Grief is the Cost of Loving

I’ll think I’m done writing about grief and then something unexpected stirs it up. This week my step-daughter and granddaughter are visiting. My son-in-law is graciously sharing them with us as he needs to stay home and work. It’s a nice full week of family, though, because my step-son and daughter-in-law, who are expecting their first baby, live in town as does my sister-in-law and niece. My step-daughter coming to visit has created lots of extra family time for us locals. And it’s the craziest thing: during my alone time, like taking a shower or out running errands, I miss my parents like crazy!

1-1-Kenzie at 3 coloring on patio

It’s been almost two years since we said our final good-bye on this side of eternity and so the list of things that would trip me up in regard to grieving their physical absence is much shorter than in the beginning. And when I do get tripped up I feel sad, not overwhelmed. This week though I keep creating a puddle of tears to splash around in! Last night in the shower for one, and then today while driving alone and listening to Celtic music in the car, I just bubbled over in tears as I drove. Admittedly, songs from the British Isles stir something primeval inside so it quickening grief today isn’t surprising. What’s surprising is the depth of it.

4-spinning dogwood

I know that my grief over the loss of my parents is tied up with me confronting my own mortality. Early on in today’s “grief ride” I was stopped by a school bus and watched a parade of elementary school children get off and climb their hill home. I always enjoy being stopped by that school bus because the children coming off it are colorful and full of energy. It’s like being surprised by a parade. Today, with “The Water is Wide” filling the car, I experienced the felt sense that one day life will most certainly continue on without me. I was filled with a surprising mix of hope and deep sadness as I admired the children who will outlive me climbing the hillside.

3-bee on purple rhododendron flower

It seems to me that I’ve been tripped up grief-wise by having multiple generations of family with us this week. Never having had children of my own I don’t have a sense of “my line continuing in my absence.” Though I could tell you about the summer I became a bona fide step-mother, who will worry about her step-children’s welfare and rejoice in their successes till the day she dies, I have never laid claim to them. They don’t belong to me the way they belong to their father and mother. Having a son-in-law, daughter-in-law, and grandchildren helps me come closer to claiming them all as mine because those step lines blur as more family members are added by marriage. This week, having everyone together for the first time in many years, I believe the experience that these are my immediate family and they are the ones whose lives I’ve invested in with my love, energy, and talents who will outlive me has made an impression and made me confront my mortality and grieve the loss of my parents in a new way.

2-cluster of pink dogwoods in front of painted wall Weaverville

One thing I know for sure and for certain: for me grief is an expression of love. I’m used to expressing love between my parents and me with laughter and good times. But if wishing they were here and missing them so badly I puddle up in tears is the price I pay for loving and being loved by them, then love it is and that’s OK. Besides, with most passing days I remember them young, vital, and healthy – and I still hear their encouragement and advice in my imagination – and those kinds of nurturing, validating exchanges tend to precede and follow waves of grief.

Grief is the cost of loving. I’ll take it.

What’s Aging Got to Do with Spiritual and Emotional Growth?

A hell of a lot, it seems!

When I was a child, my Mom taught me what it meant to age gracefully. She came from a family of many aunts. Between her mother and all the aunts, she grew up with examples of aging gracefully as well as examples of aging in disgrace. Aging disgracefully meant resenting the aging process so much that others had to deal with that resentment poured out on them. Aging disgracefully meant being generally angry most of the time. Aging disgracefully meant one was obsessive about one’s looks. Aging gracefully, on the other hand, meant one was pleasant, agreeable, and available to others. Aging gracefully meant always looking one’s best but with a humble attitude. With all the women in the family, Mom found examples of both kinds of aging and it really captured her attention. I understood that she intended to age gracefully and she expected me to do so too.

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Several things about this jump out at me. Most of the aunts were born in the 19th Century. My grandmothers were born during the first decade of the 20th Century. Mom was a teenager in the late 1940’s/early 1950’s. I was a child of the 1960’s, becoming a teen in 1973. These were not eras when psychology was well respected or counseling readily available. Rather, psychology was suspect and women, rather than being encouraged to explore their psyches, motives, and desires, were expected to be pleasant, agreeable, and available to others. Mom’s basic thesis was that women who aged gracefully continued to keep their anger and resentment repressed, making them pleasant, agreeable, and available. And in regard to physical beauty, at least in our family, the elders who were able to remain pleasant aged more beautifully than the ones who were victims of their own anger and resentment.

My cameo

I grew up thinking my Mom and I held the secret to aging, but I was wrong. Volunteering and working in nursing homes from the age of sixteen, I learned to be comfortable in the presence of the elderly. Spending several hours each week for years listening to nursing home bound elders share their life stories with me helped me become even more comfortable with folks my grandparents age and older. Mom was proud of me and she herself was always comfortable with all ages of people. But it turns out there is more to struggling with the aging process than dealing with anger and resentment. Even surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends, there are feelings like fear, terror, desperation, loneliness, and hopelessness associated with the aging process long before the possibility of residing in a nursing home becomes a possibility. These are feelings that lead to anger and resentment when they can’t be felt and processed.

empty chairs in garden everything covered in pink cherry blossoms

Something caught me by surprise with my own aging.  After spending years slowing down my pace to match the pace of the elderly, I hadn’t fully appreciated the fact that they walked slowly because everything hurt. It wasn’t until my own extensive osteoarthritis at mid-life and other chronic pain and inflammation made me go slow, giving me a humble ah-ha moment, that I understood. The aging process can bring a person to their knees with the vulnerability it forces one to confront and unwillingly share when it is on display in public places.

In regard to my self-esteem and sense of attraction, that aspect of aging has been a journey. At thirty I gave up wearing makeup except for a little blush because my eyes and skin are sensitive and I was tired of feeling uncomfortable. I always admired natural beauties and, since I’d previously tended to overcompensate for a lack of self-esteem with lots of mascara and eye shadow, at thirty I decided to take the plunge and live life with my natural face out there. I managed to handle that transition successfully. And I remember thinking this would also help me one day when I was older…it didn’t.

Me holding Faith

Thinning skin, age spots, wrinkles, and curly red hair that was already dry becoming dryer and gray with age challenge my notions of natural beauty. And then there is post-menopause with a thick middle getting larger and thicker and nothing I can do about it. I can lose weight but the body proportions will still be out of whack. I know there’s plastic surgery available but, like Barbra Streisand, I’m too afraid of the knife to give that a go. Besides, older women who have “had work done” seem to experience an alternative way of growing old.  No matter how tight or high you pull the skin and muscles, and no matter how you tackle the face with color and shading, the shine, sparkle, and elasticity of youth are gone. I want to make peace with it.

And that’s where spiritual and emotional growth come in ~ making peace with all of it.

The word in my spiritual journey that keeps presenting itself to me as vital is the word “grace.” Today I read this from Thomas Merton in his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain, “The only answer to the problem is grace, grace, docility to grace.” Now Thomas discovered grace as the answer to what he considered to be an ill-spent youth. I’m finding it to be the answer to the “problem” of aging – a problem that can be answered but not solved.

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My default in regard to what’s happening to and inside my body as I age is to fret about it and dread all of it getting worse. At 54 I often feel much older than I am and that is genuinely frightening. It puts me in touch with the fear of death and dying – especially at bedtime. It isn’t the healthiest frame of mind with which to go to bed when getting enough quality sleep is also a challenge of these latter years.  In addition to the bodily concerns, there’s the reality of no longer being relevant to younger adults. In the last four years I’ve gotten used to more people than ever before in my life looking through me as if I don’t exist, being surprised when I speak up because they hadn’t really taken in my presence, and not caring about my opinion or experience.

All of it is enough to make a person feel broken, humbled, even humiliated over something they cannot control. However, that is a direct line to spiritual and emotional growth!

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I’ve heard it from so many spiritual and religious leaders and learned it for myself as well. If we allow it, our suffering gives us the opportunity to become spiritually and emotionally mature adults. When we give up resisting what makes us suffer, when we’re willing to accept life as it is, grace – the underlying grace that is always present – shows up in our conscious awareness, helping us treat ourselves, our situation, and others with more loving kindness. Though sometimes such surrender can lead to breakthroughs and real changes, more often than not the surrender helps us live more peacefully with our situation as it is.

Suffering is a matter of the individual’s interpretation. When I consider it as an opportunity to surrender to the suffering while being open to the possibility of change, the suffering goes away – even if sadness and hurt remain.  That is grace. It is the bedrock of growing emotional and spiritual maturity. And with aging, rather than change being about looking and feeling young again, robust and profound changes come through personal growth. Growth that helps me be a blessing to others because it gets me out of my head with its worry and fear and plants me back in Life with a new freedom to exist in a new way with others, myself, and my limitations.

It seems I am still learning to age gracefully. And that the learning curve may last until I reach the grave – or the mountain side where my ashes will be scattered. That’s fine. There is genuine comfort for me in continuing to grow and in continuing to grow up! It is a very real, concrete fact that I cannot turn back the clock. But I can continue to grow. That is also real. It is grace, and I agree to it.  

Blue & Ivory young hygrangea hidden in leaves lit by sun

 

The Ego Loves Autopilot

Every now and then on this path of enlightenment and the death of the ego, I have an “ah-ha” moment that later seems obvious and mundane though nevertheless relevant. The latest such “ah-ha” moment is actually appropriate to this time of year, what with New Year resolutions and all. I don’t much believe in resolutions because, in reality, they seem to be made in order to break them. However, something has been nagging at me for a year to change and I haven’t been able to wrap my resolve around making the change until just recently.

(c) wet leaves bokeh Brownsburg-Chatham_2014

Three years ago when I began a new master’s program I found it easiest to study away from home. But libraries weren’t what I wanted and neither were coffee shops. Bojangles and Arby’s fit the bill though. They had the particular food and drink I wanted in an afternoon snack to accompany my studies and, in these mountains we live in, the nearest ones had nice views. But a year ago I gave up that particular master’s program as it became clear to me that it and what I would’ve done with the degree were not a good fit for me. I didn’t, though, give up my almost daily jaunts to my favorite fast food places. The only difference was I was reading different kinds of books – inspirational books, novels, memoirs, autobiographies – books I wanted to read instead of assigned reading! Heaven!

But here’s the thing. While in school the daily get away’s to study were fueled by necessity and by the fact that school studies give a body an appetite! Reading for pleasure doesn’t cause the mental taxation that makes a body want to eat. So by continuing my routine, I was eating food I wasn’t entirely hungry for and getting away like that most days of the week became an escape. But an escape from what? I like my life at home…didn’t need to escape that.

Joseph & Daisy walking in winter backs to camera

I’ve drawn two conclusions about this. One is that going out for an afternoon snack and reading is a way of escaping myself. All my life the approaching dusk of each day creates tension in me if I’m at home. Parsing that phenomenon would have to be a separate blog entry! For now, let’s just acknowledge it is so. I realized that by ending errand running with a stop for a snack and reading around 3:30/4 p.m. meant I got to “escape” dusk. But more than that, I got to escape the tension dusk created inside me; which meant I got to escape something fundamental about my psychological and emotional make up. That’s why I refer to it as “escaping me.” But no matter how much I acknowledged this fact and wanted to change it, I couldn’t.

Then I had an additional realization that took root inside and is now blossoming. Heading out for a snack and to read had become one of my autopilots. It was something I desired every day that required no thought, just action. And it was something that made me feel special, safe, and secure. That’s a big conversation going on inside around a seemingly innocuous occurrence. So it got my attention.

snowy street

The ego loves autopilot. When we’re on autopilot, the ego doesn’t have to worry and doesn’t have to work. Happily for the ego, autopilot does all the convincing necessary to keep us asleep – to stifle our attempts to awaken. That right there is where the rub is – where I can negotiate change. I immediately decided that “escaping me” via snacking and reading most days of the week was autopilot and therefore something I could disengage. However, disengaging would take daily discipline. It’s one thing to turn off a plane’s autopilot. When it comes to humans, disengaging from autopilot takes time. It means releasing one habit by replacing it with another. In this case replacing it with a new habit that is healthier yet challenging.

This doesn’t mean I won’t ever take myself out to read a chapter or two of whatever book I’m currently reading. And I may, like other writers, learn to love writing on my laptop in public places. The mind works differently surrounded by sound that doesn’t pull on the reader or the writer – and for some that is a very good and creative thing. In fact, most of the time my reading inspires me to pause and write  - even on napkins if I’ve forgotten to bring a notebook. So there is creative stuff going on out there in the privacy of public places. But the autopilot aspect of it has been burdensome to me for some time and, too, I feel a call to face this part of me that is made nervous by being at home as dusk falls. 

January sunset fiery sky

What does this have to do with the death of the ego? Disengaging the autopilot shakes loose the belief that the ego is solid – undermines it with the truth of its illusory nature. To the extent that dusk puts me in touch with a spacious emptiness inside, an ungrounded, death-like place that feels like the Great Unknown – well, that’s a ripe opportunity to awaken a little if I’m willing to just be with it. As Adyashanti has written:

“Human beings have a drive for security and safety, which is often what fuels the spiritual search. This very drive for security and safety is what causes so much misery and confusion. Freedom is a state of complete and absolute insecurity and not knowing. So, in seeking security and safety, you actually distance yourself from the freedom you want. There is no security in freedom, at least not in the sense that we normally think of security. This is, of course, why it is so free: there’s nothing there to grab hold of.

The Unknown is more vast, more open, more peaceful, and more freeing than you ever imagined it would be. If you don’t experience it that way, it means you’re not resting there; you’re still trying to know. That will cause you to suffer because you’re choosing security over Freedom. When you rest deeply in the Unknown without trying to escape, your experience becomes very vast. As the experience of the Unknown deepens, your boundaries begin to dissolve. You realize, not just intellectually but on a deep level, that you have no idea who or what you are. A few minutes ago, you knew who you were—you had a history and a personality—but from this place of not knowing, you question all of that.

Liberated people live in the Unknown and understand that the only reason they know what they are is because they rest in the Unknown moment by moment without defining who they are with the mind. You can imagine how easy it is to get caught in the concept of the Unknown and seek that instead of the Truth. If you seek the concept, you’ll never be free, but if you stop looking to myths and concepts and become more interested in the Unknown than in what you know, the door will be flung open. Until then, it will remain closed.

As we sometimes say in the mountains, ’nuff said. :-)

Sun breaking over Mountains, Mist, Sunset 

Stress at Christmas on the Road to Enlightenment

Christmas cloth Angel for Shutterfly“So this is Christmas…” and I am bent out of shape over everything that won’t get done in time for Christmas day, over the deep desire for peace and quiet that can’t be realized till Christmas is over, and over the wreck my office-at-home will remain until I finish wrapping gifts. Bah humbug!

I have to laugh at myself because I experience this angst every single year. And every single year I make it worse by judging myself for it. The longer it lasts, the more I judge, the deeper the shame mires me down, down, down…

Guilt, anxiety, and shame are the ego’s tough task masters. Today I realized that whenever I’m feeling guilty, anxious, or shamed, I have already judged myself.

 

  • When I feel anxious over what I’m not getting done, I’ve already judged myself and found me lacking.
  • When I feel and act like a child, I’ve already judged myself and found me unworthy.
  • When people disappoint me, I’ve already judged not only them but myself as well.
  • When Christmas doesn’t live up to my expectations, I’ve judged myself for not being perfect. Even though I know perfection isn’t possible.

fence & thorns

Peace, stillness, and equanimity are what I crave. When I’m bent out of shape I’m looking to my environment to give me peace, stillness, and equanimity. But I don’t have to wait for it to show up there for me to have it internally.

Much like returning to the mantra in meditation, feeling bent out of shape, guilty, anxious, and shamed can all serve as cues to settle and make another choice – the choice for inner quiet and equanimity no matter what’s going on in the environment or how full my to-do list is.

Ann Voskamp said the same kind of the thing in the poetic way she has when she posted this on Facebook this morning:

“There is no need to produce or perform or perfect. Simply become a place for God. That is all.”

~ Ann Voskamp

Man, oh man, I love that! “Simply become a place for God.” Let go of the little ego-god up in the mind that stomps around and tells us we’re rotten for not being perfect and then still and know – be with – the One who loves us down to the marrow and back again.

I am simply becoming a place for God this Christmas (and in the days that follow). How about you?

Snow like powdered sugar close up

Playing ’til Dark

A Garth Brooks fan since day one, I’m enjoying his new album, Man Against Machine. A line from the song “Send ‘Em On Down the Road” lassoed my imagination today. The line is “And when that girl broke my heart, we just threw that baseball back and forth ’til dark.” The song is about how parents want to shield their children but they have to practice letting go at each stage of the children’s lives for their children to thrive.

Sallie in life jacket & towel on dockThe thing that caught my attention, though, was the scene of tossing a baseball in the front yard until dark. Playing until dark. It’s something that we did as children from the first warm spring days until autumn cooled off. And if there was something interesting enough outdoors in the winter, like playing in snow, we had that till dark. And if we were just having a blast, my dad would let us extend the time ’til “dark-thirty.”

Coming in at dark, smelling of child-at-play sweat and grass, was always bittersweet. It meant outdoor play was over and time was short till bath and bedtime when the day absolutely had to come to an end. I’ve never wanted to give up the day. The hours between supper and sleep are the shortest of all. But playing ’til dark teaches children discipline. It teaches us that there are cycles to each day and each season. It teaches us to tolerate disappointment as well as tolerance for the inability to control nature. And it gives us the gift of anticipating a new day. In fact, nothing quite grounds a soul like playing outdoors till the sun goes down.

Teenage girls in standing swing at TLA square danceAs is perhaps true of most of us, these days a lot of my “play time” happens on devices. I’m especially fond of Instagram. There I can load up a photo from my phone and then scroll through the posts of those I follow till I reach the last picture I posted. Where Facebook and Twitter are agitating, Instagram is calming. All three plus email are such an easy way to check out. But checking out isn’t the real goal of play or recreation. Play and recreation, whether invigorating or relaxing, are meant to connect us to ourselves and others  in ways that refresh, restore, and renew. Honestly, nothing I can do on my phone, pad, or computer refreshes, restores, or renews (not even writing!).

“Playing” on devices doesn’t need dark-thirty to bring it to an end. If anything, playing (or working) on devices can keep us up ’til all hours of the night, disturbing our circadian rhythm, thereby damaging ourselves at the cellular level. It’s dangerous fun this innocuous cyber connecting.

Turning my attention away from my devices, even getting my nose out of a book, and turning instead to life going on around me has become a spiritual discipline for the level of opening, deepening, and grounding it provides. It also creates opportunities to connect with others. I think I’ll add to it creative ways of playing ’til dark that ground me in my humanity and my relationship to nature…

wrought iron Butterfly dusted in snowFor years now on snow days the days begin and end out there in it – hunting down photographs. It’s fun, it’s sweaty, it’s work and play. I love it!

Before we have a generation of adults for whom playing till dark seems archaic, let’s reintroduce ourselves, our children and grandchildren to the past time of outdoor fun that we hate to see come to an end at the close of day. It will ground, connect, enliven, restore, refresh, and renew us and them.