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.
Trusting the Process
When it comes to grief, there is no “fixing” separate from feeling.
Preface: In my previous blog post, “Married to Amazement,” I wrote about my emotional roller coaster of a week in the hopes that it would bring clarity and help alleviate some sadness about my friend’s recent death. Since then, it occurred to me that my thinking process had entered what I’ll call the “cerebral realm” towards the end of that post. After noting that I felt sad, I posed some thought questions to myself, shifted my perspective to focus on new beginnings, offered myself reassurance, and gave myself other-oriented appreciation tasks to offset my grief (which I will undertake with sincerity).
These cognitive strategies can be helpful, but they are also are a way in which I can unconsciously detach from emotionally-charged events. Sometimes I rush to “fix” situations for myself without fully feeling the underlying emotions they have generated. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of response. In my case, though, staying in the cerebral realm is a remnant from my upbringing and I long to connect more fully with my underlying emotions. I strive to notice when I am detaching, consciously or unconsciously. So, as much as I wish I could say writing that post “fixed” my feelings, it did not. The next day, the sadness lingered and seeped into the remainder of my week. This is not surprising–my friend just died; it’s going to take time to process and integrate this change into my life in a lasting way. The lingering sadness, however, is a reminder that when it comes to grief, there is usually no “fixing” separate from feeling. At least not for me.
As you will learn here, I found it virtually impossible at times to hold the sadness in my heart and also be productive (I’ll define “productive” as engaging in goal-directed behavior). In this five-part post series, I describe how I used meditation and the creative process for self-healing during the week after my friend died. I also share some insights about grief and self-compassion I gained in the process.
January 22, 2019
Today my monkey mind is telling me all the things I should do (“I should put finishing touches on the creative writing lesson I’m giving tonight”; “I should publicize my next workshop”; “I should finish the blog post I was writing before my friend died”). And all that is true; completing those tasks would help me in a macro-sense to earn an income from my creative work, and that is necessary. But I know that whenever I use the word “should” towards myself it tends to invite feelings of fear and anxiety; I start to feel like I am boxed in and I have no options. The truth is, however, I do have options. I know I could ignore the “shoulds” for a while and listen to what my heart is telling me. I could invite a mindful presence, I could be here now, I could place self-compassion first.
I take a few deep breaths and invite the self-compassion option into my consciousness for a few minutes. As I breathe, I notice a sensation of heaviness in the middle of my chest. It feels like a boulder is weighing me down, and I know this sensation will remain for as long as I try to ignore my feelings. And if I try to compartmentalize my feelings into boxes labeled “later,” and go about my day, the distress will likely shape-shift and emerge in other ways, perhaps towards other people. What to do?
At times like this, when I don’t really know what to do with myself, when my mind is telling me to do one thing but my heart is pleading with me to do another, I try to create space for whatever my confused heart is trying to tell me. And today my heart is telling me that I need to center myself and be present to what’s there, even if what’s there is painful. If I dive into the pain, if I use the creative process to both express and contain it, maybe the heavy weight will lift a bit. From past experiences, I know that the only way out of emotional turmoil is through (compartmentalizing is a short-term solution at best). I also know that the tasks on my to-do list will still be there afterwards if I take a short break. I can set aside temporarily the planning and writing that was in progress. I can engage with and express what’s here, what’s present, what’s “now.” I can open myself to surrender instead of arming myself for battle. My inner perfectionist who tells me there is one “right” way to spend my day is not always right.
So, sometimes I just have to give myself permission to do whatever is necessary to give my heart the relief it needs and make space to breathe. What tends to help me is usually one of two things, and more often, both: 1) Meditating or doing some movement or sound-making practice followed by expressing myself creatively using traditional art supplies, or 2) Showing up at Mother Nature’s doorstep, meditating in her presence, and making images using some of her tangible gifts. Writing, of course, is involved in the process, too. But the writing that comes is not like the writing you are reading now. When I am in the thick of emotional pain, writing prose often feels like pulling myself out of quicksand with both palms greased. Not always, but often.
On this day, I decide to give myself the gift of one hour’s informal art-making time. By “informal” I mean I’m going to engage in an improvisation, of sorts. I have created enough formal mindful creativity experiences now for myself and others that I can often simply relax into my process without creating a strong structure around it as I would if I were preparing a self-directed project or small group experience. First, I set an intention for this practice: I am curious about the weight I feel in my chest and I would like to “move” it (preferably off my chest). I feel physically tired, however, and one of my arthritic knees feels weak… a full-body movement practice is not going to happen. Instead, I set up my table with my journal, a couple of brushes, a coffee cup filled with water, and a tray of watercolor paints. I select watercolors because they are a fluid medium that can express movement with little to no effort on my part.
After I set up my supplies, I light a candle and set the timer on my phone for 60 minutes. I relax into a chair, place my feet flat on the floor, place my hands on the paper, and tune in to the rise and fall of my breath. Soon enough, as my mind quiets, my thoughts turn to my friend’s passing and the tears come. Good, let them come. This is the release of pain. This expression is cleansing.The color blue enters my consciousness. I turn to the watercolors, wet my brush, and load it with blue. Wait, I do want some structure here, some containment. I have to go back to work after this. I reach into a drawer, retrieve a white oil pastel crayon, and draw a spiral that turns into a circle. I don’t plan this, it’s just what comes and I go with it. Circles are safe spaces for me. I know the waxy spiral will resist the paint and I can follow the line with my paintbrush. I apply the blue paint, then purple, then yellow… I blend some colors…
About forty-five minutes later, I see before me a circular rainbow of sorts; an expression of my intuition. I am reminded of a Native American proverb that has brought me comfort in the past: “The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears.” Then I engage with the artwork more directly. I dialogue with the oil-pastel spiral I drew, still somewhat visible on the page. It may sound unusual, but I use an imaginative process I’ve learned from my mentors to generate some writing: I name the spiral, then ask it how it is feeling, what it needs, and what it needs from me.* From this writing, a short poetic letter arrives:
“Dear Sadness, You are a part of the journey, my journey of acceptance. People are born, they live, they love, they die. So shall I. So shall I. No satisfying why. And through it all, it’s okay to cry—a puddle, a stream, a river, a waterfall… All of them clean.”
My timer rings, but I need a bit more time to close my process; I reset the timer for 15 more minutes. I take the artwork outdoors and prop it up against an oak tree. I sit with my image and my letter for a bit, gaze into the colorful circle, focus on the center. As do this, I notice that I no longer feel the heaviness in my chest that I had felt when I first sat down at my art table. I release a long exhale. Somehow, through the creative process, the boulder has shifted, the hard energy has dissipated, and my sadness has lifted enough to go back inside and return to goal-directed work.
In closing, I can’t help but think of a phrase I learned from my expressive arts mentors, often attributed to Shaun McNiff, a leader in the field: “Trust the process.” Yes, when I don’t know which way to turn, when I feel confused or overwhelmed, I can trust the creative process of noticing, feeling, and expressing. That is my intention going forward as I focus on self-healing and integrating this new grief experience into my life.
*Note: This practice is based on the work of Shaun McNiff, the author of Trust the Process: An Artist’s Guide to Letting Go.
Birth, death, breath. We need not look far for sources of amazement.
During the week of January 14, my heart completed four back flips then stuck the landing in a world of confusion: Joy! Sadness. Joy! Sadness. Talk about a weird experience of emotional extremes… Upside-down and inside-out… and boy, did I feel it.
When my partner’s mother called me to say she had just become a great-grandmother, I felt ecstatic! I hung up the phone and tried to resume my previous activities, but I simply could not contain the joy in my heart. I called her back a few minutes later: “I can’t sit with this news by myself! I need to give you a hug!” She replied, “Come on over!” For a good hour we sat in her living room and gushed over photos of the red-faced, blanket-wrapped, tiny-hat-wearing newborn. We even made a sign with printer paper and markers welcoming the baby into the family, then took selfies with the sign and sent the photos to the baby’s parents, who live out of state. It was so fun! A new person entered the world. How wonderful! How exciting! How miraculous! It was such an amazing day.
Later in the week, I learned that one of my favorite poets, Mary Oliver, died at the age of 83. When I heard this news, I felt sad, but the grief was tempered with understanding and acceptance; she had lived a long, inspired life and she left us an incredible legacy: Her esteemed body of work. She received the National Book Award and a Pulitzer Prize; she was no literary slouch. I’d only discovered her work a few years ago, but she quickly became one of my muses and her “praise poems,” sources of comfort. In an interview she gave last year to the “On Being” podcast, she said, “I acknowledge my feelings and gratitude for life by praising the world and whoever made living things.” Her way of communing with nature and translating her nuanced observations into accessible language connected strongly with me and many others in my spiritual community. People in my social circles shared poems like “Wild Geese” and “The Summer Day” so frequently that I began to think of Mary Oliver like a member of my extended family. Indeed, like many others, I ask myself the poignant question that ends her poem, “The Summer Day”: What do I plan to do with my one wild and precious life?
When I offered my first creative-arts workshop of this new year, I left the experience feeling joyful and grateful for what I hope will become a future of community-building through the arts. Over two hours, I witnessed the participants as they connected mindfully to their creativity and then shared with each other about their image-making experience in a such a beautiful, authentic way. While they were creating, I took about ten minutes to make a quick artwork: A mandala that elaborates on my new year’s intention about living with integrity (as I wrote about in my previous blog post), noting that it is “Sacred Ground.” The participants left our time together with their own colorful artworks, personal intentions for the new year, and some plans to activate those intentions. I expressed appreciation to the participants for joining me, and they reciprocated that sentiment.
So much contentment; then, wham! The very next day I learned that my friend, Judy, died, having lost a battle with an illness. She was a strong supporter of my creative arts workshops, so what hit me first was the realization that I would not be able to tell her about how well “Create Your Vision 2019” went the day before. Then I realized I would not see her at spiritual services again; in fact, I would never see her anywhere again except in my memory. In a room full of people who had just heard the sad news of her passing, I wept. Later, I found a photo of us that was taken two years ago, after she had attended one of my workshops. I remember how it warmed my heart to hear her tell me how much she enjoyed the workshop, how excited she was to have found a piece of birch tree bark in the supply kit (it held strong meaning for her), and how glad she felt that I was offering these arts experiences to enrich our community. She told me I was doing a great job, and I felt very grateful for her kind words.
In the months since she received her diagnosis, I had not seen Judy in person. I knew she was receiving challenging medical treatments. I had, however, sent cards to wish her well which included messages of hope and appreciation for her past support. I considered reaching out to her in a more direct way, to offer to bring some art supplies to her home, to spend some time creating with her. But for one reason or another I didn’t make that call. One reason was that I thought she and her family might want privacy, as I had wanted when my own late parents had experienced serious illnesses in recent years. Another reason probably has to do with my discomfort around illness, having been a full-time caregiver for my father in the three years before he died. Long goodbyes are hard for me, but I now regret not reaching out to discover if Judy might have wanted my company. I hope that attending her upcoming memorial service will bring me into contact with others who knew and loved her and provide some sense of closure; it’s difficult to sit with these feelings of loss.
As I take the entirety of the week’s events into account, I cannot ignore the facts: One of my friends died and my community lost a beloved sister, but just a few days earlier a baby was born. And I’m sure many more babies have been born since then. I wonder, do births temper the loss we feel from deaths? For every death there is a birth of some kind, whether it is, in this case, the birth of a human being, or the birth of an idea, or a new connection between people, or a new artwork, or simply a new breath. As I consider that, I take one breath, then another. Through some miracle the creation of breath happens inside my body without me doing anything special. Breath joins us at our beginning and leaves us at our ending. Breath joins us as one people no matter where we live or what religion we are or whom we love. I’m reminded of the phrase Mary Oliver used in her poem, “When Death Comes,” that I have borrowed, in homage, as the title for this essay: “When it’s over, I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” Birth, death, breath. We need not look far for sources of amazement.
Meditating on the kind of circle-of-life stuff I have shared here reminds me how important it is to tell people I know and love how much I appreciate them and the myriad ways they contribute to my life. I won’t have these folks in my life forever; and who knows, I may depart before they do. This I know: I’m glad I raced over to my partner’s mother’s house to share joy with her. I’m glad I spent time reading over some of my favorite Mary Oliver poems after I learned of her passing. I’m glad I expressed appreciation to my workshop participants for their support. And I’m glad I took the opportunity to send my friend thoughtful cards and hopeful messages before she died. I’m really glad I did that; it inspires me to take more opportunities to express appreciation to my friends and family.
Each person who touches my life is a source of amazement. I will tell them how much I care about them and how much the little things, the tiny moments, the things I take for granted, really do matter. We never know how much a kind word or action shared with a loved one or even a stranger can impact that person’s day, week, or month. Words matter. I hope we can all connect with feelings of appreciation and give birth to our own “praise poems” in the form of more kindness toward others and ourselves. How amazing that would be!
Last week, I arrived at my meditation group about five minutes before starting time. I was running late because I had decided I could finish just one more thing before I left my apartment. Trying to finish just one more thing–a frequent challenge for me lately. When I entered the meditation room, I pulled the glass door closed softly behind me, hugged the side wall, stowed my purse in a corner, then slipped out of my Velcro-strapped sandals as quietly as possible. I scanned the room and waved hello to folks I knew. Most of the regulars were already seated; I spotted an empty chair in the center of the half-circle. Yes! I zipped across the open space in my bare feet and claimed my spot. Yes! I made it! Just under the wire, but at least I didn’t interrupt the group leader. Whew! Just as I began to relax my shoulders away from my ears, just as I began to settle into my seat, just as I invited in a deep breath and exhaled a sigh of relief, a soft voice from a few seats over whispered, kindly but with a tinge of concern, a question in my direction:
“Theresa, are your pants on inside out?”
What? I tilted my head down and fixed my gaze upon my thighs. I stretched out my legs in front of me and examined the state of my black leggings. Well, I’ll be damned. Thick seams ran up the inside and outside edges of my thighs. I quickly retraced my morning steps in my mind to find some plausible explanation for this faux pas. Yes, the bedroom was dark when I got dressed this morning. My mind was racing ahead to a meeting I have later today. I was thinking about several deadlines; I simply wasn’t paying attention to my clothing enough to turn the light on or open the blinds. My attire was the least of my concerns.
With a smirk in my questioner’s direction, I replied, “Yes. You are right! My pants are on inside out. How about that?! Thanks for telling me.” The woman with the kind voice smiled. I returned her smile, raised my eyebrows, and nodded, “I guess you can tell I’ve had kind of a rough week?” She chuckled and said, “It happens to the best of us.” Then I felt my embarrassment lift; I threw my head back and laughed. A small group of folks within earshot shared a chuckle with me. I appreciated that they were laughing with me and not at me. I stifled a few self-directed giggles during the early minutes of our silent meditation. It’s a good thing I’m not perfect.
As I write this reflection, I am reminded of some lyrics in the song “Upside-Down and Inside-Out” by the contemporary rock band, OK GO. (If you haven’t seen the video for that song, it is eye candy worth sampling; the band members bop around with paint-filled balloons in a zero-gravity airplane. Colorful chaos ensues.) Anyway, I listen to this song frequently, and the lyrics that resonate for me are, “When you met the new you, were you scared? Were you cold? Were you kind? When you met the new you, did someone die inside? Won’t stop, can’t stop, it’s like a freight train!” These words about sum up the past month for me: A change in my life has hit me like a freight train. I am a “new me.” I wonder, how will I treat this woman who is taking on new challenges while wearing her leggings inside out in public?
But wait, wait, wait… Let’s back up, here. Just a few months ago I was living in accordance with this well-known quote from Letters to a Young Poet by Rainier Maria Rilke, “…have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves…don’t search for the answers…live the questions now…perhaps…far in the future, without noticing it, you will live your way into the answer.” After experiencing internal strife over the last several years, I gave up the struggle to know the answers to “everything unresolved in my heart.” I was perfectly content living the questions, practicing patience until sometime “far in the future” when all would be revealed, when darkness would turn to light. Then, quite by surprise, a seismic shift occurred in my life between Christmas and New Year’s Day, almost without me noticing it. So, I have gone from my recent former self standing on the precipice of the Unknowable Next Thing, longing for authenticity and integrity to guide me, guarding my threshold space like a warrior holding a shield, to suddenly standing smack in the middle of “living my way into the answer.” Case in point: The image below. A few days ago, I did a guided meditation to help me set an intention for 2019. I stayed very much in process, let go of any need for my art to be fine-art pretty, and simply poured out images that entered my imagination: An arrow pointing forward supported by my trusted mandala, entering a block of green. Then, this writing came:
“I am living in integrity, moving forward with trust and love, creating building blocks for my future.”
So, what happened? How did my inside finally come out? How is it that I am sharing my images and writing with the world on this website instead of pouring them all into my journals, as I had in recent months, and had for years before that? How am I now offering my own mindful creativity workshops and trusting that people will show up? In short: I got angry. Yes, I got angry, and that experience helped spur a sequence of events that revealed what I incontrovertibly value. As Arthur Burt put it, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.”
Before the holidays, I spoke with a life adviser with whom I’d connected over the past several months to share tales of my early and more recent pivotal life experiences. I’d sought her counsel to help me surmount the obstacles I saw on my path. On this day, I was explaining, yet again, how challenging it was for me to face the obstacles ahead. (In other words, I offered abundant reasons why I could not move forward with tasks I thought I wanted to do, but wasn’t sure I wanted to do, and I wasn’t sure how to move forward if I also wasn’t sure I wanted to do these tasks… argh! It’s maddening just writing about my ambivalence.) After some discussion, I expressed my frustration at my inability to determine the source of my resistance. This adviser informed me that someone with my history and life experiences will never find the total fulfillment I am seeking in any one place, any one job, so I may as well accept that and learn to accept a life of partial fulfillment in a variety of places. I felt discouraged and disappointed by this feedback, although in my heart I wondered if she might be right. For the last few years, I have been seeking a way to bring my talents, abilities, and personality into alignment; I trusted there was a way to do this and if I lived that question long enough, answers would emerge.
A few days after speaking with this adviser, I wrote in my journal about our discussion. I vented much of my frustration, expressed my anger (“She doesn’t know me!”), and at the end of all that, I entered the world of self-empathy… and collage. I had recently printed out many of my favorite images, screenshots, selfies, and inspiring memes I’d collected on my phone over the last six months. I began to explore these images without any specific goal. I knew they would tell me where they wanted to go on the page, how they would fit together. I was curious about their messages; I stayed open to any wisdom they held. When it felt right, I began moving them around on the pages, adding paint and more writing. Several pages of collaged artwork emerged from this contemplative time (one of these images I’ve included as the featured image for this post; a selfie I took following a movement process along with two owls collaged beside me). I meditated; focused on my breath. Again, I let go of my need to know. (Note: A special labyrinth walk also contributed wisdom here; I will share those insights in a separate post, soon).
Shortly before New Year’s Eve, I experienced an epiphany as I spent time with my collaged images and read over my writing. My adviser might not have been able to see the alignment happening through our conversations, but I could see it happening right in my journal! Taken together, the new images I’d created offered new insight. I wrote this passage in my journal:
“I can fulfill my needs and provide my own source of love and trust and authenticity. It comes down to this: ARTIST. I am the ARTIST of my own life. Being an artist, being a writer, connecting with my story, and inspiring others to connect with their stories, connect with their creativity, brings my talents, abilities, and personality into alignment. INTEGRATION!”
I realized my artist-self has been standing beside me this whole time, she has been there through several false starts and setbacks; our alignment has been there, I just couldn’t see it. Or, perhaps I was not willing to believe it. Now I could see my artist-self, this “new me,” standing right in front of me, beckoning, saying,
“These obstacles are NOT insurmountable. In fact, they are not obstacles at all. They are opportunities. You have me, your spiritual power animals, your community of supporters, and your boundless creativity backing you up. You’ve got this, girl! Rest time is over. Time for forward motion. You have everything you need. Ok. Go!”
I felt as though I’d known her all along, this voice of strength, clarity, and certainty. And that would make sense… We have been traveling this journey together. I let go of needing to know, I trusted the process of self-inquiry through the arts, and answers emerged. And today, as I write these words, I trust her counsel; she knows the way forward. Here she is. Here I am. And here we are in one body. And here is this website. Here is this blog post. Opportunities. Voila!
Much like the moment when I realized I wore my leggings inside out to my meditation group, this process of letting my inside out, letting my artist-self out, is a vulnerable space to occupy. The old me, the insecure, self, the questioning self has died inside. But there are remnants, and sometimes I feel scared; the anxiety bloom rises from my chest to my face like in the old days. At these times, I call to mind my favorite Brene Brown mantras: Embrace imperfection. Vulnerability is strength. Then my heart rate slows back to normal. The freight train of my new self is speeding down the track, but I am more accustomed to a slow-winding, wandering path. So, inside-out can feel like upside-down, but this I know and trust: I am prepared to be kind to myself. I am prepared to laugh at myself. I am prepared to be perfectly imperfect. I can’t stop, I won’t stop, being me. I’m ready for colorful chaos. After years spent in darkness, it’s my time to rise and be the light I want to see. My voice will be heard. I will create my own destiny…
And if that destiny includes members of the public noticing the inside seams of my leggings on occasion, so be it.
Yesterday I felt a strong need for a break around midday. I had experienced a hectic morning on top of a busier-than-usual past few weeks. I felt tired and anxious, and I longed for a return to equilibrium, a slowing of my heartbeat and breath rate. I knew I could continue working alongside my feelings of mild distress and fatigue, but I also knew that a silent, meditative sit would help me press my “reset” button and I would most likely arrive back at my afternoon tasks feeling more refreshed and clear-headed. Perhaps attending to my need for rest would help me accomplish more in less time.
To begin my meditation practice, I sat in a folding chair at my meditation table on the screened-in porch attached to my apartment. I set the meditation app timer for 60 minutes and took my mala beads in my hands. I had a feeling it would be challenging to focus on my breath cycle alone, so I decided to use a mantra (repeated word) to help me gain focus quickly. I heard the first ring of the timer gong. On every in-breath, I silently said, “still” and on every out-breath I silently said, “ness.” And with every “still-ness” cycle, my fingers grapsed the next bead on the mala string. Still-ness. Still-ness. I would invite my active mind to come to a state of stillness.
About ten minutes passed and I noticed a gradual slowing of my breath. My shoulders fell away from my ears. Still-ness. Still-ness. Yes. I felt grateful for the calmer state I was sure would emerge over the hour. This is exactly what I needed. But just as I noticed some serenity happening, just as I started to relax, I heard a loud, abrasive, whirring “RRRRRR!!!!!” coming from somewhere nearby, followed immediately by deep sounds of motors and high-pitched clanking metal. WRRRRRR!!! WHIRRRRRRR!!! REEETTT!!! REEETTT!!! I was jolted out of my bliss. “The landscapers are here?” I said aloud, incredulous. “Today?” They usually come on a different day. WRRRRRR!!!! REEETTT!!! REEETTT!!! The machines seemed to reply, “Yes! We are here! We are here! Don’t we sound loud and powerful? We have asserted ourselves into your blissful meditation, young lady, because we can! Ha! Ha! Ha!” I sighed, “Crap.” I felt my shoulders stiffen and my chest tighten.
As I listened to the sounds of machinery coming closer to my apartment, I gazed at the pine trees outside my window. A cardinal hopped around on the ground, a fire-red bit of loveliness, pecking here and there. I placed my mala beads down on the table dejectedly and picked up my phone. The seconds of my precious meditation time ticked away one by one. I wondered what to do. Should I go inside where it’s quieter? Should I forget the whole thing and get back to work? Then I noticed a subtle shift in my consciousness. I remembered something that had happened last week could help me in this moment. I smiled broadly; my shoulders dropped. Oh, yes. This is the practice
A few days prior, I had attended my weekly meditation group. We were about 15 minutes into a 30-minute silent sit when someone’s ringing phone broke the silence with its cheerful and catchy tone: Boop-boop-boop! Boop-boop! Boop-boop-boop-boop! That time was just like now. Yes. I was just getting into my flow, being totally present, when that sound catapulted me out of it. On that day, I noticed the ring tone invading my headspace and felt my chest tighten slightly in annoyance as I listened to it play. I said to myself, “Someone forgot to turn off their ringer. Bah!” The tone rang for several cycles; however, I could not help but soften my heart and “boop” right along with it in my mind: “Boop-boop-boop!” As it rang I thought, “The phone is still ringing,” and when it stopped, I thought, “It stopped. Good. Hm. Okay, back to the breath.”
During the group discussion at the end of the meditation, I experienced a change in perception about the ringing phone. First, I felt compassion for the person who forgot to turn off their ringer. I’ve done that before, as I’m sure we all have, and if that had been me I would have felt a bit embarrassed. Second, it occurred to me that perhaps the ringing was not a distraction from my practice, after all, but rather was the practice, or at least a part of it, maybe even an important part. The phone ringing during a silent meditation is like life, in a way: We’re moving along on our path, relatively peacefully one hopes, we’ve got a good predictable flow going, we think we know what to expect around the next bend, and then, “Boop-boop-boop!” something happens that we don’t expect. There’s some kind of an interruption to our life flow. A distraction. A plot twist. We’re catapulted into a different energy space and we may or may not like it. If we like it, great! But if we don’t, then what? How do we handle it?
I wondered, what can I learn from this? What happens if I resist the interruption? What happens if I lean into it instead? Could I learn to accept it, or perhaps even cherish it? Noticing. Feeling. Holding the feeling with compassion. Accepting. Gratitude. This is the practice. My practice. This is where learning happens. With a shift in perspective, “interruptions” might just be opportunities. But we’ll never know if we resist them.
Back on my porch surrounded by machine sounds, I took my phone in one hand. The timer was still ticking. I climbed down from my chair and lay belly-side down on the cool concrete floor. I stacked my hands into a flat pillow, turned my head to one side, and rested my cheek upon them. My body shook slightly, in a rather pleasant way, from the vibrations entering and rising from the floor. Thank you, property managers, for hiring landscapers to take care of the grounds. Thank you, landscapers, for doing the hard labor I cannot do to beautify my surroundings. Thank you, old self, for adjusting your perception and letting go of resistance. I closed my eyes.
About forty minutes later, I woke up to the timer’s gong. In the distance I heard the machinery still whirring and clanking away. I felt surprised that the steady noise and gentle vibrations had somehow lulled me to sleep. I must have needed the nap! I stood up and got back to work.
“The road ahead is not some predetermined path that I am forced to trod, but it is a rich byway that I can help create.” ― Craig D. Lounsbrough
As I gaze at this recent photo I took of a Live Oak tree on La Chua Trail, I wonder what she has to teach me. Some words come immediately to mind: Persist, nourish, grow, expand, transform. I’ve been visiting this tree regularly for over 15 years. During that time I’ve seen her thick, sturdy body and rugged bark endure all vagaries of Florida’s weather, from summer’s suffocating heat, torrential rainstorms, and mercurial hurricanes to winter’s cooler temperatures and drier, calmer days. In all seasons, her elegant branches grow skyward into a crown, then extend out in multiple directions. They support soft, heavy clumps of Spanish Moss, and create cozy homes for twittering song birds, secret hiding places for insects, and abundant shade for wading birds, alligators, and admirers like me. Her magical leaves even turn carbon dioxide into oxygen. She accomplishes all these tasks while growing ever taller, ever wider, ever stronger. Just by standing there, she gets to do so much…
Persist, nourish, grow, expand, transform. Do I have to do these things, or do I get to do them? With 365 new days ahead, I’m shifting my thinking away from “I have to…” and toward “I get to…” Today I get to write my first blog post on my new website. And you get to read it (thanks for doing that!). At this moment, I get to stop typing and pause… I get to close my eyes, take a deep breath in, then exhale slowly. I get to feel grateful for the rise and fall of my chest, the gift of my breath, my beating heart, my thinking brain. I get to feel grateful for my inner weather (mercurial as it sometimes is), and the guidance of my inner wisdom. I get to open my spirit and anticipate the many wonders that will greet me: The new opportunities for learning I can cultivate, the self-connection I can nourish through the creative process, the new friends I can make in my community, the kindness and compassion we can share. Just by sitting here, I get to do so much…
The light in me greets the light in you, friends. I am so happy you are taking this adventure with me. Just imagine all that we will get to do in the days and months to come! What, I wonder, are you looking forward to?