the morning star is revealing more than we know. It is this message that the best of all winter spiritual traditions point towards.

Dad, where ever you are, thank you.

Monday, September 30, 2013

Is it curiosity or folly?

The other day I went over to Mom's farm. Pulling up between the garden and the house, I noticed that the Havahart® trap had a juvenile raccoon captured in it.

My mom has been waging war on the groundhogs. They've been burrowing under the sheds and ruining the old stone foundation to her farmhouse. So she has good reason to be concerned.

However, no one is usually around to watch the traps. My mom doesn't actually attend to the traps. My brother-in-law does. He lives over an hour away and doesn't always make a weekly trip.

A different bandit
I called Brother-in-law on my cell phone walking over towards the cage, "Did you set the trap?"

"No," he replied.

"Then who did?" I wondered aloud.

"Guess your Mom did before she left for work a few days ago", he responded.

The little raccoon was weak and shaking. He would try to do things with his paws, but the strength just wasn't there.

Bringing my attention back to Brother-in-law, I asked, "How do I spring this thing to let the little guy out?"

He tried to explain it to me, but I wasn't getting it. I simply depressed the solid piece that was sprung shut and pushed it down to let the youth out.

I have to be honest here. I was a little worried about what could happen as I handled the cage. Would he bite, scratch or turn on me once he got out?

Pushing down the trap door down, the little fellow took a few moments to turn around and gingerly moved forward towards the doorway. He took his time sniffing and figuring out what to do. He slowly moved past the hinged bottom and towards the garden. Then, he toddled through the tomatoes and up the hill into the thick weeds.

As I hung up from talking to Brother-in-law, I felt a little shaky myself. Would this little guy make it? He sure seemed weak, possibly hungry and dehydrated.

He's been on my mind since then.

I keep thinking about cautionary tales or saying like, "Curiosity killed the cat," or the story that I resonate with which is How the Elephant Got Its Trunk by Rudyard Kipling. The little elephant constantly gets into trouble for his curiosity and observations.

The trap was like a dead-end to nowhere with no way to get out. There was no nourishment or water. It might have been called Havahart®, but it in no way seemed to behave like having a heart when it traps animals and then starves them with neglect - not the intention of the manufacturer.

Perhaps I am still smarting from my own youthful ignorance in the same way as the little raccoon. But I have been playing with the word folly as I watch people blindly or mindlessly apply pat stories or answers or cliches to situations.

Then Sunday morning while at my Quaker meeting, a woman shared a message about a prisoner who cared for another much maligned prisoner under hospice care.  The nurse encouraged the care giving prisoner to help the difficult person and find the capacity to build a friendship. She described the story as inspirational and the heart of spiritual work.

At the same time she raptly sang about the healing power of love - which I am a believer in, too, I was aware of a another Quaker meeting mired in craziness for the past seven years with a man who actively promotes hate of all kinds of religions and ethnicities on his personal website. This meeting has what a friend of mine calls Kumbaya thinking - that if we just love someone enough, they will change. Meanwhile, people who can no longer tolerate the pain of this man's actions simply have left the meeting and possibly the Quaker community altogether.

"Good for them," I say. I'm finding that I like what passes for sanity these days.

This might seem like a stretch, but I was feeling as if some of my Quaker Friends are lost in a have-a-heart cage without proper food or water and a little delusional... and they can't tell the difference between what is nourishing and what is debilitating because they can still see out of the cage, or, maybe they are trapped and are stuck.

Recently someone was telling me that they learned a powerful lesson about limits: Just because you can, doesn't mean you should. Just because Quakers can take the spiritual bait, doesn't mean they should tie up years of engaging with someone not interested in love or life or compassion.

To be sure, not all Quaker meetings have such poor boundaries or spiritual arrogance. However, the crazy making aspect some meetings have has the energy or feeling tone of folly. What a waste of energy.

The trap door opens: Little raccoon finds his way out.

Will the troubled Quaker meeting and all confounded religious groups be so lucky? Don't know, except I need to turn this over to what the 12-steppers call their Higher Power.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

The distance between two hearts

Looking up at the sky
Between distant shores
I see the Source of my being
Who knew we were this large?

There is a point where one is too far from the shore of the past and not within sight of the shore of the future.

A month ago was the anniversary of Dad's death. I found myself between the firmness of solid ground. When I reflect on this, I realize that I have been seeking this place. Reading Pema Chodron's books about what we think of as permanent and reliable, may not be all it is cracked up to be. In fact, it is an illusion and causes us much suffering. There is nothing absolute except change and Love.

When jumping into deep water, try not to sink.

For several years and maybe all my life, I have been seeking a solid sense of self. The thing is, this sense of self is too small.

Partner and I were heading home the other day and he remarked that a two-year spiritual nurturers program, School of the Spirit, changed me and changed our relationship. I was surprised. That program took place ten years ago. I had no idea he felt this way.

When I asked him what was he thought changed, he thought carefully about what to say:

At first he said, "I was worried it would change you and our relationship."

Then he said, "It began to soften your edges. Eventually, you didn't fight so hard to be right all the time."

The timing of the School of the Spirit program coincided with my mid-life development shift - it was an initiation into the Jungian second-half of life phase. The lessons got harder. Yet, those friendships and gifts continue to serve me by teaching me to lean into those places with others when I would otherwise tend to go it alone.

It seems to be human nature to resist what we are afraid of. The universe has been a wonderful tool for exposing all the ways I have tried to control and protect myself - and others - from trouble. It simply doesn't work. The work of growing into a lighter self is called for. One cannot swim or take a boat across the way with extra weight dragging the body down.

What is left after letting go of unnecessary baggage is the opportunity to experience with freshness what has been missing - what I have been missing,  and to see how vast the universe is.

I see the stars and remember my birth and death and the space in between.

Dad, this is in memory of you. Your bones may have been flung at railroad stations and placed under a weeping cherry on the farm, but your spirit was always much larger.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

From dirt and cinders we come, and thus return

My family spread almost all of my father's ashes along with the remaining ashes of his father in mid-April. There was barely a plan.

I had always blamed poor planning on my dad, but now can see that we all contributed. At any rate, I felt that spreading his ashes would help provide some kind of closure, whatever that means.

After the chaos of his sudden death last June and the durecho (intense summer storm) the night after he was found dead, I have to admit that I was a little on edge the week leading up to this event.

It didn't help that we had a dramatic shift from winter weather to temps in the mid-90's just days before the family gathering. I know the weather isn't personal, but it was unnerving. This was barely April! What else could possibly go haywire?

Somehow, we managed in our messy, poorly communicated ways, to pull off something that felt like something meaningful in memory of our dad.

Ingredients included a medium-sized box of Dad's ashes, a "sippy cup" with the remaining ashes of his father, four living generations, two vehicles, the farm, two railroad stations, bubbles, a white weeping cherry tree, a dead log, and assorted readings. Of course, there was the obligatory family meal. Humor. Dry as the ashes.

In two vehicles, the generations piled in and went to the Point of Rocks train station. A dead hawk was in between the eastbound tracks. We walked closer to the iconic station and flung ashes.

Pap, his father, loved trains and kept track of time by which train whistle blew in the valley. In his youth, Dad got off at the Point of Rocks train station from Washington DC to visit his grandparents on the farm he would later live and die on. Passenger trains pricked Dad's consciousness as he saw how people were treated based on their skin color. Trains were powerful. They were his ticket to  freedom.

As my grandson shook out ashes from a coffee scoop (both men lived on stiff, black tarry coffee), he looked the part as if they were casting for the Little Lebowski. We all took turns flinging the remains of these old men across the track so bits and pieces might hitch a ride back "home" - to DC - where both men had been born.

From there, we took the back roads to Harpers Ferry, WV and spread a few more ashes. Just as we got there, the eastbound Amtrak train pulled in. All aboard.

Back to the farm, we had lunch where generations of both sides of my parents' families ate in the very same room with a view of Sugarloaf Mountain to the east and the Catoctin Mountain to the west. The day was beautiful and not too hot or cold.

After lunch, my brother-in-law had prepared the site for planting the tree.

We read original writings from Dad and one of my sisters, Wendell Berry's Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front, the Quanglewangle Quee and verses from Job.

More ashes were dumped in the hole and around the tree. Bubbles were blown. An old tree trunk cut to sit on was placed near the tree with the "Crumpity Tree" written on it - a phrase of the childhood poem from the Quanglewangle Quee that every child who grew up in the family or farmed out to stay with us heard him read.

As I watched my grandson pour out the ashes, I couldn't help but think that he didn't really have a clue as to what was going on. But then, I wasn't sure I did either.

Except, I felt like I could finally let go and that he could finally rest in peace. He wasn't sitting in a box on a shelf indefinitely. It was spring and he was outside. Maybe now his sinuses wouldn't bother him. No more ongoing angst about where the money was coming from for the next crop or bill. No more worrying about when or who or how we would get around to putting this man's soul to rest. 

So this was closure.

After a lifetime of tending fires on that farm to keep the house warm, of tilling and planting the soil, and of his own inner turmoils that kept him bound to struggle, perhaps he was finally at peace under the weeping cherry. As I saw the great grandson he called Alex the Great-Great, I could only hope that this be so for all of us.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Hungry Ghosts of the Food Kind

Today I walked into a Weight Watchers center. I hadn't even put it on my "to-do" list or personal goals. In fact, I can't imagine losing weight at all. Yet, like an alcoholic who knows that the obsession with their favorite substance is ruining their life, I blindly made my way.

I told Partner at lunch that I thought I was going to go sign-up.

In the past, I had all kinds of reasons not to do it. Money. Time. Hormones. I already know about good nutrition and self-care. Don't I teach it myself?

Walking through the door felt incredibly scary. I was in the midst of wrestling with my demons, yet had enough sanity to continue walking and forced a smile. But deep within I felt shame. Deep shame and sadness. I wanted to cry. How did I get to this point?

My confusion has to do with food and my relationship to my self and the world.

My story line goes something like this: I grew up on a farm where "if we had nothing else, we damned sure had food." Another message: food is love. Survival at the physical and emotional levels seems to be the theme, even though I am about as safe as anyone could be at this time in my life.

I gained weight beginning in early childhood. I did my first Weight Watchers as a teenager. I've been teased about my weight from my earliest days. I've never been thin, but even when I was in a healthier range, my head was always in "fat girl" mode.

When I was in my 20's, I started to see a counselor to cope with the stresses of life. After several months into counseling, this brave person brought up my obsession with food. I worked at a health food store. Tried to fix healthy meals. Nutrition wasn't the issue. So, I was encouraged to study my eating habits.

A few weeks into self-observation, I found myself at home with two small crying children and feeling incredibly overwhelmed. I grabbed a pack of rice crackers, turned the rocking chair facing the corner of the room (as if to put myself into time out) and sat eating those dry, tasteless wheels as if they could somehow help.

This incident really helped me get in touch with my stress-eating response. It wouldn't be until just a few years ago that I actually felt a deeper connection to my condition. I lost weight and had a more balanced approach to eating for a while.

As I approached my 40's and now 50's, I simply didn't need as much food to live. At some point, I gave up trying to keep my weight down. Food brought me pleasure. At the same time, I felt like I was losing control of my own life.

I found myself overeating again and didn't seem to be able to stop. I was uncomfortable. I was aware I was doing this, but kept at it and decided to observe whatever arose.

One day in particular helped me gain understanding. As I ate and grew fuller, there was a point where the distention/pressure in my mid-section crossed over some kind of line. It was like an adrenaline pick-up. I experienced it as release. I could relax now.

Almost immediately afterwards, I realized that overeating caused some kind of relaxation response, I had a realization that this tight feeling felt like self-hugging. The bands of tissue, ribs, skin, or whatever else felt like tension, literally, held the "me" that was needing self-soothing or whatever I took for love.

It was an insight that, while useful, didn't really change anything. I did practice compassion for myself and others who use food to self-sooth. But, I continued to creep up the scale.

So why go to Weight Watchers now?

In trauma work, therapists talk about what happens once a person finally feels safe enough to "thaw" from their helplessness of the trauma. Is it possible that my life is finally "safe" enough or that I have enough pieces of a foundation for moving forward? Or am I just so miserable, that I feel that I cannot tolerate this self-abuse anymore? It just isn't worth the distorted pleasure that keeps tricking my brain into more eating.

Having a financial safety net that didn't exist earlier is helping me overcome the cost of paying for support. Then there have been the horrifying moments of seeing my naked self in the mirror. Or worse yet, after my father-in-law's death, I developed a crack in my skin under my belly fat. It took a week to heal. I was mortified. I was one of those fat people.

This is such a tender place. If you see me, don't scare the "me" that is afraid by talking too loudly or slapping me on the back for encouragement. Should I fail at this, it would just add to the shame. If I am "successful", then there are a whole host of problems around identity that worry me. And besides, what is failure or success when what I really just want is to live my life?

If you feel moved to share your hungry ghosts stories, whisper them to me - we don't want to give them any reason to stir up trouble.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Sounding out joy!

Gay Hendricks talks about how people often have upper limits on happiness and joy.
For the longest time, I told myself, “I wouldn’t know about that. There are too many painful things going on in my life. What I can do is take in the simple beauty of the stars on a clear night or the quick visit of a blue jay at the feeder.”
I didn’t believe that really good things were meant for me. They are for somebody else, more deserving.

So it is with shock and in trepidation that I share with my reading audience and closest friends the miracle of some good things that have all come together at once.
I had one of my stories published in a book. Other than having my work printed in high school, or some writing for a local weekly paper back in the early  90’s, or a few letters to the editor, and of course, lots of college writing, I haven’t really had anything printed as part of a larger writing project.

This feels really good. (Read in a quiet whisper so as not to scare oneself.)
Remember that fire in the last piece I wrote about. Well, Partner works for a wholesale building supply company that recently picked up a line of countertops and cabinets. We could replace the now-scorched countertop – which we had wanted to do when we bought the house several years ago, but couldn’t afford it – with his employee discount. Somehow, we could make this happen.

That somehow was really about a little money that came our way after all these deaths last year. If feels wrong to talk about it. But the mindfulness part of me feels compelled to talk about this as an opportunity to say that I am being taught how to manage heavy emotional baggage lightly.
Material things and money, as well as, life itself have always been pretty serious and difficult work in my life. We didn’t do anything to deserve this, but there it is.

Then there is the matter of taking a huge leap and buying a concert harp. Partner and friends kept encouraging me to go ahead. If there was ever a time, now is the time to buy the harp you’ve been dreaming about.
A few weekends ago, I went to a harp conference for old people. They don’t advertise it as that. Instead, it is called “Beginning in the Middle.” But participants were all older women with a few men sprinkled in. The Virginia Harp Center hosted this event and brought lots of harps for people to try out and buy.

The first day I just looked at the harps. I was too intimidated to try out any harps with other people milling around. I knew that they were better players than I. The second day I plucked quietly at the large harps, afraid to sit down and really play for sound. It didn’t help that a Celtic harp teacher picked on me in her class about how I was holding my lever harp and how classically trained harpists had it all wrong. I just needed to get on board with the Irish way. Her attitude and my vulnerability didn’t work well that day.
My body hurt throughout the weekend. Perhaps the Celtic harper was right. A pedal harp for a 5’2” woman was all wrong. It would be too much for me to handle. I imagined that should there be a nuclear war, how would I carry my pedal harp with me? What would happen if I got sick and spent all this money on a concert harp and it just sit in the corner of the living room?

But at some point, I remembered something. It was that I loved the rich sounds of the concert harp. The tones alone had been getting me through my practice, lessons with my teacher, and these past few difficult years. My teacher kindly allowed me access to her studio to practice on her large harp as often as I wanted. I’d gotten good enough that the lever/Celtic harp with its lighter string tension was getting me into trouble technically with my teacher. I was stuck. If I wanted to move on, I needed to get my own instrument.
I also remembered several friends who reminded me how much joy the harp brought into my life. It was like they could see what I couldn’t. They mirrored back to me in clear uncompromising statements about what they had witnessed. Their message: If ever you can find the resources to get a concert harp, do it. Keep at it.

Partner was particularly helplful regarding the Celtic teacher's comments. He reminded me that even though I was just over 5', that I'd worked with lots of creatures larger than myself, as he stood almost a foot taller next to me. I'd also grown up with a draft horse, who probably weighted a ton. I could handle a concert harp. His comment made me laugh.

As I write, a simple Lyon and Healy concert grand Chicago model stands in my living room where a recliner once sat. Partner calls it the Quaker harp.
My work is picking up, but every chance I get, I try to set aside some time to play. I love it. I pretend that one day I will be good enough to play for my friends, family, and use sound as a healing tool. I might even play schmaltzy harp music in public to strangers!
All the major religions talk about non-attachment to the material world. One day we will all die. As I work with this fact, I am reminded how this can be turned around to: How do I want to live with the time I have? How can my life be tuned in and used as part of the grand universal symphony?

Talk about joy!

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Woman Scorches Kitchen Counter, Blames on Trickster

Phew. I'm back. Trying to show up to myself. This blog. My family and friends.

The Good News is that no matter what seems to happen, I guess we are here until we are not. I'm still here.

This afternoon while practicing the harp, I scorched the kitchen counter top. I've been burning Village Candles and have had good luck with those large scented candles. But this time, it went down to the very bottom of the jar and kept burning.

I smelled a plastic smell, but thought it could have been my odd sense of smell. Bleach water from cleaning out the moldy fruit bin in the refrigerator was still sitting in the sink. I thought it was that.

But then it got stronger.

I walked into the kitchen, saw the candle was now just a little liquid in the bottom of the container and blew out the flame thinking that everything was fine. Goodness it was smokey when it was out. I washed my hands and went to ever-so-slightly move the container (I know, bad idea). It cracked. Still, that wasn't the problem.

It was when the candle jar was moved that I saw the full extent of the damage. Not only had it scorched the counter top the size of a silver dollar or so, but it seriously raised the surface.

There was only one thing to do besides clean it up: I needed to call Partner.

I was working this evening when he would come home to find it. I could cover it with the coffee maker, but that seemed dishonest. Somehow a note didn't seem to be adequate. Taking the dog out, whether the dog needs to be fed, what was in the fridge for dinner, etc. Those were things I could leave on a note for Partner to read. Not this.

So, I called him at his very busy job and told him.

Given that his co-workers were dealing with the results of a recent house fire, he was pretty open and tender about this himself.

A local family lost two elementary school children to a house fire while the dad was burned trying to save them. An older child was still in the burn unit. Mom and infant were okay, but in shock themselves.

Partner initially told the story very carefully the day after the blaze. Several co-workers are EMT's and volunteer firefighters. They were in shock themselves. He was very moved, saying that his fellow fire and rescue friends were not easily given to tears.

Partner said the house was a hot fire and no one could get near it. There was nothing to be done except try to contain it and get it out by the time they got there. Then he added before breaking down, we are all parents and this loss was awful.

I'm sure I gave Partner a scare. Later the evening I'd burned the candle on the counter, we were in the room where I meditate.

He asked me, "Has that candle been burning all day?"
"What candle?" I responded.
"That one," he pointed to, "over there."

Sure enough, I'd left my meditation candle burning all day. It was now 9 p.m. Thank goodness he notice. Thank goodness I didn't burn down the house.

So please, if you burn candles, please keep an eye on them. And if you are like me and have days when you are might be foggy or forgetful, don't light the flame. Just carry the flame of compassion in your heart and let that shine.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Lost in Possibility

What was lost?
What remains?
What is possible?

A colleague offered these words after my dad's death this summer. With several more deaths since then and many more losses of hopes and plans, I keep coming back to these questions.

2012 was another hard year with more losses right up through the end of the year and into 2013.

Christmas Eve was very quiet with a surprise snow that kept folks home. This was supposed to be our big family gathering bringing together both sides of the family.  But, not this year. We'd cooked and cleaned and decorated with a new boyfriend and my mother showing up. Somehow, this was what was needed.

Christmas was a day with tender time knowing that there were several endings including my father-in-law's pending death and my grandson's last Christmas for the foreseeable future at our home, not to mention the experience of Christmas without those who had died this past year.

Father-in-law died on December 28. Family spent the last 20 or so hours with him to witness and pray him into the next realm. The funeral was on New Year's Eve at a church where the theology was not the loving God  - saved-by-grace - theology of my Lutheran father-in-law. Instead, the service got hijacked by a pulpit-pounding pastor who kept talking about a Soveign God without a shred of love in his voice.

During this time, Partner had a tooth that was dying. Partner's birthday is on Jan. 1, so no dental services were available since it coincided with a holiday. A root canal became a tooth extraction that went wrong. His root was "adhered" to his jaw bone resulting in oral surgery. These things took place over days. Somehow, his pain was my pain, too.

My grandmother's brother Sonny was hospitalized the day of my father-in-law's funeral. A friend of the family alerted me at the funeral of Sonny's decline.

His situation was complicated by an aging brain that wasn't so demented that he didn't have legal capacity. He'd been struggling for almost two years with hallucinations. So this time when he insisted a woman was in the house and pointed in the air with his bruised arms and hands to the sheriff, and kept calling the police back that day, they decided to emergency petition him against his will and took him to the hospital.

Within less than a week, Sonny would be dead at age 81. Another funeral book-ending Partner's dental trials.

A memory: Sonny bringing a rose to my grandmother weekly for many of those ten years of her post-stroke life. Often the roses came from his own rose garden. He always called her Tots or Tottie, even though he was a younger brother. They both loved flowers and a good laugh.

Sometimes, I think that I am not exactly sure what I lost, so how can I possibly know what remains, let alone what is possible. Death, illness, aging are all ordinary losses that we all will experience. So what's the problem?

Grief is sitting with me these days. It often feels overwhelming to sit down and write or play the harp. Loss is real. I can't wish it away.

My grandson helped decorate gingerbread cookies over his brief Christmas stay. We used some of the cookies to set out for Santa on Christmas Eve. My experience was a bit like the Catholic Church's idea of the sacred heart. A loving heart pierced by sadness. No more little child to share Christmas here. My daughter and he are developing new ways to adjust to their life closer to their home.

As a spiritual director, this kind of experience offers an opportunity where growth can take place - where all the cracks from the Great Fall break our hard shells apart and, as one Quaker put it, the light shines through.

I certainly can't put the pieces back together. Maybe I will find what is left and see how to re-thread the needle so that I can patch together something of an outer covering.

Perhaps, our Inner Light shines out from within?  For as long as there is breath, I sure hope I can breath in and out with compassion and lovingkindness, and a kind of beauty that encompasses what is.

Those gingerbread cookies are made with flour, sugar, Grandma's molasses, butter, and spices, fragrant spices. Smell the beauty. Taste the goodness. Revel in the colorful decorations. Feel the dough in your hands. Listen to the holiday music.

As Father-in-law took his last breaths, Handel's Allelujah chorus came on. What a year.