Archive for March, 2014

“But I always think that the best way to know God is to love many things.”
    —  Vincent van Gogh

“God is Love.”

For sixty-four years, I’ve been hearing people say that.  Still, it seems as though our human nature forgets about love and instead falls into conflict and judgment and anger.  We say that we want to know God, and in the next breath we accuse another person or another being or the very universe itself of getting in our way and keeping us from realizing that goal.

Vincent van Gogh’s story is one of a tortured existence.  He lived less than forty years and he struggled with mental illness.  I imagine that his obituary might read, “eccentric man ends his own life – dies alone.”  But beneath his struggle, there lived a soul so overwhelmed by the beauty of Creation that it leaped right off of his brush onto canvas.  More than 100 years later, the raw emotion he felt when he perceived that beauty springs from his paintings and touches our hearts and minds.

Van Gogh may have been a tortured soul, but he made it his quest to love many things.  That love transcended his struggles and lives on to this day in the work he produced.  It would seem that he had the ability to look beyond the surface of the subjects he chose and see that spark of God, of love, and to translate that into the bold colors and strokes that showed us the part of his world that resonates with something in ourselves.

Not all of us — or any of us — will paint like Van Gogh; but each of us has the ability to look through the eyes of love and everything and everyone who enters our world.  Each of us has the ability to see past the surface and discover the spark of Creation — of Love — that called each piece of the universe into existence.  We must open our hearts as well as our eyes.  We must put aside judgment and prejudice and practice loving many things.

It is in loving many things that we draw closer to understanding God.  It is through discovering our mutual ingredient that we begin to understand that each of us plays an integral part in the whole of the universe.  Do you want to know God?  What will you love today?

“Follow your bliss and the universe will open doors for you where there were only walls”
    — Joseph Campbell

The dictionary defines bliss as “complete happiness; pure joy.”

What is your bliss?

When I read Joseph Campbell’s words today, on the occasion of what would be his 110th birthday, they worked the magic his words often do for me.  They poked a hole in my facade, scratched away at my ego, elbowed past my psyche and tickled my soul and invited it out to play.  “Follow your bliss!” they cried, and the words laughed with joy as they danced around in my being and made me lighter than air.

With all the demands life places on us, it can take some serious digging to reach our bliss.  If we are not attentive to keeping it uncovered, it is easy to lose it among the responsibilities and tasks that make up our days.  What we forget is that all the tasks and duties of our lives gain meaning and joy when we follow our bliss into living our lives.

Children know about bliss.  When I thought of an illustration for following bliss, I immediately knew that it had to be the photo of my granddaughter, Cheyenne, running toward iridescent bubbles with her arms spread wide.

Bliss

It was not the bubble that created her bliss.  It was not the summer day that made her fling her arms wide.  It was the complete happiness and pure joy that define her approach to life that made her appear as light as the bubbles that beckoned to her.  Indeed, when I later saw the picture, I passed the thought that maybe it was her bliss that made the bubbles dance on the breeze at just the right height to keep her reaching.

Follow your bliss.  This does not mean jumping from attraction to attraction and seeking to be entertained by life.  Rather, it means that all of life can be entertaining if we follow our bliss into each new day.

Campbell offers this advice:

“The way to find out about happiness is to keep your mind on those moments when you feel most happy, when you are really happy — not excited, not just thrilled, but deeply happy. This requires a little bit of self-analysis. What is it that makes you happy? Stay with it, no matter what people tell you. This is what is called following your bliss.”

What are we waiting for?  We need to uncover our happiness rather than waiting for some to magically appear from an outside source.  We need to push aside the obstacles we create to simply feeling happy.  We need to live the lives we were created to live.

As Campbell would say,

“Your life is the fruit of your own doing. You have no one to blame but yourself.”

We spend a lot of time and energy making life complicated.  Let’s begin once again to carry our bliss close to our hearts as we live each new day.  It is, after all, what we were born to do.

And the universe will open doors where we used to see walls.

What is your bliss?

 

A couple of weeks ago, my friend, terri (bonesigharts.blogspot.com) challenge me to join a group of women who would answer questions she posed.  This piece was posted on her site last Wednesday.  For the sake of posterity (and my kids), I want it to be on the record at my own site as well.  Thanks for asking, ter!  I might not have written it if you hadn’t raised the question.

What are friends for?

When my dear friend, terri, asked if I would be a part of a project where she offered us questions and we responded with our views, I thought it sounded like fun. Along with some other amazing people (if they are terri’s friends, they must be amazing), I would get to share a viewpoint and also enjoy reading what those other folks had to say. What would my topic be? World Peace? Kindness? Creativity? No such luck. Instead, her email read:
“are you okay if i go to the loss of your son? …and what i’d like to ask is what are some of the insights that you gained thru all of that?”

What are friends for?

Real friends are for encouraging us to be our complete selves in the midst of all the events that make up our lives. Real friends are for opening us to the opportunity to take stock and sort out the experiences that have made us who we are – and who we are becoming. With that in mind, I will do my best to answer in less than a thousand pages what insights I have gained through the loss of a child. If anyone is reading this who is in the midst of such a loss, I want to say up front that it has taken years for these insights to develop and a great deal of time for the rawness of grief to give way to peace. I remember being alternately angry at words like those I will share here and feeling inadequate that I could not put my grief, my anger, and my sorrow aside to feel such resolution. This is where I am now, not where I was then; and I will share with you the words a friend spoke to me at that worst time: “Someday, when you have finished grieving, you will use this experience to help someone else who is going through the same thing.” I can’t begin to tell you how angry that made me and how true it was, when the time came that I was ready. Do not judge yourself for anything while you are grieving. Grief has no rules. Take your time. Feel your sorrow, and just keep breathing until the world sets itself upright again. And it will.

Our lives are made up of days and months and years when one day seems pretty much like the other. We meander through a friendly world and enjoy the time we spend exploring what it means to be human. But there are days that set themselves apart from the others. They are the days that mark events that alter the way we view the universe, for better or worse, and sometimes divide our time into “before and after.” The birth of a child, the loss of a parent, a move from one location to another, times of great joy and times of great sorrow, and times of great insight. My life will forever have two segments called “Before Brett died” and “After Brett died,” because his arrival, his short stay, and his departure have changed me irrevocably.

I come from a family with great longevity. I grew up in a household with a great-aunt who began talking to me about death when she was in her seventies. She wanted me to know that she would not live forever; and although I protested with many tears, she insisted that I listen. “Don’t cry at my funeral,” she would tell me. “Promise me. And I want you to sing my favorite hymn.” I was eleven years old when she extracted this promise and twenty-nine when I delivered. She died on my birthday in 1979. At the time, I thought it was kind of crappy that she chose that day to move on; but in the time after my son died, I found comfort in that simple coincidence. One year later, in February of 1980, my boys went out to play Olympics with their friends. Brett was six years old at the time and looking forward to his seventh birthday on March 11. As they crossed the quiet street in front of our house, everyone saw the car that came slowly down the hill – everyone but Brett. The car that hit him was going 20 miles per hour. The driver was not impaired. It was an accident, pure and simple; and it changed my life in an instant. That instant set in motion a series of unfolding insights that continue to appear to this day.

Here they are:

1. I had studied Physics and learned that two objects cannot occupy the same space at the same time. Now I learned that when one object was a small boy and one was a large car, the car wins.

This may seem harsh and without any maternal love, but it was important, with my world turned upside down, to know that the universe does not alter its order to suit the individual. I needed my world right-side-up, and I needed to understand that I wasn’t singled out.

2. I learned that life is not linear. It spirals and loops and turns all over the place, but usually those loops are so subtle that we don’t even notice them. Now I learned that the linear view – we are born, we grow up, we grow old, we die – was not always accurate.

I had to consider, for the first time, that life was not so simple; and this expanded view has helped me time and time again. When we place people in the constraints of a linear timeline, we set ourselves up to judge. I have grown in compassion as I have seen others whose loops and spirals have taken them to sad places. I can relate.

3. I have learned that some loops and spirals are surprisingly sorrowful and others are surprisingly wonderful. Now that I recognize them, I experience joy at times I might have overlooked before.

Imagine my surprise, when I married my sweetheart, to learn that his son – MY son – had been born the day Brett was buried. And he was just turning six. Sometimes the universe sees a boy who needs a mom and a mom who needs a son. Loop, spiral, joy!

4. I have learned not to fear death.

Now I suppose this one has morphed from one form to another to fifty more over time. In the early days of my grief, I stopped fearing death, because I didn’t see why it mattered if I continued to live. Fortunately, this stage of anguish lasted a very short but intense time. Thankfully, I had good friends who propped me up and helped me go through the motions of living until I began to feel alive again.
One morning, several weeks after Brett died, I had a dream that seemed so real that I was right there in it. I suppose my subconscious had picked up the sounds of my surviving children playing in the early morning, and I found myself in the boys’ bedroom. Brett was there, playing with his little sister. “Oh! You’re here!” I said in surprise. As I moved toward him and tried to give him a hug, he backed away, smiling all the time until he disappeared into the mist in the corner of the room. There was something in that smile that said, “I am okay. You can’t touch me, but I am here.” If I close my eyes, I still can go to that dream; and it has brought me great comfort.

I have come to believe that losing my great-aunt Essie on my own birthday was another looping spiral that calls me to remember her – and her wisdom – every time I turn the calendar for another year.

5. I have learned that grief, in all its raw truth, tells us lies.

If you are grieving right now, remember that you cannot judge the remainder of your life based on the anguish you feel right now. I told myself many lies during those days. I could not go on without my son – and here I am, more than thirty years later. I could never risk loving another child, because the pain of losing him was so great – and I have added five more children to my family since that time. I was a terrible mother, because I had let one of my children die before me – but I am a world-class mom who has brought her children back from the edge and made it possible for all of us to cherish the memory of their brother.

6. I have learned that grief is love, turned inside out.

We cannot grieve deeply unless we have loved deeply. Every tear I cried, every moment of raw pain, every memory of times that never could be again expressed how deeply and passionately I had loved my little boy while I had him here. In time, I figured out that he wanted me to go on being happy and being the sort of mom to the rest of my kids that I had been to him. I learned to turn my grief inside out and live each day as a tribute to the depth of love we had shared. This changed my life.

7. I have realized that every single day there are mothers burying children.

I have a heart and compassion for every one of them that my linear view had blocked before Brett died. It never really entered my awareness that a mother whose child dies in the poorest slum in Calcutta feels the same pain that I felt – that life circumstances which might make it a more frequent occurrence really do not matter to the heart of a mother. And I pray every day for mothers and children who stand at the edge of the abyss.

8. I have learned how important it is to get the message out to people about death not being a monster that chooses you and attacks and robs you of life. Instead, it is a part of the continuum of living.
By learning to embrace all of life, including the fact that it is finite, I have been able to stand by people who are near the end. This gives me, and I hope them, great peace.
I hope there is something here that resonates with someone who needs to hear it today. When my son died, my view of the world was radically altered. I raged and grieved for a time; but the day finally came when I had to admit that it would be a difficult choice to make if I were offered to have him back and give up all I had learned or to lose what had become myself and know that I could not touch him just one more time. I suppose the decision to embrace all his death had taught me was an easy one to make, because the universe does not allow such choices.

9. In the end, we must choose whether to live our days stuck in sorrow or to be fully alive and grab hold of all that life puts before us.

Thirty years ago, I never could have imagined

That a year later I would be there for my best friend’s mother when her son died at age 32
That I would go on to love five more children
That I would walk with each of them, at their request, to visit the cemetery
(when they were just about Brett’s age) and tell them about their brother.
That people who were nearing the end of their lives would show up, again and again, and share with me the grace and wisdom they learned along the way and allow me to be there when they reached the end.
That all of this would prepare me for my father’s last days, and that I would be able to reassure him as he prepared to leave this world for the next.

10. I leave you with the greatest realization, the one that encompasses all the rest. Love never dies. When the dust settles and the wind blows our grief away, it is the love that remains. If you are missing someone you have cherished, honor their memory by loving fiercely, wherever you go. A dear old friend, in her 90’s at the time, told me “the most important thing is to be remembered.” Live, love, and remember. Very close by, beyond a thin veil, the people we love are watching. And smiling.

“When it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.”
   —  Mary Oliver

The world we live in is amazing.  The experiences we have are amazing — some in the moment, and some in retrospect after the dust has settled and we have recovered from the pain of being human.  The very fact that we are born to breathe in all of it without even considering that we are breathing is amazing.  We walk, we run, we dance, we careen, and each step we take at whatever speed brings us closer and closer to an inevitable end of the journey.  We barely stop to give mortality a thought; but every now and then, the days add up to years and the years add up to seasons, and there is something in the midst of it all that captures our attention and makes us realize how long we have laughed and cried, danced and careened, and breathed in and out all that life has to offer.

There are times in our lives that mark our mortality — usually when we move from one way of identifying ourselves to the next.  I have been a baby, a child, an adult.  I have been a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother, a grandmother, and now an elder.  My house has been full of laughter and tears, joy and sorrow, babies and children and adults who are mine in spite of our ages.  There are the fixtures, like parents and brothers and sisters and spouses, whose roles remain much the same in spite of how different they may look as time has passed.  There are incredible rites of passage that have belonged to others but have included me as I have watched the babies I carried and nurtured and raised become adults who now are part of my peer group, save for the fact that they will always identify me as “Mom.”

For the past week, I have been cleaning my closet — you know the one, we all have it.  It carries photographic proof that I once was as young as the last child I am raising who will graduate in June and move on to her adult life.  It carries projects completed and projects on hold that now display for me the parts of my creativity that lie buried in a different time and place.  It carries projects begun, and some of them now call me to dance again with the ideas and the dreams that saw them begin so many years ago.  It carries projects conceptualized that now stare me in the eye and say, “I never will come to be.  Leave me behind.”

It is true that as we walk and dance and cavort and careen through our days, we are always in the process of picking up and laying down and moving toward and leaving behind the choices that define our lives.  We give it little thought at the end of another twenty-four hours; and sometimes we forget to lay down what no longer serves us and burden ourselves with such a load that it weighs us down and inhibits our movement.

I realize, as I sort through the thousand old photos and put aside those that I want to bring into the digital age, that I have chosen this task at this time and on this day because I need to take stock of what I have picked up in the last thirty years and what I have laid aside and what I now will choose to leave behind.  There is a particular sort of sadness in such sorting; but when we reach the threshold of a new season, we know that we must make room for what lies ahead.  We must fit into our hearts only the things that truly matter so that there always is room for something amazing that is bound to lie around the next bend in the road.

I have no plans to leave this journey for quite a while; but I cherish this day of cleaning my closet and sorting out my heart.  When I reach the end, I want to be able to say that I have opened my arms wide to life and embraced it with deep love and honored it with the deep reverence it deserves.  I will lay those things which have become burdens by the side of my road.  If they bless you, please feel free to pick them up and embrace them with the love they deserve.  As for me, I will savor the task of emptying my closet and letting it show me that I must now make space for all that still will come my way.  It will be amazing.

“Loving people live in a loving world. Hostile people live in a hostile world. Same world.”
     — Wayne Dyer

IMG_4933

 

We all talk about wanting to change the world.  What exactly does that mean?  The world is the world; and we certainly impact its appearance through the choices we make.  Some of us choose to pay attention to the size of the footprint we leave as we walk through our world — we recycle, reuse, renew, and replenish so that the world will remain a source of life for generations to come.  Some of us create and protect beauty by tending to the natural environment and assuring that all species have homes in our world.  How do you see your world?

A couple of years ago, I snapped this photo of one of my feathered friends.  It was a sunny morning, and a flicker of white caught my eye among the branches of the still-bare lilac outside my window.  There he perched, surrounded by the upright twigs.

What do you see when you look at this picture?  Is the bird hiding and trembling as he scans the area for predators, or is he resting for a moment and enjoying the sound of the early-spring breeze that begins to awaken the world and remind it to turn green again?  Is he afraid, or is he excited?

How we see our world defines what it will be for each of us.  Do we approach our home and its inhabitants with fear and hesitation, or do we open our hearts and send love ahead of us with each step we take?  Loving people soon find that they live in a loving world.  Hostile people find that they must brace themselves for the hostility that bounces back at them with each step.

I am pretty sure that my little bird friend, safe in the middle of the lilac, was pausing to celebrate the wonder of his world.  He sang and chirped and occasionally ruffled his feathers as the sun rose ever higher in the sky.  I think he was singing the sunrise song and celebrating the warmth it brought his way.  And the branches hugged him back, holding him safe and close until his song was done.

How will we walk today?  Let’s open our hearts and embrace all that life has to offer; and let’s remember, now and then, to pause and feel life hugging us back.

“Learn everything you can, anytime you can, from anyone you can – there will always come a time when you will be grateful you did.”
   —  Sarah Caldwell

The school buses are whizzing by outside.  They have completed their first runs of the morning, delivering secondary students to the high school and the middle schools; and now they are collecting the elementary students whose day begins an hour later.

“What did you learn today?” I would ask my young children each time they returned at the end of school.  “Nothing.” often was the answer; but of course I knew better.  I would think about my own days in school — especially the ones when I dreamed of the time when I could be done with classes and finished with learning, the time when I would know everything and be an adult like my mom.  Now I ask my grandchildren the same questions I asked their parents.  And at the end of each day I ask myself as well, “What did you learn today?”

It is still winter here in Pennsylvania; and it has been a long and cold and snowy one.  I remember a similar winter when my son was in first grade, just as his daughter is this year.  The snow seemed relentless, and the school cancellations seemed endless.  The days were cold enough that even playing in the snow had lost its appeal, although I did try to get everyone out and about at least once each day.   I began answering my phone, “Mothers held hostage, Day (fill in a number),” and I was certain that there was a challenge specific to women who were housebound with multiple children on a day when the thrill of an impromptu school holiday had faded.  I was certain that only a young mother could feel so hemmed in by the weather, and I remember being hard pressed not to take each new snowfall personally.  I learned that winter that I had more endurance, more creativity, and more love for my ever-present offspring than I could have imagined; and I was happy to file away that lesson when Spring came and we were free to roam outdoors once again.

Twenty years later, I find myself eager to pile on layers of sweaters and scarves and venture out in the snowy white world.  I miss my morning walks; but as my body has reached the middle of its seventh decade, I am aware that a slip on the ice might be more painful than it was in my snowman-building days.  I long to venture past the ancient trees, the frozen creek, and the still snowdrifts and listen in their silence to the lessons they might have; but instead I venture out from house to car and car to house and let running my errands be my only escape.  It’s funny how I long for some bored children to entertain; and it’s equally funny that I could feel singled out for such isolation, just as I did twenty years ago.

I suppose the lessons to be learned come from my own thoughts these days, as I use my time in the grip of winter to reflect on other winters and summers and autumns and springs.  When I pull them all together, they teach me that before I know it Spring will come again.  I look out my back door at the icy path that keeps me where I am, and I imagine — no, I know — that beneath it the magic is beginning to stir.  As the tiny drops of melting snow make their way into the earth, some small seeds begin to undergo a transformation.  Deep within the warm soil, the water begins to awaken them.  I sigh and close my eyes, taking a mental photo of Springs past, and learn once again that every season — every day — is filled with wisdom and wonder.  All we need to do is keep learning.