Reflections From The North Shore

Leo and I set out to snowshoe on the north shore of Lake Superior near the mouth of the Caribou River. It had begun to thaw a bit and we sank up to our knees in places, got off the trail and made our way to the road and then back on another trail closer to the river. In some ways a deer trail although we had to bail on that as their path headed down a cliff to the water and then across and up the other side.

Leo was hoping for window pane ice flows to the shore and his wish was granted yesterday as we listened in awe to the crashing of the ice flows into each other and to the shore. Each morning, each day, Lake Superior is a different lake on the surface as it thaws, flows in different directions, refreezes and delights us with unexpected formations.

Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Life consists in what a man(woman) is thinking of all day. ” We feel this truth as we contemplate the water each day; I lived this truth as I walked the Camino in Spain for three and a half weeks. With vast open space, contemplating the beauty before us, we open and feel united to that which we contemplate. The day is the water, the field bathed in the morning sun, the splash of color on the wisteria as I turned the last corner.

We can drive through beauty at 60 miles an hour every day and not see it nor experience that which is before us as we plan our day, reflect on how to approach our boss, review the argument of last night. We create a habit of not seeing until we are removed from our day to day habits and are faced with little else to contemplate but what is before us. That is the gift of retreat, we leave something behind, we withdraw from enemy forces, and in the act of retreat we review and re center. The enemy being that within us which we struggle against to be present. Seeing beauty is an act of will and honing that skill is an exercise of a muscle allowing us to hold a strong and steady gaze.

Allowing beauty in to the center of our being changes us in ways that allows us to be one with the constant beauty which lies below the surface. Beauty reflects the beauty of our own true nature. As Lake Superior changes throughout the day, all the while being its’ constant true self below the surface, so do we flow in and out of myriad emotions, thoughts, and movements in our day and beneath it all are each a spark of God, pure love, unity.

Saving a Life

I am at a loss in the moment about what to write but write I must. I am thinking about the man I talked to today whose wife died and he is exhausted being both mom and dad to his 9 year old. Leo tore his calf muscle and has been hobbling with a cane. I flipped my phone to the news headlines and saw a mom threw her baby against the wall. I strained my deltoid muscle, or so I think, I need to get it checked out, but I am unable to freely use my right arm without pain. I am on Mucinex for my lungs and hope to get that cleared up. My lungs seem more vulnerable since the Camino. We bought a new artificial Christmas tree and will put it up tomorrow. I made a nice turkey stew in the crockpot for tonights dinner and some banana nut bread from the overly ripe bananas on the counter. I took extra time today for meditation which makes all the difference; I feel refreshed. A day in a life while spinning on a planet in space.

We each stand in a different perspective of the world. You see and experience a range somewhat different from me. Each is personal as we are the one witnessing the objects in our life. And, each object we perceive and each experience we encounter we imbue with meaning while trying to find our place in the all of life, bearing witness to the only life we know. Each day is a hodgepodge of encounters, community and world events, and tasks that call for our attention.

We face daily that which we cannot repair. That which we cannot change. We cannot mend a little boys broken heart. We cannot bring a baby back to life. We look to the world we inhabit and offer with our kindness and intention what we are able to give to those in our family, friends, community and our connection to all life. I suggested to this tired dad who could not get away and did not know how he could keep going that maybe trying to keep life exactly the way it was when his wife was alive was demanding too much of him. A perfection that he was trying to achieve that was capable of eating him alive, keeping him from the son he loves, wearing out his body and his heart. Maybe he could give his son and himself one night a week with no cooking, no cleaning, no organizing. Just being in the presence of each other. Playing games, being guys just hanging out. Not worried about getting good nutrition but getting the best of each other in the moments together. He liked the sound of that and the thought of it seemed to touch a part of his heart that held enthusiasm, something I had not heard from him in the past months. I heard for a brief moment a sigh, a bit of a smile, “I can do that!”

I guess this is what I needed to write about. When change comes it can demand more change as we adapt to life now. In clinging to the way we have lived in the memory of the beloved we can take another life, our own. By finding a way to give himself oxygen in his new life, he can then also look to the life of his son.

Mary Oliver says it best in her poem,


One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.




Opening a Heart

In these days of celebrating Thanksgiving, we have been attuned to our gratitudes, all that has manifested in our life, continues to bless us with its presence, and for those who have left the world we honor them with our thankfulness. Thanksgiving has a lovely placement after the Fall cleansing of body, clearing out of home, and readying us for the dark days of winter.

It is mostly easy to name all that we hold dear. We hear each other around the table at Thanksgiving and think, Oh, yes, I am grateful for that too. We look at the children laughing at everything, hearts open, finding humor and inspiration for play in everything that presents itself. Naming what we are grateful for brings peace to our heart. We feel connected to each other in our heart opening.

And yet, in that day and in every other day we realize how fickle our heart is in its opening and closing. Throughout a day we see a beautiful sunrise and our heart opens in joy, our partner says something at breakfast that nicks our ego and our heart closes in resentment, our boss compliments us when we get to work and our heart opens with pride, a colleague mentions something we should have taken care of and we feel criticized and our heart closes, we hear a song on the radio and our heart opens,with joy and enthusiasm, or during our Thanksgiving dinner Uncle Otto starts to complain about the other political party or Grandpa starts in on sexual orientation and confusion and the discussion gets heated and our heart constricts, and on and on it goes, day after day.

The ancient texts teach us that our heart is meant to remain open. The heart center is an energy center that is meant to flow bountiful unlimited energy through us at all times. As we move through life, through our childhoods when between the laughter and play we are feeling wounds that get lodged in the heart, and into adulthood where the tucking away of hurt and pain that has not been addressed and released gets stored, our heart center gets encrusted with these wounds. And, our critical judging mind picks away at things helping us in the closing of the heart. It is not good or bad, it is what we all live with in this body we call home. When our heart is open we allow for the flow of boundless energy, when it is closed, our heart center constricts the flow and our heart closes in fear and discomfort.

The task is to release that which closes us and allow the heart to accept abundant energy and let it flow through us. It all sounds so simple until we notice throughout the day the complicated journey within which we live. Michael Singer in The Untethered Soul has written well of this as have others. He states that even clinging to that which brings us joy shuts off our hearts as we cling so tightly with the fear that we will loose this wonderful feeling, the new energy flow cannot enter. By freeing ourselves from the attachment to these beliefs, both our pain and our joys, and allowing them to flow through us, we can find freedom.

There are teachings in all traditions which speak to this phenomena.There are many paths offered to live in the world and maintain a peaceful heart. I find this journey with a rich variety of paths heartwarming and comforting. From the Hebrew texts and Christian Bible we read:

Matthew 6:21 For where your treasure is, there your heart will also be.

Psalm 51:10 Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

John 14:27 Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you.  I do not give to you as the world does. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.

Proverbs 4:23 Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.

We are not meant to guard ourselves to feel protected but to guard being taken over by our mind and emotions and that which causes our heart to close.

From the Buddhist tradition (Tsoknyi Rinpoche, Author of Open Heart, Open Mind) we learn that we all have three qualities: boundless wisdom,  infinite capability, and immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion. All we have to do is open our heart and remember our intrinsic nature and rid ourselves of fear and self doubt.

The Bhagavad Gita through Lord Krishna assures the sincere aspirants “To those who are constantly devoted to serving Me with love, I give the understanding by which they can come to Me. To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.” (10.10-11)

Again from the Gita we find: “The one I love who is incapable of ill will, who is friendly and compassionate, living beyond the reach of I and mine and of pleasure and pain, patient, contented, self-controlled, firm in faith, with all their heart and all their mind given to me – with such as these I am in love. Not agitating the world or by it agitated, they stand above the sway of elation, competition and fear; the one is my beloved.” (trans Eknath Easwaran)

From our Muslim brothers and sisters we read, “So have they not traveled through the earth and have hearts by which to reason and ears by which to hear? For indeed, it is not eyes that are blinded but blinded are the hearts which are within the breasts.” [Quran 22:46]

“Verily Allah does not look to your bodies nor to your faces but He looks to your hearts.”[Muslim]

‘Tis the season for us to look to our heart and to be mindful daily as to what opens and what closes our heart center, to finding a daily practice like mediation or prayer that helps us keep our heart open and to finding the days and the ways that, like the children, we might know an open heart that celebrates life with laughter and song, curiosity, and openness to learning and loving. In this way, rather than judging each others ways we bring an inquisitive mind and heart that delights in the variety of ways of searching for that which we journey toward: Nirvana, Heaven, Self, however we name that state of pure awareness that arrives either in life or after death. That which touches a heart and calls the pilgrim forward, inward, and outward with service. Guiding them to abiding peace.

Do not let anything that happens in life be important enough that you’re willing to close your heart over it.  Michael Singer, The Untethered Soul


Good/Bad/Who Knows?

Leo and I met up with our daughter and family for dinner one evening. Somewhere between the bread and salad courses, my 10, soon to be 11, year old grandson asks, “Oma, if you could go back in your life and change something, what would it be?” While I am quickly gathering my thoughts, he then asks, “And, if you could go back and visit a time, what would it be?” Time to catch a breath. Both questions begin to get jumbled so my son – in – law carefully parses out the two questions giving me more time to reflect and sort through my life. The wait person catches my eye as she walks back to the kitchen with a big, mouthed, “OH, WOW!”

Now, the easy way out would have been to say, I would have painted my house blue instead of green. The boy would have been happy. They love to play the game, would you rather…  But, never one to loose a moment of intimacy or teaching,… My first response is philosophical. “It is challenging to think of changing something when everything I have lived through has brought me to now,” I say, buying me more time. Finally, I tell Oscar, “I promise. I will get back to you. I just need more time to think.”

This morning I wrote Oscar. First, If I could go back and change something, I would learn how to be a better dog owner. We bought Yoshi, our West Highland Terrier, sometime after the death of our infant daughter, when our then 7 year old daughter was begging for a dog, The dog was meant to be a grief dog which she lived up to by being a lot of grief and, I have to say, fun and comfort for the kids for a while.  Both Leo and I are pretty ignorant of dogs not having grown up with trained house dogs. Yoshi was weaned too young the vet stated and would be a handful as she had not had her mother’s training and the other pups long enough to learn. The name she came with, Sugar Bear Tough Stuff, should have tipped us off. We renamed her Yoshi and did our best. She won out and ruled the house.

I am going to claim two with this question. The house we chose to buy on Princeton and live in was not meant for me. I did not know I was allergic to cats until we moved into our new home which had housed many furry critters. Along with the cats, we add dust, mold and mildew, the death of an infant daughter, a life of 13 homes in 27 years, years of military, Vietnam, living apart, many moves, law school, and the birth of three children. It all took its toll on our marriage and my health and change was required. All of these major events led me down a long path of ill health, in that house.

Oscar’s second question was easier, I would love to go back to a time and visit my parents. It warms my heart and makes me smile to think so. I would enjoy that visit.

And yet, that will not happen in this world. These are questions of a young searching mind. The question of “What would I change.” leads us to our stories of our internal/external conflicts. We all know them in greater or lesser degree. We live with our own inner battles of a conflicted mind, bodies with illness, disease, relationships with people or work that create the inner dialogue of dissatisfaction.

I consider the decade of the 80’s my “de-construction years”. The stripping away years. Down to the bones years. The 90’s were re-construction years and the new millennium brought relief. The 80’s and 90’s were the two decades in the Princeton home. The home that was a catalyst for so much change and turmoil was also the home that was stable enough to allow it all to happen. This home was our nest. The beautiful years of raising our children, meeting new friends, life adventures that helped to form all of us in amazing ways. And, it all happened simultaneously.

It is a good exercise to make a time line of your life. Where are the points of a traumatic event, a loss, a major change. Mark those and then what were the in-between years like. The years of change, adjustment, being stripped away. Then start to fill in the points where you met a key person in your life. Had a life changing moment that caused you to think, “That is why I am here.” “This is my purpose.” My life would never be the same if I never met…” Where do these transformational moments fall within your time line? How do they intersect with the years where life seemed to be falling apart? All of these moments mark the journey of a life.

When the snake sheds her skin or the butterfly is working to be released from a cocoon, they are not without the beauty of a new skin developing or the translucent wings that will carry them away. It is simply that when we are in the midst of it all we do not recognize the new, know it for what it is, trust that it will be the ground for this new life. Our own struggle with growth and development can make the journey much harder than it was intended to be. But the struggle also teaches us. As we learn, we might find that the next time, we allow ourselves to let go into the process rather than struggle against it. We might then trust and allow for simple flow.

When we left our home on Princeton it was with a peaceful heart. All the work that needed to be done in that home happened. A new home was needed to move forward into life and that home was found and continues to support. I am grateful for a home that could give my children stability while my inner world was shifting and I struggled to shed the skin that no longer served me or them. Would I change any of it? It is a fun exercise and I am grateful for my grandson’s questions, but, no. I am grateful for the privilege of being alive, for all that comes my way requiring my discernment, the growth of trusting intuition, learning from the choices made, all lacking perfection as it is a work of art, not a copy. I hold the whole of it, smile, and offer thanks.

When we are in the experience we want to judge the experience and give it a label of good or bad. Years later, after we have named something bad, we find it hard to look back at it as it reminds us of pain that we would sooner avoid. And, as we have named it good or bad we might miss the opportunity to see the flow of life, the connection of our story. Maybe by suspending judgement we will be able to give life the space to unfold.

There is a Chinese parable that many of you have heard but deserves repeating as it is a lesson we are faced with daily. It is about a farmer and a horse.

One day his horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.

But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

And this story can go on and on like that. Good. Bad. Who knows?



Authoring a Life

We are probably all familiar with a Health Care Directive whether we have written one or not. The lists of what I don’t want when I can’t speak for myself. Today might be a good day to create a health care directive about how I want to direct my life. What now, today, does direct my life? What motivates me? What gets me up each day to enter life’s joys and challenges. Saying what we want might be harder than saying what we don’t want but that is the challenge. To discover what we value and questioning ourselves as to whether or not we are living that value.

At the end of a patients life, I hear in our team discussion: “If Kathy can’t go to the casino anymore, she is done.”, “When he can’t walk to the bathroom and take care of his own needs, he is through.”, “When Joe’s dog dies, he has nothing to live for.”, “Mary just wants to make it long enough to hold her new grand baby.”, “If he has to give up driving…”  From the grieving widow or widower, I might hear, “I don’t want to go on without…”; “I now have no purpose to my life”, “I have absolutely no interest in living without…” Each person in this list has something that holds purpose for them, holds a value to living.

Knowing that the time for our life is coming to an end focuses our priorities. We begin to name the driving energy that pushes our will. As Atul Gawande in Being Mortal suggests, it makes a big difference to the caregivers when the loved one is able to name that which is quality of life when tough decisions need to be made.

My mother said many times during the latter part of her life that she never wanted to live in a nursing home. On the day of a massive stroke that a week later took her life, her last words to my sister and me were,”If anything should happen to me, please don’t put me in a nursing home.” That was her end point. She named what she did not want to happen to her quality of life, she named a value. In the hours following, when the tough decisions needed to be made, as her Health Care Agent, I held to her statement. In the end, after her last breath, we as a family held to the statement. In the weeks and months that followed when as grievers we start second guessing, I held on to that final directive statement with deep gratitude and knowing that this value of our mother’s included us as a family in her community of loving care.

In the naming, my mother also named her biggest fear. For years I have asked my grieving clients the same question, “What do you fear, what concerns you as you grieve your loss and learn to live without….?” Early on it might be a task but it is helpful to sit long enough with the question as over time I then hear a person begin to name a value, a quality of life that holds meaning for them.

Maybe in the midst of life, taking the time to name what drives us could also be useful and life-giving. Shantam Zohar is Co-founder and Director of the Mindfulness Based Therapy Program at Tel Aviv Bar Ilan University in Israel. When I first met Shantam about 20 years ago he was an astrologer and a student at Naropa University where our daughter was a student. He has since become a family friend. I was challenged by him at that time to understand that I could author my life. I get to write the script regarding my spiritual/religious beliefs, the roles I fulfill as wife and mother, and so on. For so many years I felt directed, sometimes like walking through a smorgasbord line. What a concept to be inventing, creating the life I was living. Not that I wasn’t already doing that as I am pretty independent minded and creative but now I could own it and be mindful and conscious of the process. I was seeing Maggie my Spiritual Director who one day said the same thing, “You are authoring your life.” I felt affirmed. Listening deep within myself to hear how I was being internally directed by Self, Spirt, God, Higher Consciousness, however we name that which is larger than our being.

When we author, we are making choices. As when I paint a painting, I choose, is it watercolor or acrylic, which colors, what am I trying to say, what moves me, am I balancing the darks and lights, is it a high key piece or low? It is worth noting that authoring does not mean I am thinking only of myself. The direction and the decision making comes within the context of the whole, the community, how each individual or even element of a painting effects each other which makes it all the more challenging as well as exciting.

Atul Gawande offers us four questions to ask at the end of life: “What are the biggest fears and concerns? What goals are most important? What trade offs are we willing to make? What trade offs are we not willing to make?” Whether I am painting a work of art, authoring my life, or facing the end of my life or the life of a loved one, I am faced with the same questions. Why wait until I am pushed by disease to answer these questions? Maybe today is a good day to know what I value and to assess if I am living that value in a way that is authentic to my life.


Life Is An Adventure

We had dinner last night with friends, Andy and Joan. Andy is 69, very active in backpacking, fishing, many adventures. Just last year he climbed to 14,000 ft. This year he had a simple fall off a stool on wheels that eventually led into deeper investigation to the diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma. Andy is a Vietnam vet serving 1967 to 1968 in country and being exposed to Agent Orange. As Andy explains it, “I know guys who have died, lost limbs, lost parts of themselves to PTSD or alcohol, and I thought I was a Vietnam survivor.” At 19 years old his own government whom he served placed him in the position to be exposed to Agent Orange. It is like having a delayed hit by friendly fire.

Andy refuses to call his experience of cancer a battle. He does not feel at war. He is calling this experience another adventure in his life of many adventures. In Andy’s words, “Life is an adventure, and death is so much a part of that.” Andy is the kind of guy who goes all in wanting to know everything about his disease, the process, and his choices. Andy is authoring his life.

Last year he and Joan traveled to Vietnam as he wanted a different memory of this country. He was not disappointed. The warmth and hospitality they received and the beauty they experienced was healing. He and Joan met a man from what was then North Vietnam and who was a soldier on the Ho Chi Minh Trail at the same time Andy was in country; they shared a drink and a toast together.

It was a privilege for Leo and I to sit with Andy and Joan for three and a half hours talking about his current journey into the medical realm, decisions that have been made and will be frequently made, the uncertainties of the future, concerns about talking to their adult children and grandchildren, looking at a probable move to a smaller home, pain issues, medications, and the challenges of doing normal everyday tasks, not being able to drive, the desire to keep living, and the meaning of quality of life for Andy. A very rich discussion not without humor and shared laughter. And, it was all very poignant being Veterans Day weekend and Andy now knowing he has not escaped the “negative effects of being in that war.”

I have always felt conflicted about Veteran’s Day. My father enlisted and served in WWII and kept in touch with his close Army buddies until he died. He was buried with colors  and a full military guard and it was very moving. He was proud of that part of his life as was his country proud of him. My father in law was also in the Army in WWII and was one of the first Americans to enter Dachau after the war ended. That experience was what he came home with and sought emotional support for to help him make it through. He rarely spoke of the war.

I came of age during the 60’s in a conflicted country and a war that tore a country apart. I had friends who marched against the war as did I and I dated and married a man who escaped the draft and being sent to the front lines by learning to be a pilot in the Marine Corps which took most of the rest of the Vietnam years except his term doing mine sweeping in Haiphong Harbor and occasional mail runs in country. I lived the life of a military wife which left us on the outside of some of my college friendships. Most of the young men in the Vietnam war were drafted and fighting not by choice but the “luck” of the draw. Andy told us he felt proud to help his country but when he returned and watched four more years happen in Vietnam he also began to doubt and question what we were doing there.  Andy states, “in excess of 11 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed during the war, from 1961 to 1972, to eliminate and deny forest and jungle cover to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, and to destroy crops which might be used to feed them. Well in excess of 2 million U.S. Military Personnel served in Vietnam during that period.” The Vietnamese people have lived through and continue to live through generations of severe birth defects in their children.

These are Andy’s words on Veterans Day:

“This year, however, Veterans Day has taken on new and different meaning for me. Now, it is me who is working through those after-effects as I undergo chemotherapy and other treatments for multiple myeloma. One persistent thought is that previously I believed that I had escaped the negative effects of being in that war. Now I know that I have not.

At the same time, it has given me a new appreciation for those friends and relatives who have been dealing with these things for years. I envy the strength they have shown in addressing whatever effects they have experienced.

Yesterday, someone asked me what the appropriate greeting was to use in responding to veterans on Veterans Day; he thought that “Happy” Veterans Day simply didn’t sound right.

We veterans will sometimes hear people thank us for our service. I always appreciate that acknowledgement but find that I don’t know how to respond to it.

More recently, I read a suggestion from someone that we should thank veterans for their “sacrifice.” I’m still thinking about that one.”

How we experience war and its aftermath is unique to each of us as to our perspective, our past experiences, our spiritual and religious beliefs. May we honor and hold sacred each others opinions and experiences even if they feel foreign to us. And, may we find a way, as people living on shared limited real estate on this evolving planet, to be people of peace, abiding peace.

I am giving Andy the last word:  “A person I know, in remarking about adventures, says that it isn’t an adventure until “shit” happens. Well, apparently the “shit” has happened, so I’m off on my …. LATEST ADVENTURE! “

Amen and so it is..

All That We Carry/Part 2

Phase two of clearing. Phase one was putting everything in my art closet and trying to get the door closed. Phase two, today, was cleaning everything and bagging it and making any last minute changes as to keeping or giving away. I do take seriously all the stuff we leave behind when we leave this world, which I don’t plan on doing any time soon, but…it feels good to stay on top of the stuff.

The hardest is books. I enjoy books, reading and having them around but I do have many that I will not read again and then I bring more into the house. Of course, not everyone I live with agrees with my decisions. Sometimes I have gotten rid of something I later needed and had to buy it again. And, maybe the books aren’t the hardest. The hardest I think is my art closet which holds more than art. It holds all the paper memorabilia from kids and grandkids, photos that have not been catalogued, stuff from my former businesses, wrapping paper that needs to be sorted with all sorts of ribbons. It is amazing how much one can get into a closet. But I try to keep it in order and am waiting for a time when I have a week to really focus. It will take focus and willpower, because it will.

I like fall cleaning. In the spring, I want to get outside and not think about the inside of the house. Also, in the fall it is a natural time to empty before we enter the long winter ahead both physically with maybe a cleanse and emotionally with a good hard look. Let’s throw in mental as well. November is a time in many spiritual traditions when we attend to our losses for the year or maybe a lifetime. What still needs to be said, done, mourned, named?

The physical level of clearing can be pretty straight forward with dieting, cleanses, eating healthier. Spring and fall are the most important times to pay attention to clearing on this level. The emotional level is more of a challenge. Being willing to be honest with how we are feeling, not on the surface, but deep down. What adds to our emotional weight? What needs to be named, talked about, cried over? These are some of the probing questions. Sometimes we can do this clearing on our own and at other times we need to have a person at our side who can guide the process. And then we get to the mental level. Some of these thoughts just have to go. It can get awfully crowded in there with voices criticizing ourselves or others, wishing us well or telling us we can’t do this or that, worries or regrets that are so old we can’t even remember when. And some of this crowd may have a face from the past that is long over due to let go of.

It can be a tall order but again willpower and focus are needed, and time. As with the house, when we look at the whole it is overwhelming to think of sorting through and making decisions but as with the house, the freedom that results from clearing out unused and out of date stuff on all levels can be exhilarating. It can feel like we are full of unwanted guests who arrived and never left. Sometimes, just being straight forward and showing them the door is all that is needed. Other times, we need to have a good sit down discussion and come to a point of understanding, forgiving, with movement toward peace. In this way we make more room for our spirit, our heart of love and compassion, our kindness to self and others, and our creativity. We can then begin to stay on top of it so it is not a lifetime to look through and deal with as we move through our day to day living. We can begin to notice earlier when the closet is getting a bit full.

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. Carl Jung

Stuff that is headed for the door.

The space that is open and waits.


Walking In The Stream

We live in bodies that are constantly changing. We make new cells at the rate of millions every second. The mind as well “is a field of forces in constant flux.” One of my favorite authors, Eknath Easwaran, teacher of Indian spiritual classics and meditation, says, “There is no such person as Jim. There is only an ever-changing combination of physical and mental energies which for the sake of convenience we call Jim.”  I really like that statement. There is a lot of freedom in this definition of self allowing us to feel fluid in this solid mass while living in a creative milieux that is constantly birthing and dying off. What an amazing design feature. There are no illusions in this statement that causes one to believe they are the same person throughout life, that one can never change, that this is who I am. We are, by the mere fact of being in a body, constant change with moment to moment opportunity for growth.

That awareness brings me to yoga. I returned today to a practice of a 1/2 hour of yoga once or twice a week. I drifted away last year as I prepared for the Camino. No, it does not make sense but I fought with my mind so many times to take the time to enter my yoga practice that I gave in to giving the time over to walking and upper body weight training, preparing for a big walk. Yes, counter intuitive as yoga does all of the above, but here I am trying to get this dear body to do what it used to do with more flexibility. I am now in a different body. Not better or worse, different, tighter in the knee joints. We will get there, my body and mind, we just need some time with a bit of patience and humor.

The point of doing yoga is to calm the mind and bring awareness to each movement of the body and in the traditional sense prepares one for sitting meditation. By day 3 of  walking on the Camino, mostly in alone space allowing for deeper awareness, I found walking offered the same body/mind awareness as yoga and meditation and brought me to the moment of entering a flow or stream as I call the experience. I have experienced this in the past when working on a longer writing project, so deeply present in the moment that all sense of time is lost.  Occasionally with art, but that activity is usually done, at this time in my life, with too many time constraints. I have not been able to give myself over as easily yet which entails allowing the thinking rational mind to rest. Moving into the stream is a wonder. When it happens, a gift. It is like finding a door that was always there but could not be found. When it is found and experienced we want more. “Oh, this is what it is to be alive,” we exclaim.

It is difficult to put words to this experience but time is not what we know it to be, the relationship to the physical world shifts, peace, calm, oneness, creativity, intuition, open heart, are some words that might express.  Where is that door? We can’t rationally search it out but we can find it by allowing the mind to quiet and open. The mind, ” a field of forces in constant flux”, quiets. We all, by nature of being spirits in a body, have the same access, we just need to find the form that brings us to quiet open space allowing us to walk into the stream.

A stream and pathway in Padrouzo, Spain along the Camino


A True Sister Relationship

Yesterday was a day for my sister, Mary Beth. Acting as her guardian, I attended her annual review. I have another biological sister, Diane, who I travel with, shop with, laugh with, and reminisce, and support each other in many ways. I have soul sisters who enjoy what I enjoy, see and experience life similar to me, sharing each others life journey as chosen family. These sister/female relationships are important to me, helping me to see and understand myself, challenging me to grow, offering the welcome place that needs no reintroduction when there has been absence.

My relationship with Mary Beth is different in that she does not have verbal language or adequate sign language to engage in conversation. In her 55 years of life she has remained at mental age 3 – 4 years old. She was born with an extra chromosome which gave her the label and diagnoses, Down Syndrome. In small town North Dakota in 1962, there were no support services for her or our mother and our family. Mary missed out on the early stimulation that is now begun immediately after birth. Our mother, father and us 4 children missed out on education, emotional and psychological support, peers and mentors who understood the challenges ahead. The family felt and experienced the many emotions and changes this birth brought without the guidance, supportive services and compassion that was needed and our parents navigated the waters alone through some thoughtless hurtful comments made by people who did not know what else to offer.

Throughout all of this, Mary has made herself known through her wants and needs and her personality shines. Sweet is a common word used to describe Mary. A sweetness of being that is at her essence. She is very independent minded, focused, determined, creative, and unique in her style. For years Mary loved to buy jewelry and would daily wear almost every piece.  Mary loves to work and stay busy. She will be the one at her day program who with a sensibility of hospitality, or control, will take everyone’s coats and hang them up, take everyone’s lunches and put them where they belong. Mary loves to exercise, especially dance. She loves going out, shopping, eating, and riding in the car. Mary is an artist at heart. She seeks out art materials, has had caregivers who help direct her with painting and creating. Drawing and coloring are soothing to her and hold a special time for her each day. When she was small she used to sit on the floor in the bathroom while I was dressing, doing hair and make up. Mary is a “girly girl” loving to have her hair, nails, facial, any primping will do. Mary has had a long time boyfriend named Bob. He is very attentive to her. At socials he will come get her to dance, until Mary wanders away distracted by balloons or pop, then Bob will find her a bit later for more dancing. Every year they attend prom together.

Mary has a new challenge that has been growing over the years and is the added layer of Alzheimers. Sometimes in the day, her sweetness is hard to find. She is not sleeping well. She now is eating all pureed food as she cannot tolerate texture. When frustrated she will lash out physically or drop to the ground. An hour later, she will be back to Mary as we know her. She has forgotten to wear her jewelry. She lives in a group home and I am eternally grateful for the love, care, understanding and determination of her caregivers to keep her quality of life to what she knows it to be and work with her to soothe and comfort.

This is a hard piece to write as there are so many feelings surrounding this relationship. I can easily name some of them, grief, guilt, joy, love, compassion, ambivalence, affection, admiration, irritation and at times I have felt disgust at some of the behaviors. And, did I say guilt? It is a relationship where enough never seems enough. There is always more to be met. These feelings rise and fall. There is no justification of the feelings, no rhyme or reason, they are just present when they are present. My own acceptance of the feelings makes all the difference. I don’t own any one feeling in this relationship. They are all present and all matter and do not define me or Mary or the relationship. They simply rise and fall.

When I feel guilt especially, I do a reality check and breathe it through. I can no longer enjoy bringing Mary Beth home for over nights as it is too far out of her daily routine. It is too challenging for her and for me. I miss the Mary who was not driven by her compulsions, who was not affected by all the medications. And yet, I know that the change we live through is the nature of life. Everything is change. We change and strive for adaptation. Our bodies and minds age and we seek ways of comfort and normalcy. I do not long for the sweet days when my children were little; I delight in their growth into their mature life. I realize I can let go of the longing for the Mary of the past and celebrate the life she is striving to live. I continue to see the sweetness, continue to hold with compassion this sister relationship that has been part of my life since I was 12 and which continues to grow in its own complexity as every sister and sister/friend relationship does.

Mary offers me the same mirror of relationship as does my sister, Diane, and my adopted sisters as well. We are all here to help each other in our journey of life navigating the waters as spirits in a human body. That is what I offer to Mary Beth and that is what Mary Beth offers to me in return, as we each challenge each other to show up in what ever way we are able, to a true sister relationship.


The Face of Resilience

The senior apartments I visited yesterday morning were full of little goblins ages 2, 3, 4, wandering from one elder to the next who sat in the entry and had bowls of candy pieces they would drop into each bucket. Then up the children went to the apartments and walked the halls popping in as cats, princesses, spiderman, to bring laughter, hoots, and smiles. I arrived early and was able to sit and take it all in. When the time was right, I went up the elevator and found the woman I was visiting, having recently lost her husband of 60 years, in her apartment looking deeply sad, feeling lost in her loss.

As we talked and she shared with me the story of her life with her husband a smile arose on her lips as she was there in her memory of him when they were young. Her face lit with contented love and then she returned to the feeling of sadness and weariness. So many emotions riding the waves of grief that it can be exhausting yet that is the sign of hope and resilience, we are not sunk in one emotion. We are complex beings and as the building was full of laughter and fun while behind a closed door a woman sat in sadness we also have access to an array of emotion at any time throughout our day.

Sadness, loss, feeling out of step, are feelings that will need to be navigated as she makes this journey and yet there will be a child, an animal, a memory that will call for attention, surprise her in a moment and her heart will respond, a smile may form, a memory of her love will show, a feeling of herself being a child again might delight. These moments are what bring us further and further to the surface so we might catch a breath before we again descend. Each day, month, year, we stay on the surface a bit longer as we attend to each feeling as it arises.

Our natural instinct is to flee from the pain. That is how we are wired. When the pain is so great, we might seek to numb ourselves, deny the pain, anything to avoid. If we can act contrary to our instinct and allow the feelings to move through us, allow the memories to arise, allow for help in the process when it is too great to be left alone, we find that out of the muck, the mud, the rocky soil of our soul the flower of our life rises. There is no time line on how this all moves. It is unique to each individual, to each loss, to each story. The loss is part of our life journey. No more no less. It is what we look back to at the end of our days as we start to name what is of value, what we have accomplished, what we have brought to the world, what we grieve and what we celebrate.

Some choose to make the journey, others do not. Some talk it through others create or write or build. There is no way. There is no judgment. There is no promise. There is only hope for the journey and the renewal of life as we heal. As we daily attend to all the losses that come our way and increase our emotional vocabulary and intelligence we build resilience for the tougher times, the losses that seek for transformation of a soul. Those losses that turn life on its head.

A flower on the Camino rising in the drought and rocky soil