Magic happens when I get out of my own way and clear a path to joy.
I grew up in a Catholic household, so observing Lent meant eating fish dinners on Fridays and abstaining from something—either a bad habit or a decadent treat, like chocolate cake. But a wise woman recently offered an alternative view on this religious practice. She told me that Lent is not about deprivation at all; it’s about invitation. She encouraged me to ask myself these two questions: What do I value that I have been neglecting? And can I invite more of this neglected thing into my life?
My spirituality has shifted away from Catholicism, but I feel intrigued by this shift in perspective on Lent. After meditating on this topic, I know my answer to those questions: I value communion with Mother Nature, I appreciate my connection with wildlife, and I cherish the feathered friends who visit my bird feeder: The downy woodpeckers, cardinals, tufted titmice, Carolina chickadees, and mourning doves. Due to a recent unfortunate conflict, I became disconnected from the birds I love so much. In a vulnerable moment, I chose to journey away from my heart; luckily, I found my way back again. Here’s what happened.
About a week before Christmas, several old pine trees were chopped down near my rental unit. I received no advanced warning about this tree work and I was not home at the time of the incident. Around mid-day, a neighbor called and told me she saw a large tree branch fall on my beloved gazebo-style bird feeder and smash it to bits. I later found the unrepairable shards of the plastic seed bowl left on the ground and its former contents, shelled sunflower-seed pieces, scattered everywhere.
The feeder pole still stood erect, but now was bereft of its purpose. I stood, shocked, holding the pole with one hand. I began to grieve the loss of a possession I had kept and a practice I had maintained for several years. After I cleaned up the broken pieces, I wiped the tears away from the corners of my eyes and considered driving to the store to replace the broken feeder, “I could buy another one.” Such an action would restore the tangible thing, the object, I had lost. It would also restore my birding practice. I could wake up the next morning and look out my window, see the birds again, and it would be like no incident had ever happened. But an incident did happen… and something intangible had also been lost.
As I stood there in contemplation I felt the hurt feelings begin to simmer and move more deeply into my heart; I shifted my awareness away from stoic problem-solving and toward pathos. With every moment that passed, I embraced my victimhood just a bit more until… a realization: An injustice was done here! I could not help but think of an old ethics-teaching cartoon I’d seen as a child in which there’s an older man sitting in a comfortable chair in his living room reading the newspaper; cut to a group of kids playing baseball in the street; one kid hits the ball in the direction of a house and breaks a window, shattering glass everywhere; cut back to the older man, now befuddled by what has transpired. The story ends when the father of the kid who hit the ball stops by the older man’s house to apologize for the accident and the damage, and offers to pay for the broken window. In that moment, with the broken feeder pieces laying at my feet, I felt like that older man–I wanted the father of the bat-wielding kid to make amends, to fix what had been broken. Or, at least to offer an apology. So, I approached the management. I figured they were not liable for the damage and probably would not replace my feeder, but it was the Christmas season. I value kindness, fairness, and consideration; maybe, just maybe, they might be feeling beneficent and offer to make things right.
Well. They were not interested in replacing my feeder. Not only that, but they were largely unsympathetic to what had transpired. In fact, they said the feeder, as my personal property, was not allowed on their property—I had been in violation of policy this whole time! After living in my rental unit for over a decade, this came as perplexing and upsetting news to me. Many tenants kept bird feeders and other personal property on the grounds, so it sounded like an unenforced policy. In the end, a compromise: I could keep a bird feeder on the property, but any future damage to it would amount to my lost dollars. I returned to the scene of the accident/crime and yanked the feeder pole up out of the ground, feeling angry and disgruntled by this turn of events.
I was so much in the habit of bird watching that countless times during the subsequent week I would instinctively lean over my kitchen sink expecting to see a pair of cardinals feeding, but instead discover only an empty patch of grass. I’d feel a pang of sadness in my heart to remember, “Oh, yes. The feeder is gone.” For about a month I vacillated about replacing the feeder— I wanted it back, but I also feared, rather irrationally, that some other calamity would befall it. I was hesitant to re-invest my heart. If only I had received advanced notice about the tree work, I would have been happy to move the feeder out of harm’s way! It would have taken me five minutes. Five minutes! Just a little consideration for my beloved possession… But no.
So, I held some resentment about what I believed was an entirely-preventable accident. I received unsolicited advice from all directions. One person urged me to replace the feeder immediately and tried a variety of tactics to compel me to action, including trying to guilt my inner helper, “The birds are voracious this time of year! They need food!” Another appealed to my inner fighter and supported my cause with statements like, “Don’t let them win!” But I remained stoic and tried to forget about the feeder altogether. I worked hard to convince myself that nature walks would fulfill my birding needs, until about a week later when a relatively new neighbor reached out.
One afternoon, I was walking towards my car and this neighbor was about to drive away in hers when she called out from her open passenger window, “Hey, Theresa!” then motioned me over. I noticed she looked pained, with furrowed brows: “What happened to your bird feeder?” I approached her and shared my now well-honed story of injustice, adding a hefty dose of self-righteous indignation about property policies, and grumbling complete with dramatic gesticulations. She smiled, then told me how much she had enjoyed watching the birds at my feeder from her window, how much they had brightened her day, and how sad she had felt when my feeder suddenly disappeared. “I feel so alone without the birds,” she lamented, with a bit of surprise. “I’ve never kept a bird feeder, but the birds… they become like friends, don’t they?” I stood there for a few minutes, listening to her share memories of bird watching at my feeder. I recalled how fascinated I was when I first started birding over 15 years ago; she was just like me! I noticed myself smiling as I listened to her. “Yes, the birds do become friends,” I agreed, and shared a few fun bird-watching stories of my own, including one that featured a pileated woodpecker mother feeding a juvenile seeds from my feeder (I smile now just thinking about that special day).
My neighbor then offered to contribute to the cost of a replacement feeder or seed. Upon receiving her kind gesture, I could not help but put my hand on my heart. Oh, my heart had become hard over those few weeks… but now I felt a rush of feeling… and then an opening… all the resentment I was carrying, all my carping about unfairness, all my mental crap… just fell out and landed at my feet. What was wrong with me? Why was I holding onto this petty grudge? I thought I had given up on holding grudges years ago… I know that saying, “Holding a grudge is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die.” Why was I depriving myself of joy?
I said to this newly-inspired birder, “I feel so moved by your kind words. I’m really glad you found joy in watching the birds. I love watching them, too! And I’ve missed them. Truly, I have.” For a moment, I considered accepting her offer to contribute to the cost of the bird seed, which does add up. But then I decided, No. Keeping this bird feeder is one thing I can do to show kindness to her. “I appreciate your generous offer,” I said, “but I will replace the feeder and provide the seed—I still have most of a bag left. But if the bowl starts to get empty, or I get neglectful, and you feel inspired to contribute, feel free. Thank you for reaching out to me. You helped clear my head about this.” Obviously, I was not the only one suffering a loss of connection, of beauty, of spiritual fulfillment. A new feeder would be a gift to my neighbor, to the birds, and to me.
I decided to let go of my lingering resentment and instead invite compassion and understanding. After all, I could empathize with the management. Tree-cutting accident or not, they needed to uphold their policies and boundaries with tenants; if they paid to replace my broken personal property, then they would (in theory) need to do the same thing for the other tenants. That could become costly. And, sure, they could have given me advanced notice about the tree work, but that would assume they knew the feeder was mine. They also could have removed the feeder from its pole themselves, but maybe they didn’t think it was in harm’s way. Maybe I was out-of-line in assuming a lack of consideration.
I also could empathize with my own sadness and disappointment. I value compassionate communication and I work hard to offer it to others. I did not receive it when I needed it, in my vulnerable state, but in those situations I know there is not much I can do except offer myself empathy. There is only one person whose communication I can control: Mine. This, I know all too well. Clearly, continuing to consider myself a victim had amounted to living in a self-created state of deprivation and sadness. And who needs that? Something needed to change.
As I write this essay, I feel grateful that the Universe delivered this uncomfortable conflict to me–this reminder to shift from deprivation towards invitation, towards joy. What really mattered was the birds! Of course, I knew that in my heart; I simply was not listening. I had lost sight of was most important. As sometimes happens, I got in the way of my own joy. A few days after speaking with my neighbor in the parking lot I bought a new feeder, dug a new hole, re-aligned the old pole, then filled the bowl with sunflower seeds. Within hours the doves returned, then the cardinals, then the woodpeckers, then some sparrows… All is well between us now. We are a flock reunited, giving and receiving love, just like we always did. Plus, my neighbor is happy. And I am joyful! My personal Lenten lesson? More birds, less me.
A few weeks after I replaced the feeder, my bird-loving neighbor left a lovely banana coffee cake outside my apartment door. She rang the bell, but I was asleep–sick with a virus. When I looked outside, I found the cake along with this note. It would appear that a mutual love of birds is beginning to feather the nest of a new friendship!
Silence and Solace
You must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in yourself. – Pema Chodron
January 26, 2019
About two years ago, I attended a full-day silent retreat at my church. It was offered by two followers of the Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nhat Hanh. I knew nothing about Buddhism at that time and I had never experienced anything like a silent retreat before. I entered with a spirit of optimistic curiosity, however, and the experience did not disappoint; the day was, in a word, inspiring. The two facilitators led our small group in about 6 hours of silent practice which included periods of seated meditation, a few readings from the teachings of Thich Nhat Hanh, gentle walking and tai-chi movements, a silent lunch outdoors, and some unstructured “lazy time” for stretching, journaling, or whatever we felt we needed, also done, of course, in silence. My introvert self found heaven! I connected with my heart, my body, and my taste buds much more deeply when I was noticing and listening in silence. In addition to self-connection, I felt connected to the other group participants even though we never spoke to each other. So, when one of the leaders of my Friday meditation group proposed beginning a monthly series of “leaderless” half-day silent retreats, and invited me and a few others to attend the inaugural retreat at her home several weeks ago, I jumped at the chance to revisit the bliss of community silence.
Today I attended the second of our monthly half-day silent retreats, and after an emotionally messy week, I was ready to get my “silence on.” It’s 9:30 in the morning and I am one of five women who has gathered in the kitchen of the retreat host bearing nutritive gifts. One of us has brought a big pot of vegan African peanut soup, another one of us has contributed bread to go with the soup, and the rest of us have brought a mélange of fruit, sides, and dessert items. After reviewing some administrative matters, we gather in the host’s living room to begin our silent time. She provides a map of the day: We will sit for 30 minutes, then do a self-guided walking meditation or other movement practice for 15 minutes (either inside or outdoors), then repeat a 30-minute sit, and continue this sitting-walking alternation until lunch. During lunch, we will eat together in silence. After lunch, we will continue with our sitting-walking alternation until it is time to leave. Before we leave, we will have a few minutes to share with each other about the experience.
Two adorable dogs, one large, one tiny, also live in this house. Meeting the dogs delights me. Our host tells us that the larger dog (I’m not sure of the breed; maybe a mastiff mix?) has some troubles with anxiety around new people, so she will give the dog a large bone to chew while we meditate. No sooner does the dog receive the bone than she carries it into the living room and settles herself on the shag rug right in the middle of our circle of chairs: She has claimed us as her pack. We begin our silent sit and I lose myself in the deep, satisfying sounds of canine contentment as she gnaws slowly and intently on her bone. The way this creature shows up fully to her present moment inspires me to do the same. She concentrates on her bone, I concentrate on her chewing sounds, and we are psychically connected. My mind is empty of thoughts, at long last, which is incredibly relaxing.
When I leave the house for walking meditation, I feel chilly inside my t-shirt, which is covered by only a thin hooded sweatshirt. The sky is overcast and the temperature has dropped about 10 degrees since earlier in the week when I was walking the nature trails in a t-shirt. I consider going back inside. No, noticing the difference in temperature is a part of mindfulness and it’s not terribly cold outside, just a bit chilly. I walk slowly up the street, then pick a point to turn around and walk back to the house. I chuckle at myself as I move my hands to my pockets for warmth. Yes, yes. I’m a true Floridian now. My blood has thinned or some such thing. Here I am complaining about temperatures in the 50’s that my New England friends, facing much colder temperatures, would consider warm. I recall a phrase the British comedian, John Cleese, used on the sitcom, Fawlty Towers, to contradict what someone had referred to as “gloomy” London weather: “It’s not gloomy! It’s brisk and bracing!” Yes, it’s brisk and bracing today! I welcome it. Soon enough it will be 85 degrees again with suffocating humidity; surrender to the seasonality.
After welcoming the cold for 15 minutes, I welcome even more a return to warmth inside the house. I feel a pang of sadness to see an empty shag rug; the dog has moved on. I settle into the quiet and allow my thoughts to come. The past week of grief-work has been emotionally-intense and exhausting. The week began with intimate experiences of solitude and ended with re-connection to community. Grief can be isolating and I extend curiosity toward others who may be feeling isolated due to grief or loss. It occurs to me that I could spend this sit offering vibes of psychic compassion to all of those who may be grieving alone, as I had earlier in the week. I place one hand on my heart and begin an impromptu “metta” meditation: For all those who are grieving over the loss of loved ones, especially anyone who knew and loved my friend, Judy, I offer blessings of love, compassion, and peace. A few tears come during this process. I notice that I am no longer experiencing heaviness in my chest; my grief has shifted toward gratitude. I have turned the corner on such intensity.
When I return to the outdoors for another 15-minute walk, the chill in the air feels colder and a light drizzle falls. This weather reminds me of Massachusetts in March. Not quite winter but not quite Spring, the dreary in-between. I pull my sweatshirt’s hood up around my head for extra warmth. I wish I had a worn a long-sleeved shirt or a sweater under this hoodie. Some winter gloves would also be nice. If we’re fantasizing, let’s go all out and throw in a cup of hot chocolate with those strange, dehydrated marshmallow bits. Okay, now that I’m sufficiently cozy in my fantasy, let’s walk, time proceeds a pace. I decide to walk despite the cold and focus on the movements of my feet on the ground. At the first silent retreat I attended, I learned that Thich Nhat Hanh provides this instruction for walking meditation: “Walk as if you are kissing the earth with your feet.” I recite a mantra as I walk, “Every step is a kiss upon the earth.” On my way back to the house, I stop to pick up a sweetgum tree seed pod I see near the curb. I marvel at this fascinating thing shaped like a celestial body, a little sun frozen mid-explosion. I’d love to watch a slow-motion video of the seed pod opening and releasing the seeds. I should YouTube that.
This time when I re-enter the house for another 30-minute sit, I consider breaking silence and asking for a blanket. Instead, I decide to notice my body defrosting. I keep my sweatshirt on and notice my body temperature shifting gradually from uncomfortable to more comfortable. Wow. I appreciate so much the heat inside this house! I also notice some sensations and sounds emanating from my stomach; I did not eat much breakfast. I wanted to appreciate fully this good food we will eat for lunch. When we move to the kitchen to begin the lunch practice, my body has mostly warmed up and I am looking forward to eating a bowl of soup. Our group is quite generous, there is so much food to eat: Soup, bread, baked cauliflower nuggets, macaroni salad, marinated mushrooms, crackers with cheese, and small Dove dark chocolate pieces wrapped in red foil. My contributions are clementines and almonds. There is a line for the soup, so I pour a glass of cold tea and take it to the dining room table, which our host has dressed with lovely crocheted place mats, napkins, and silverware. Then I return to the kitchen and select a slice of baguette-style seeded bread, a clementine, and two chocolate pieces.
At the stove I fill my soup bowl nearly to the top. Oh, I am being greedy… I should take less, but I am the last one to take soup and there is plenty here. I am hungry. Plus, I must inoculate myself against the cold for my next outdoor walk. I accept this rationalization. As I walk from the kitchen to the table holding the cup of hot soup between my hands, I can’t help but notice how lovely the heat feels. This is a practice in itself. My body is mostly warm, but my hands are sometimes slow to warm up; but now they are becoming warmer by the moment. Ahhh… The African peanut soup smells delicious. I take a steaming spoonful, smell it, blow off some steam, taste it, hold the soup in my mouth, savor the flavor for a few moments, then swallow. Ohhh… The sensation of heat traveling from my mouth, down my throat, into my inner chest feels like sunshine radiating inside me. I continue to eat the soup mindfully and recall a quote by Thich Nhat Hanh about drinking tea: “Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the earth revolves–slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future.” Yes. That is how I shall eat this soup, slowly and reverently. Mmmm… Sweet potatoes. Kale. Soft. Creamy. Peanuts. Crunchy. The soup tastes delicious. I am not supposed to talk to anyone during this practice, so I send psychic waves of gratitude across the table towards the woman who took the time to make the soup for us. She is a talented cook. I feel grateful for this meal, this warmth in my body, this physical and spiritual nourishment. I am like a dog savoring her bone.
I eat the bread and finish most of my soup; I feel pleasantly full. I will take a rest from tasting and instead explore mindful smelling—a little aromatherapy. I dig a fingernail into the skin of my clementine and lift off a small piece of peel. I hold the fruit in one hand, place the exposed area up to my nose, and inhale deeply. The citrus scent is pleasant and powerful! I sit with my nose attached to the peel while others begin to stand up from the table and deliver dishes to the kitchen. I decide I have room enough in my stomach for the two dark chocolate pieces. I unwrap the foil and read the messages written inside. One says, “Always time for love.” The other says, “Inhale the future, exhale the past.” I smile, place a chocolate morsel into my mouth, and let it melt on my tongue: Mmm… A subtle sweetness. I bite down. Mmm Hmm… Chocolate goodness.
After lunch, I decide that the soup’s gift of warmth is too precious to me to lose; I will remain indoors for the walking mediation time. I do a gentle movement practice facing a picture window where I can watch some cardinals flittering about in the yard. I make slow, sweeping, circular movements with my arms. It is wonderful to be moving in this space surrounded by inspiring nature-themed paintings on the walls. A few minutes before the final bell rings to call us back to sitting, I move to the now-cleared dining table, sit down, and write in my journal:
“Always time for love.” I like this sentiment. It reminds me that grieving is caring, grieving is loving. The only way we’ll never grieve is if we never love. Am I willing to give up on loving because grieving is painful? I am behind on my work tasks, but I’m glad I made time to grieve this week. In so doing, I made time for love.
“Inhale the future, exhale the past.” I like this sentiment, too. It resonates with my desire to let go of past grief and feel optimistic about the future. But yesterday I noted how living with too much focus on the future can lead me into distress… too many unknowns. I prefer to say, “Inhale the present, exhale the present.” I don’t need to “make it happen.” I could “let it happen” and appreciate what comes. Just breathe. Let the future fall into place; it will anyway.
I would like to remember this day. I would like to remember this week. I could write about this experience of grief… Yes, I wonder what that would be like. Well, what would the theme be? Grief? Gratitude? Resilience? Yes, all of those. I could write about all of those topics. Doing so would be a gift to myself.
I flip through my journal pages to find a quote about resilience by Buddhist nun, Pema Chodron, which I love. She said, “You must face annihilation over and over again to find what is indestructible in yourself.” Annihilation is a strong word, but it’s appropriate–grief is a form of trauma which can and often does annihilate us unless we learn strategies to become more resilient, ways to adapt well to significant sources of adversity or stress. And the thing about grief is, it never stops. At any given time, we may be grieving all sorts of losses that can range greatly in severity. Over the course of a lifetime, we lose friendships, promotions, jobs, possessions, health, and loved ones. Sometimes we even lose a sense of self. We encounter all kinds of hard times, but the more we can survive, overcome, and be transformed by those adversities the more we learn to trust that we have the capacity to do so.
Chodron’s quote reminds me of another piece of wisdom I picked up when I first started keeping a gratitude journal. I don’t remember who said this, it could have been Iyanla Vanzant, but the gist of it was that instead of asking, “Why is this terrible thing happening to me?” we could shift our perspective and ask, “Why is this challenging experience happening for me? What part of my character is this experience building?” When a loved one dies or we survive a traumatic event, we might feel like “There is no way this experience is happening for me! I loved this person and now they’re gone! This sucks! There’s no way it doesn’t suck!” But the experience of loss happens for all of us, there’s not a whole lot we can do about it. The choice is how we handle the hurricane: Are we like a blade of grass that sways in the wind or like an oak tree that falls over? The artist M.C. Richards once said, “The capacity to be wounded, to be vulnerable: this is part of what equips us in our caring. The wound is a mouth…and the healer need only listen.” The grief, despair, and sadness we feel shows how much we care, how much compassion our hearts can hold. And it can be scary to begin to welcome such vulnerability. But the reframing strategy connects us with gratitude: Resilience is a skill. We can begin to see the challenges we face as opportunities to gain knowledge and appreciation about the fragility of life, learn how to move forward despite the loss, and become better equipped to extend compassion towards others who experience similar losses. All of that learning takes time and heaping doses of self-compassion. Clearly, I continue to work on these things…
At the end of our silent retreat, we regroup and share about our experiences. I share about how much I loved the comforting sounds of the dog chewing her bone; how I regret that I underdressed and felt cold while walking outside; how grateful I felt for the seemingly simple comfort of receiving warm soup when my hands and body felt cold; how delicious the soup was (and how I’d love to have the recipe); and how grateful I felt for the entire day’s experience, for the host’s hospitality. After I leave, a word comes to me: Solace. Yes, solace. At the end of an upside-down inside-out week, I heard the sounds of silence and felt the sweetness of solace in a time of sadness… Just breathe. Just keep breathing. Just keep noticing. What a gift it is to be in community with others who value mindfulness, gratitude, generosity, and compassion. What a comfort!
This post ends my five-part series on “Healing My Grief with Mindful Creativity.” Thank you for coming on this journey with me, friends. Your “likes” and kind comments most definitely help me feel less alone. I write with the intention to understand myself, but if my words touch or resonate with at least one other person along the way, all the better.
Healing in Community
There are so many sources of nourishment in the present moment. Right now. Right here. Can I activate my gratitude?
January 25, 2019
As I shared in my previous three posts in this series on using creativity for healing grief, I have spent time over the last week in deep contemplation. I have used a variety of creative strategies in solitude to explore and alleviate my sadness and grief about recent and past losses of people who were dear to me. These strategies included creating a meditative image using watercolors, meditating in nature, writing an imaginative letter to a beloved deceased, engaging in mindful videography, and making a memorial mandala with natural materials. Today I exit solitude and re-enter my Sangha meditation community in the hopes of gaining more wisdom and supportive human connection.
I spent the morning alternately working on a new art workshop poster, writing in my journal, and shedding tears left over from the previous day’s heart-opening; my grief feels like an over-ripe peach–one slight squeeze and the juices will pour out. I arrive at the meditation group about 10 minutes early, hoping to connect with the group leader one-on-one. I want to share a little bit about my emotionally-charged week and reassure her that if I begin to cry during the meditation, I am okay–just releasing grief. When I enter the chapel, there are a few regular attendees chatting with the group leader. When the moment feels right, I decide to share a bit of my story with everyone, all of whom I suspected knew my friend, who died.
“I just want to let you know that I will probably be a bit weepy today,” I explain. “Judy’s passing last Sunday has hit me pretty hard and is triggering some grief about my late mother. I’ve spent much of the week crying, especially in quiet moments.”
The group leader says, “Oh, I understand. Yes, her passing is a sad loss for our community. Thanks for telling us how you are doing. We are here for you. That’s what our Sangha is for, to be here for each other.”
I smile and breathe a sigh of relief. It is a blessing to be in a space where I can be totally authentic and share what is present in my heart, trusting that what I share will be held with compassion. “Thank you so much,” I say. “I’m glad to be here today.”
As more people arrive, I walk over to a small shelf in the corner of the room where there are candles, prayer books, and Buddhist magazines. I pick up a small box of tissues and bring it back to my seat–I know my sinuses. The group leader mentions that after our usual thirty-minutes of silent meditation, we will turn to reading and discussing The Five Mindfulness Trainings by the renown Tibetan monk, Thich Nhat Hanh. The group leader asks me if I would be willing to read aloud one of the passages when the time comes. I feel grateful for her invitation and agree. I announce that I choose the first reading, “Reverence for Life.”
Before our period of silence begins, we go around the circle and introduce ourselves. We have the option to share briefly about what brought us to the group today, or, if we have a home meditation practice, how it is going. When my turn comes, I share that I am a regular and I come because I enjoy this community. I also share that I have been experiencing grief over the last week and I am seeking some balance, a way to hold both the joy and sadness in my heart. It feels good to share my feelings authentically in the group. I value such alignment of feeling and expression; it’s part of my intention for 2019: To live in integrity.
When the bell rings to begin our silent sit, I do what I usually do. I focus on the rise and fall of my breath to the degree I am able. Eventually thoughts saunter into my awareness and wander their circuitous path; I name them, “thoughts,” but it is not long before I begin to walk alongside them and my visual centers activate with images of those whom I have lost. About ten minutes into the sit, my eyes are leaking and I am quietly wiping my nose with tissues I from the box I stashed under my chair. In recent years I have learned to be less self-conscious about crying in the presence of other people, but sometimes I still feel uncomfortable. In this silent-meditation setting, most people’s eyes are closed, like mine, which helps my tears flow freely down my cheeks without too much self-consciousness. I try to honor my emotional expression but not disturb those around me (it helps that I am talented at crying incredibly quietly, as a counselor once observed). During this sit I practice self-compassion and self-acceptance, knowing there is no “perfect” meditation and my wandering mind is today’s experience of being here now. In fact, the “thought distraction, then return to the breath” in a way defines the process of meditation for me. I am here. I am aware. Imperfection is the best I can do, and imperfection is the practice. So, it’s win-win. Let go of all expectations… Let go of self-judgments… Just let go.
When it is time to read aloud, my tears have dried. I am ready. I read a paragraph about living in accordance with principles of non-violence, something I strive for in my intra- and inter-personal relationships: “I am committed to cultivating the insight of interbeing and compassion and learning ways to protect the lives of people, animals, plants, and minerals.” The entire passage, along with The Five Mindfulness Trainings, can be found here at Thich Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village website: https://plumvillage.org/mindfulness-practice/the-5-mindfulness-trainings/
Other community members read the four other mindfulness trainings: True Happiness, True Love, Loving Speech and Deep Listening, and Nourishment and Healing. Some sentiments in the final training, about the virtues of staying in the present moment, settle in my heart. Yesterday I felt so triggered when I thought about my relationship with my late mother… have I been allowing regrets and sorrow to pull me back into the past? Or is generalized grief part of being present with my heart? Does the distinction even matter? I don’t know, but Thich Nhat Hanh is right: There are so many sources of nourishment in the present moment. Right now. Right here. This beautiful day, full of opportunities. Can I see the gifts through the fogged lenses of my grief? Can I look around the corner and invite them in? Can I activate my gratitude?
During our discussion period I listen to other people’s contributions, then share that I feel grateful for the readings and especially appreciate Thich Nhat Hanh’s statements about the virtues of living in the present, even when the present is painful. It’s such a seemingly simple concept, not at all new to me, but still difficult to practice. In general, I notice that I suffer most when I am focused too intently on either the past or the future; I have control over neither. Lately, present grief has invited my mind to wander into the past, which has contributed to deeper distress. Perhaps I have not noticed how much joy and peace can also be found, and held in balance, with pain. And that I’m curious about that, the noticing is helpful.
As I am leaving the meditation, a few of the other participants stay behind to talk with me and offer a kind word, a hand-pat, or a hug. One friend lingers for about ten minutes and listens with compassion as I reminisce about our mutual friend. He shares some memories, too. Then I enter the church office and speak with a staff member about an administrative matter. I share a bit about how I’ve been grieving lately; she offers a hug and kind words, as well. I open up my grief in community and find so many willing comforters!
As I walk toward the church parking lot, I feel lighter. I feel glad I came to the meditation today and feel grateful for everyone’s expressions of empathy. I reach my car, open the driver’s side door, sit down, start the engine, and look up. Right above where I have parked is a circle made of bricks, attached to a brick wall of the church (the sanctuary’s outer wall).
Oh, my! I never noticed that circle before! I usually do not park in this area and I was so focused on getting to the meditation group early, I didn’t notice the circle when I arrived. I smile as listen to the hum of the engine. I think about the various ways mandalas, those ubiquitous sacred circles, enter my life at different times and in different ways. How serendipitous to notice this sacred circle mounted on on this house of healing at this moment, today, when I have received healing words and actions from community members. I am part of a sacred circle now; I am one point on an infinite community circumference: A Mandala of Life. I take a few moments to contemplate this idea and notice my heart feels more deeply settled than it did at various times earlier in the week. I feel grateful not only for the human connections I am savoring, but also for the deep listening. It is not always easy for me to reach out for social support; I’m an introvert, my default process is solitude, and I was raised to be self-reliant. But even for those of us who cultivate energy from within, it is so helpful to be heard and understood with compassion. Empathy heals. Community heals. Yes. Perhaps with the help of community I am turning a corner in my grieving…
About a year after my mother died, I began a personal research project to learn about how to cope with grief. I knew next to nothing about how to cope, and as death anniversaries and holidays began to take a toll on me, I took several months to begin to educate myself. I began by attending grief support groups, which were helpful in normalizing my emotional process. I found a lot of validation there. I also conducted deeper study by reading books and articles on the topic. I remember longing for a way to control what felt like an overwhelming loss-of-control experience. For instance, when I walked into a supermarket in May, I knew there will be signs, cards, candy, and gifts all oriented towards Mother’s Day. How could I not be devastated? I knew I couldn’t completely control my grief, but I wanted some degree of control over it. I needed to learn ways to be with my losses that were nourishing and meaningful to me. That’s when I started making memorial mandalas and attending my meditation group…
When I return home from the Sangha, I crack open one of my old journals in which I took copious notes from a book called Healing Grief, Finding Peace: 101 Ways to Cope with the Death of Your Loved One by Dr. Louis E. LaGrand. I spend some time reading over my notes and nodding as I recall important points he makes. One thing I learned from Dr. LaGrand’s book is that trauma takes many forms; loss of a loved one is one of them. Further, it takes longer to heal from experiencing multiple, or “compound” losses in a short period of time. The brain can only handle and integrate so much information at any one time. This is why people often say grief is a process: We integrate and re-integrate losses of all kinds over months and years. In my case, the loss of my father and mother approximately one-and-a-half years apart, not to mention other spiritual losses I experienced concurrently, is considered a compound loss; further, that my relationship with each parent was often grounded in conflict contributes to an experience of “complicated grief.” So, it is no surprise that my friend’s recent death, just two-and-a-half years after my mother’s passing, would stir up deep, intense feelings.
Among some of the other things I learned from Dr. LaGrand’s book:
1. When experiencing grief, it’s important to create a nurturing support network. I didn’t have such a support network when my parents passed; I needed to create one. A grief support group can be helpful; so can a grief companion or a counselor—basically someone who is willing to listen and offer empathy without giving unsolicited advice or needing you to be any different from someone who is grieving. It’s best to avoid sharing grief with people who either demand that you “snap out of it” or believe dismissive statements like, “move on and cheer up, already” are supportive. LaGrand explains that “the goal of grieving is not to ‘get over it,’ but to relate to [the loss] differently.” I’m grateful to have found a meditation community within which I can invite and explore my grief journey.
2. It’s important to allow oneself the freedom to hurt: Accepting and feeling the pain is “good grief.” It’s been a learning process for me to welcome tears instead of ignoring, suppressing, or redirecting them (all strategies that were part of my childhood programming). I spoke recently with a friend over the phone about our mutual loss of my late cousin last year. He said, “I didn’t want to call you. I knew calling you would make me cry. I didn’t want to cry.” I told my friend what I tell myself, often: It’s okay to cry. It’s an embodied release of sadness. It’s a part of healing the body, mind, and spirit. For about a half-hour we reminisced and released some tears. I felt grateful for our connection.
3. There is an important distinction between the concepts of “grieving” and “mourning,” which I used to believe were synonymous. “Grieving” is a person’s internal experience of sadness or loss. Some examples can be found in my use of creativity in solitude to express and manage my feelings over the past three days. “Mourning,” by contrast, is a shared social experience which often includes ceremonial or ritual elements. When attending a funeral or memorial service, for instance, we mourn and heal in community. It seems to me that both grieving and mourning are important, if not essential, elements in healing from loss.
In closing, I’ve done a good deal of grieving this week. I paid special attention to my heart. I treated myself with compassion. Now, I feel like it is time to mourn the loss of my friend; however, a memorial service will not take place for a few weeks. Waiting that long to mourn in community and ceremony with others who knew and loved her feels challenging, but I have no control over such things. In the meantime, I can continue to reach out to others. I can also continue to use my creativity in grief rituals and in the practice of gratitude. According to Dr. LaGrand, when we feel a downward spiral coming upon us, “gratitude is the energy force that will punch a hole in your pain and bring stress relief.” True. And it is also important to remember we are allowed to take breaks from grief! We can detach entirely, go see a movie, do something fun. Tomorrow I will attend a silent half-day retreat which I believe will provide more community, plus peace, quiet, and cognitive integration time. I’m grateful for that!
When Grief Generalizes
My emotional landscape seems like a slippery slope down into Depression Valley. Is that where I am headed?
January 24, 2019
From my journal:
I am here at La Chua Trail for a few hours because maintenance staff have to work inside my apartment today. I figured I could either go to the public library or I could come here. Today my heart directed me to my favorite natural place that holds deep memories.
Yesterday’s trip to the wetlands provided much comfort and perspective. Last night I spoke with Mike at length about how I am handling my friend, Judy’s, death. I realized this proximal stressor is triggering older grief about my late mother’s passing two and a half years ago. Judy was a friend, but she was also a few decades older than me; I experienced her as a supportive, motherly influence. So, my grief appears to be generalizing and I want to understand this. I have been crying much more. It would appear the floodgates have opened… sometimes when they open wide it’s hard to close them again.
These days, in the absence of my birth mother, I tend to think of Mother Earth as my mother. I imagine natural elements assuming a protective role. There is a huge Live Oak tree that sits at the head of this trail; I always stop to gaze at her. I imagine sitting at her base, under her expansive branches, protected from wind and rain. Or, sometimes I imagine a giant female snowy owl with a larger-than-life wing span enveloping me, comforting me; I imagine falling asleep against her warm breast feathers in a nest with her chicks. I wonder why I have not replaced my birth mother with some other human imagery, such as a Mother Earth goddess. I have no answers. In a sense, I am the human replacement. I am my own mother now, of course, caring for my inner artist. But even I cannot really replace my first mother.
From here I can see the Live Oak tree where I made a nature mandala for my mother a few weeks after she died. I remember it was a special day, too, because the passion flowers were blooming and I placed one on a bed of Spanish moss. About a year later, Hurricane Irma came and flooded the entire trail apart from the boardwalk (which was also nearly covered); the trail is still under water. I wonder how my mother would react if she knew I made that mandala for her. I imagine her smiling. She’d probably say, “Oh, that’s pretty, Terry.” I imagine her soft hands holding mine. I imagine squeezing her long, thin fingers. I imagine putting my head on her shoulder like I did countless times not thinking about a time when her shoulder would be gone from my sight… and now tears stream down my cheeks.
Sometimes I wonder if her spirit might visit me in the form of the birds I love so much. Sometimes when a cardinal alights nearby and stands looking quizzically at me, I wonder if that bird might be or occupy my mother’s spirit. Could she have been one of the bald eagles I saw at the wetlands yesterday? Is she trying to reach me in a way she knows I’ll notice? Does she have a message for me? My intellect resists this kind of imagining: “How silly, how superstitious. They’re just birds!” But my heart retorts, “Oh, Intellect, you’re smart but you don’t know everything about the world. Don’t dash my hopes for mystery.”
How are you doing? I miss you. Remember when I would drive you to this park after church on Sundays? You loved it when we drove into the entrance and under the oak tree canopy with all the Spanish moss swinging from the tree branches. I loved seeing your blue eyes widen with wonder. No matter how many times we visited, you always said the same thing: “Terry! Look at all that white stuff hanging from the trees! What is that?” I replied, “It’s Spanish moss, Mom. It doesn’t grow in Massachusetts; it’s a Southern thing.” Then I’d explain how it’s an air plant and although it looks pretty it’s actually like a parasite; too much of it becomes a danger to the tree branches in summer storms—it soaks up the water, adds weight to the branches, and they can break off more easily in strong winds. My mini science lesson didn’t matter much, though. You were still enchanted. And I didn’t mind that you didn’t remember what the white stuff was called from one week to the next. I just loved seeing you smile. I never brought you out here to the boardwalk—too much walking, but I know you would have loved seeing the birds and the alligators. I can’t help but think of you when I’m here.
In recent weeks, I have experienced much goal-direction, much forward motion. But toward what end? Seriously. Eventually, no matter what I accomplish, I will die, like my mother, like Judy, like everyone else. So, what is all my time on Earth for? Enjoyment? Leaving some legacy? I guess both… But more to the point, why is this recent loss shaking my equilibrium so intensely? I want to ride the air currents like the raptors, behave skillfully, handle challenges as they come. But right now, I’m overcome with sadness and all I want to do is curl up inside an empty snail shell and listen to the limpkins call all day. Today their grating vocalizations are strangely comforting. I feel the vibrations in my heart.
I am here with Mother Nature on a calm, sunny day. But I am never here during a tempest when her winds are knocking down trees limbs and destroying animal shelters. She is beautiful, yes, but she is also mercurial; she can also do a lot of damage to her inhabitants. And this, too, reminds me of my mother. When she felt well and life was stable, she was a nice person, very sweet, loving, and thoughtful. I miss that side of her. But her tempestuous side, well. I often felt scared of her during my youth and even in later years. Our relationship experienced more conflict towards the end of her life, but she loved me like no one else. With love we take it all, though, don’t we? We accept the beauty and the beastly of each other? Her absence from my life hurts my heart in a way that’s hard to describe… Maybe the loss is like a wound that never fully heals, a scab that keeps getting ripped off and exposing tender skin.
I gaze at the gently rippling water, the swaying trees, the foraging birds, and all of this fulfills my need to connect to beauty. But none of these elements has soft arms to wrap around me, to hold me close, and provide some contact comfort… a basic human need. None of these natural elements can whisper that everything will be okay, the emotional storm will pass like it always does… Just wait it out, dear. Practice patience. As much as I invent and personify comforting voices of a tree or an owl, I know they will never materialize into real-life beings. I’m creative, not delusional. And so, I sit here and cry. That is all there is. Tears. More tears. The painful reality of loss and longing for comfort. I cry tears I have already shed for my mother. I cry new ones for my departed friend. In the absence of human arms to wrap around me and offer reassurance, my emotional landscape seems like a slippery slope down into the depths of where? Depression Valley? But I have not felt depressed for quite a long time, not since my mother died. Is that where I am headed? Back into the past?
Other trail visitors are approaching this end of the boardwalk. I just used my last tissue. I will take some calming breaths, compose myself, prepare to re-integrate with other humans. Then what? I’ve been staring out across Alachua Sink for a good half hour now, using it as a focus of meditation. I’d like to remember this scene, this calm. As I walk out, I will practice mindfulness… I will mindfully capture some video footage of the scenery. Walk. Stop. Record. Breathe. Repeat. Perhaps I can compile some nature videos into a visual meditation I can use on days when I can’t come out here. Yes, that sounds like a nourishing thing to do. And after that? Rest.
On my way out of the park, I experience three curious encounters with wildlife. First, a tiny spotted insect lands on my phone while I am taking video, and crawls onto my finger. Second, a lady bug lands on my forearm and visits for a while. Third, on the sunny sidewalk to the parking lot, I notice what first appears to be a rock but on second glance has a keeled carapace: A tiny turtle. How remarkable! It is as if Mother Nature is reaching out, touching me in her own way to say, “Don’t give up on me. I’m here for you.” The insects fly off me of their own accord, but the little reptile, so vulnerable in my hands, just looks at me intently. I’m the mother now. I move him out of harm’s way onto a warm patch of grass in the direction he seemed to be heading. I smile at this serendipitous return to a sense of community. I anticipate even more connection, human connection, tomorrow when I attend my weekly meditation group.
Maybe a greater acceptance of death can inspire me to live every day with more delightful intention. Every breath is a blessing.
January 23, 2019
I work through the morning answering emails, but by lunchtime I notice an uneasiness; I feel off-center. I have more tasks to do, but the heaviness in my chest has returned. My meditative art session yesterday opened up my grief, mollified some of my sadness… but there is still more to feel. Again, I confront the mind-heart conflict: To express or not express what is in my heart. Today I quickly decide to fulfill my needs for peace, tranquility, and beauty. There is no other way… Trust the process… It is a clear, sunny day with temperatures in the 60’s. I will visit Mother Nature, sit with her in solitude, inhale her sweet air, commune with her plants and creatures, and grieve.
In his book Writing to Awaken, Mark Matousek, defines solitude as, “rich, inspiring, and restful; replete with space and possibility…time alone is precious, a refuge where you can practice meeting yourself in the mirror of the blank page.” Yes, that is what I will do. I will run into Mother Nature’s open arms and meet my sadness on the pages of my journal. I trust will be comforted. She is my refuge.
When I enter the wetlands park, I see an osprey hovering over a pond. In a split second, the bird tilts nose-down, its white belly flashing in the sun, and hits the water head-first: Splash! The raptor emerges sans fish, then ascends back up the sky to re-strategize. Better luck next time, buddy. I approach the visitor pavilion then pass by the boardwalk loop where several photographers, some outfitted in camo gear, have set their cameras on tripods. I select a secondary walking path with no people visible. Solitude. Solitude. I walk with my journal in hand, binoculars hanging from one shoulder, and enter the present moment. I chuckle as I consider the drama inherent in watching an osprey hunting. Mother Nature’s live action shows are so much better than any movie. Instinctively, I scan the ponds on either side of me and name the native wading birds and waterfowl, my feathered friends:
Great-blue heron, anhinga, cormorant, white ibis, coot, common gallinule, wood stork, limpkin… yes, all the usual suspects… Krr-eeeow!
Krr-eeeow! Krr-eeeow! gurble gurble… those limpkins, they make such a racket… how would I describe their call to someone who has never heard it… a caterwaul? yes, that word fits… The call volume is so intense, much louder than any other bird’s here… a high-pitched cry followed by a low guttural rattle… what are they declaring so forcefully, I wonder? I’m here! I’m hungry! I’m here! I’m hungry! Maybe.
Limpkins are such beautiful birds: A cross between a heron and an ibis, sporting nut-brown feathers with triangular white flecks, and long curved beaks, perfect for dislodging apple snails from their shells. They often leave behind empty shell clusters along the pond edges… so many apple snail cemeteries…
Oh, a feather on the ground! Check it out. Brown plume, white tip… a flight feather? Probably from a limpkin… Oh, feather, what do you have to teach me? What would you say if you could speak? “A bird made me, I flew to the heavens, my aerial feats are over now, let me inspire you…” Ah! I almost dropped it… The wind is blustery today! A winter’s wind… but not uncomfortable. As soon as the sun’s heat on my neck and shoulders feels a bit much, the breeze cools me down. Homeostasis, balance. That’s what I came here for. To grieve and return to center… Okay, let’s do this. I find a spot on the trail to sit down, a raised grass mound next to a pond. I settle and begin to write these and other observations in my journal.
After about 20 minutes, I survey the area. There’s no sign of approaching runners or walkers. No alligators crept up near me while I was writing. All is safe. I lie on my back on the grass and stretch out into a starfish, palms facing up. I am like an alligator, basking in the sun, resting and digesting. I gaze at the white clouds set against the bright blue sky. Mother Nature sure can sure paint scenery with perfect contrast.
The wind is pushing clouds across the sky, but the breeze feels good on my face, like a lover’s caress. I close my eyes. Inhale. Exhale. Be here now. Enjoy this precious gift of time. As I soak in the sun’s heat, my thoughts turn to the people close to me who have died over the last four years: My father in March, 2015; my mother in August, 2016; a cherished cousin in January, 2018; and an aunt in November, 2018. And now my friend, Judy. The tears start to flow and I let them come. Then some sobs. More tears. More sobs. Then stillness. My sinuses are full to overflowing. I open my eyes, sit up, and reach into my purse for a tissue. I glance at the pond and spy a hawk-like raptor circling around the edges. Is it a hawk? No… No! It’s a Snail kite!
I feel overjoyed to see the snail kite, a rare bird sighting here (the bird is listed as endangered by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection). In recent months snail kite sightings have increased here, however, due to the invasive apple snail breeding proliferation. Also, some researchers found a snail kite nest in a nearby preserve—an auspicious sign! My trick to identifying this dark-bodied raptor: A broad, white horizontal band extends across the underside of their dark tail, so when the bird turns mid-flight the band catches the sun. I fumble for my phone to capture a photo or video; after about a minute I stop. Trying to record this moment will take me out of this moment. Just enjoy. So, I do. For several more minutes, I watch the snail kite riding the air currents, hovering then swooping gracefully to water level, skimming the surface, then ascending again. A lovely dance of flight.
Wait… What are those little birds? Swallows! Have they been here this whole time? About a dozen bat-shaped daredevils with triangular wings and cut-out tails dart, dip, circle, and glide effortlessly around the pond at speed, flashing their white undersides. Talk about avian eye candy… How I wish I had been born a bird! And how I wish I could handle the wind currents as well as they do… little aerial acrobats. The snail kite eventually lands on a tree branch on the far side of the pond, the swallows disperse, and my nature microcosm returns to stillness. I notice I feel more settled, more centered than before I arrived.
I reach in my pocket and pull out the brown feather I found earlier. The feather inspires me to create some artwork before I leave. I begin picking up rocks from the crushed gravel path and follow my intuition. I make a stone mandala in honor of those whom I have lost in recent years. As I place each rock in a circle, I give thanks for the wisdom I gained from knowing each person. I think especially of my friend, Judy, a fellow bird-lover. I dig a small hole with my index finger and place the feather in the center of the inner circle. In Sanskrit, “mandala” means “sacred circle.” A friend once elaborated on this definition: The circle becomes sacred because of what you put inside it. That idea resonates for me. Making mandalas reminds me that even when I feel broken, I am whole. There is always space to grow. Who will find this mandala after I leave? What they will think about it? Maybe it will arouse their curiosity. Maybe it will somehow help them feel more whole if they are feeling broken, like me.
On my walk back to the visitor pavilion, I contemplate the variety of plants growing around the perimeter of the ponds. I don’t know many of the plant names (I’m more of a birder than a botanist), but I notice some plants are growing new shoots while others are decomposing. Water lettuce and some wild grasses, for instance, are green and thriving, but adjacent to them patches of dried-out lotus pods lean over their tall brown stalks, dejectedly; they are like tired soccer players hanging their heads after a loss as they walk off the field. In addition to the plants, I notice the remnants of a disemboweled fish and a mess of brown feathers on the grass (probably from a limpkin). Which predator leaves only feathers? Alligators would eat the bird whole. Maybe a bobcat?
I reach the pavilion area and sit down on a warm wooden bench; it feels good to rest. I check the time on my phone. I don’t want to leave. I wish I could stay and don thick, rubber waders, slide quietly into the ponds, stand still as a heron, and watch the multitudes of wading birds up-close as they stalk and catch frogs and snakes in their pointed beaks. I am reminded of Mary Oliver’s poem, “Ghosts,” about the vagaries of mortality. In the last few lines she alludes to a dream in which she witnesses a calf’s birth, then imagines kneeling down next to the mother and baby: “in my dream I knelt down and asked them / to make room for me.” Yes, Mary. Yes. I hear your longing to connect with that beauty… I share it, friend. I wish the herons, anhingas, cormorants, and wood storks could make room for me. I imagine digging two holes, one for each foot, and planting myself here in the wetlands. I imagine shedding my skin and growing next to the tall grasses in Spring. I imagine weathering the fierce summer storms, the torrential rains, and the winter cold snaps. And by the end of Winter-Spring, I imagine keeling over like the lotus pods, ready to call it a lifetime. Maybe I become food or shelter for some fellow creature. Maybe my seeds will germinate and reproduce more of me. Or, maybe I am already dirt.
As I soak up a few last minutes of the sun’s rays, I notice two park rangers standing nearby, clad in brown uniforms, gazing upwards. What do they see? I hear the soft cheep! cheep! cheep! calls overhead before I focus my binoculars. Oh, my! High in the sky, two circling birds come into view: White heads, yellow beaks, dark bodies, wings akimbo, white tails… unmistakable. A pair of bald eagles. Oh, Mother Nature, you never, ever disappoint! God, I love this place. My heart lives here, even if I do not. I’m so grateful for this day, for the peace, the quiet, the solitude, the presence of it all.
Visiting Mother Nature in solitude reminds me that I am made of the same stuff as other living things, and we share one destiny: Every day that we live, we come one day closer to death. One day, my breath, the source of life, will stop. And one day, like all other living things, I will become part of the landscape. As I write this, I feel a pang in my heart and I wonder, is that a morbid consideration? I don’t know. It’s the truth. Maybe a greater acceptance of death can inspire me to live every day with more delightful intention, to know absolutely that every breath is a blessing.