Saturday, December 15, 2012

And we grieve

I awakened this morning, haunted by the 20 innocents slaughtered yesterday. My heartache at this is palpable; yet I am aware that our nation grieves with me.

This haunting extends beyond those 20 children. My mind cannot begin to grasp what the parents of those children are dealing with this morning. Or the traumatized children whose school was so violated. Or the faculty and staff who have the images of horrified, frightened small faces seared into their imaginations. Or the parents of children who survived, burdened now with the “thank God not mine,” all while understanding the torment of the parents of the children who did not.

And that small community itself, stripped now of its innocence and the pretense that horrors did not happen there.

There is no sense to be made of this. I find the question, “how could this happen?” to be completely useless. The sad truth is that we live in a culture whose mental healthcare system is so neglected that something like this can happen. We live in a culture that so values the right to own any kind of gun that a person can obtain multiple weapons easier than they can get a driver’s license.

And the scale of those who pay for this cultural insanity is inordinately tipped toward our children.

And so we wake, as a nation, grief-stricken and keenly aware of our own powerlessness. We are powerless to protect our children.

As I write this morning, my house is full of sleeping 20-something boys. They were out together into the wee hours. As they left last night, happy to be together, they were arguing about who was to be the designated driver, with me echoing a nagging refrain in the background, my maternal heart newly reminded of the dangers. They would have a designated driver, but what about the other cars on the road when these boys return here at 3AM? There it is: the powerlessness.

And yet, our children must wander out into the world where all manner of horrors live. Mentally ill young men with easy access to guns. Drunk drivers. A misjudgment of height and ability, resulting in a tragic fall. A sudden, virulent disease.

Our impulse, in the face of this, is to DO something. Investigate. Blame. Make casseroles.
We busy ourselves and take what comfort we can in that activity.

But I really think the greatest question for all of us is how can I BE today? How can I be love today to the people I encounter? How to my children, my parents, my neighbors? How can I be mindfully loving to the person who checks my groceries at Kroger?

Last night, I watched the community of Newtown gather for vigils as they began the long journey of grieving all they had lost. I imagined a community drawing in to surround the families who lost their children and to help the traumatized survivors. There seemed to me an intention to love wherever they can.

What if we all choose to do that? Wherever we are. How can I be love today, in Nashville, or Boston, or Berlin? Wherever you are reading this—how can you be love to those you encounter today?

My heart tells me that if I begin where I am, love can make a difference. It’s the only thing that does.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Effervescent Queen

Yesterday was the one year anniversary of my dear friend Cynthia’s death. Cynthia was a busy, bubbly person, spreading love wherever she went. I called her “my effervescent queen” because of the buoyant quality about her. Even in the last hours of her life she was seeing the magic in the moment. It is horrible to witness the wasting death of cancer in a dearly loved one. Yet the essential Cynthia shone through.

Despite her effervescent nature, Cynthia’s life wasn’t all happiness. She had challenges and pain. Like all of us, she had childhood pain, which she grappled with as an adult. She wrestled with the grief that comes with infertility and other challenges as well. Her cancer brought physical pain and added layers to the grief and loss she carried.

Some of us are incapable of facing our cruel demons, yet Cynthia tackled it all, the emotional, physical, and spiritual pain of it. Through it she had this buoyancy of spirit which spread love and light to the people in her life. She radiated this internal liveliness, it was infectious, and helped all of us who were fortunate enough to journey along with her.

I write this because I miss her terribly, but also because I deeply believe this is possible for each one of us. We all have challenges, deep pain, and loss. It comes with the territory. Welcome to the human race, as I like to tell myself. And we have joy and grace available, in equal measure, at each moment. Yes, there is pain. Yes, there is joy.

It isn’t a one or the other proposition. We have all of it, at any given moment. The question isn’t one of either pain or of joy. The question is: will you say yes to whatever is? We have the opportunity to experience the fullness of it all. The joy, the sorrow, the loneliness, the quiet contentment, the regret, the sense of grace, the profound grief, the deep connections. They are all there. Now.

This is the image of Cynthia and her gift to me: she is saying yes to all of it. I’ve written about her before, and probably will again. Because she has this enduring quality about her. The gift of yes. Yes to life in all its pain and wonder.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Gratitude central

It is Thanksgiving morning in America. I was up early, out walking the dog under a bright blue, gently lightening sky. I came back to a quiet house where my sons, beautiful and big-hearted young men now, were asleep. I love it when the house is full and quiet.

The turkey was in its briny bath, cooling where I had prepped it the night before. I set to work chopping vegetables, boiling eggs, and mincing parsley for the cornbread dressing. It is a bittersweet day, full of love as I prepare foods I know my family enjoys. Yet that mother-shaped vacuum persists—the holiday hole where my mother used to be.

While I enjoy the family time at Thanksgiving, my gratitude has now burst the bounds of the day. These days I actually do find myself grateful for it all. Pain and loss have played a significant role in my life: childhood trauma, the loss of dreams, divorce. Yet, inexplicably, these profound wounds, these scars, have become treasures. I find past hurts adding a texture and richness to who I am.

Often I experience each moment of each day from a place of gratitude. And even when I slide toward those dark places, gratitude is there, keeping me tethered to joy until I can resurface from whatever I am wrestling with, to breathe again.

How did I, to my own surprise, arrive here? The road was long and rocky, let me tell you. And I’ve had oceans of help along the way. The usual suspects appeared: therapy, deep friendships, 12-step work. But my spiritual practice has been the most transformative. Meditation has become my friend and, at times, my challenger. It has enabled me to really show up, to stay intensely present in the moment, regardless of the situation. In moments of profound loss, I am completely there. In moments of joyful play, able to abandon myself to it.

And so, gratitude is my steady companion. I breathe it in on this Thanksgiving Day. And I embrace it on all the others.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

An update from Total Surrender Bootcamp

I have officially emerged from Total Surrender Bootcamp. I’ll admit that Monday was a little sluggish for me. It was a challenge to step back into the busyness of my life after such a deeply immersed weekend.

As I posted last time, I hit a sort of wall last week and needed to capitulate to my own powerlessness over several areas in my life. I spent quite a bit of time journaling, confronting my own fears and the way they hold me back. There were also quite some hours of meditation involved in this.

Several things came from this intense time. One is to trust my intuition. I have some powerful messages coming to me, I can feel their truth in my heart and belly. These insights are guiding me, both on the job front and in my relationships.

The other thing is this idea of choosing love. “How can I be Love?” was the thought that came again and again over the course of boot camp.

And, of course, these two things are intimately linked: Trust and Love.

I recently read Sam McLeod’s entertaining account of his Nashville boyhood, Big Appetite. It is a fun journey filled with Southern characters and food. There is one particularly poignant scene when a young Sam and his brother Mikey are interacting with Mamie. Mamie was the African-American women who resided with Sam’s aunt and uncle on their farm in west Tennessee. She cooked and mothered Sam and his brothers when they visited, providing nurture and general wisdom to all.

In this scene, Mikey is sad and homesick. Sam and Mamie are discussing Mikey’s sadness when Sam asks Mamie what makes her sad. And Mamie replies, “Laud, chile, ain’t nothing make me sad. Nuthin’ ever make a body sad. A person get to decide that. If you sad, or mad, or whatnot, it’s ‘cuz you choosin’ to be. It be your choice. Don’ never forget that.”

After my boot camp weekend, this is where I have landed: Mamie’s wisdom.

Because it is clear to me that this is about my own choices. I am constantly given divine guidance through my intuition. I need to trust that. I can choose to trust or to not trust, but the choice is mine. And as for all the rest, it is about choosing love.

And that is it: Trust and Love.

I am just humming with it, full, flowing and profoundly connected. I pray I can find my way to choose this and live in it for a while.

Trust. And Love.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Total Surrender Bootcamp

This weekend I am immersed in “Total Surrender Bootcamp.” You see, I’ve been working on some things in my life for some months now and finding no movement on any issue. I’ve been trying to do my part, take action, pray. But it is now as if I’m facing a wide, dense fog before me and I cannot see down the metaphorical road. So on Friday I decided to spend the weekend by ceasing the search, taking no action on any front, crying “uncle,” and intentionally giving up.

The details of all this are fairly mundane. I’ve been looking for a job for some months. I’ve made progress, had interviews and second interviews. I’ve met with headhunters and followed their advice. I’ve met lovely, generous people who have assisted me and advised me and passed my resume along. I’ve been truly humbled by the many people who want to help me.

Other areas of my life that are fuzzy include the health of a beloved family member and a budding friendship that took a surprising turn. Last week, with layers of emotion greeting the anniversary of my mother’s death, I just felt like: “really, I have no idea.” Done, empty, spiritually stripped to the bone. So I thought, “why not go with that, with complete and total surrender?”

I’ve spent the weekend wallowing in my own powerlessness. Powerless over hiring decisions, a loved one’s health, the relationship choices of others, and many other things, I’ve been sitting in my own inability to force movement.

Total Surrender Bootcamp has been a weekend practice facing this reality. I’ve been writing extensively about the things I want in my life, ways I am powerless over them, and the fears that I have which hold me back. Looking at my fears has been particularly helpful as it has revealed the ways I undermine myself, especially in the area of my relationships. I call this experience “bootcamp” because I have poured myself into it with hours of writing, meditation, and reading Thom Rutledge’s very helpful book, Embracing Fear.

What is happening is that I am seeing some patterns to address, finding great relief from fear, and I am living very much in the moment. All good and helpful things. Where Total Surrender Bootcamp will lead after this weekend, I have no idea. But it has helped me return fully to the very uncertain road I am traveling. And for that, I am profoundly grateful.

And after these hours of reflection and struggle, one idea returns over and over: how can I be Love? I have no answers to this but I do have a choice. How can I be Love in this day, this situation, with the people I encounter day to day? That one thought makes the uncertain road just a bit clearer.

If I can help you with your own version of Total Surrender Bootcamp, please don’t hesitate to email me.

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

More from grief central

A few days ago marked the one year anniversary of my mother’s death. I hesitated to write more about grief but it is such a universal human experience I am going ahead. We all have grief. We lose pets, we move, we have to give up smoking or drinking, we get sick. We marry, we divorce, we get a promotion and have to leave one job in order to take the new one. Loss comes to us on a daily basis. Some losses are small and bring about a simple pause of grief. Others, like a divorce or a death, are seismic and take months or years to ease.

I have found that one of the perplexing aspects of grief is its tendency to add to feelings of isolation. Grief, whatever the cause, strips away and in my own I have found myself feeling profoundly vulnerable and alone. Grief then is a great leveler, bringing sorrow and loneliness to each of us.

During this year of grieving my mother I have experienced loneliness in new and profound ways. I think the bond we have with our mother’s is deeply physical making the sense of isolation, once the bond is broken, physical as well.

As I experienced this loneliness, it occurred to me that I was simply joining the rest of the human race. Loneliness is another of those part-of-the-human-condition things, we all have it. I realized I didn’t need to fix it or change it. I could choose to experience it, try it on and see what it really feels like. I became the observer to my own loneliness and actually told myself, “welcome to the human race.” In this way I chose to experience my humanity and all of its vulnerability. My loneliness, then, became a source of connection with the rest of humanity. Choosing loneliness actually eased it. While in loneliness, I was able to find connection by embracing my humanity. And when I do that, I live into my truest self.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Walking shoes

Yesterday I went to get some new walking shoes. I love the pair I have but they are just a tad small. It was cool Saturday morning when I walked so I wore thicker than usual socks and I walked about seven miles. When I got home, I found I’d bruised the little toe on my right foot and it hurt quite a lot. Probably going to lose that nail.

So yesterday I was off in search of foot relief. I went to one of those athletic stores where they do a careful fitting. “Henry” helped me, measuring and checking my stride. He is a warm, interesting person. We chatted about hiking and he told me about his experience as a teenager being packed off to a wilderness camp for troubled youth. It’s the kind of thing where the parents have to ambush their child, doing all the preparation and packing unknown to the child, sending them off unexpectedly. “Henry,” as one might predict, hated it. They camped and hiked in the wilderness, off trail, covering 20 and 30 miles a day. Since his parents pre-shopped without him, his boots were too small, his feet raw.

Of course, he eventually fell in love with the Utah Rockies and ended up working for the program. However, one of his passions is music, so he came back to Nashville, the home of all things music.

As we talked yesterday, it became clear to me that his passions are torn. He loves that outdoor, mountainous lifestyle and working with people in that atmosphere. He also loves his music. And, from my brief encounter with him, he enjoys helping others (my feet feel so much better today I could weep). What was so apparent to me is that each of these passions feed his soul.

“Henry” hasn’t been out west for a long time. He is currently formulating a plan to get there for a visit. I could feel his longing for the mountains and the wild beauty there. And it struck me that if he could be in his beloved mountains even once a year, it would feed the creative drive of his music. The two things need each other for his spirit to truly thrive.

The idea of going where my love is, of really following my passions makes sense to me but I have often been held back from it by my own fears. I can come up with a lot of reasons, very sensible reasons, to not follow my heart. And only one, the one that defies logic, to do so: because my heart burns with love and joy when I do follow those passions. In a world of mortgages, tuition, and taxes, that just doesn’t seem very practical.

And it isn’t. But we aren’t in this world to be safe. We are here to trust, to live with love and joy. Plus, there’s no reason why we can’t follow our hearts and pay our mortgages. After all, it’s about trust.

I hope “Henry” takes that trip out west next spring. And I hope it stokes the fires in his heart and belly and helps him find his bliss.

As for me, I’m going to enjoy the amazing people in my life who give me courage to follow my own bliss. And, a step at a time, I’m going to follow it.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Climbing out

In the spring of 2007, I filed for divorce from my marriage of 20 years. Life felt heavy and I wore it heavily.

During this season, I spent a great deal of time at Radnor Lake, the remarkable nature preserve just a few miles from my home. One clear, sunny day that spring, I sat on a bench beside the lake. Sitting quietly for some time I slowly began to notice some movement in the Tulip Poplar branches spread above me. Glancing up, I found hundreds of tiny gray and yellow birds, each no bigger than a ping pong ball, hopping about. Together, these tinies filled that vast tree with their cheerful activity.

As I watched in wonder, I noted an odd bubbly sensation in my chest. It felt good to me, pleasant, and yet strange because it was so unfamiliar.

When I next saw my therapist, I described the moment to her and she said, “that is joy, Janet.”

For much of my life I have been a stranger to joy. As a child, I experienced some fairly severe trauma. I coped in adolescence and early adulthood, but by my mid-thirties those coping skills failed me and I fell into a fairly severe depression.

This depression was such a gift in my life because it plunged me into enough pain that I had to ask for help. Despite quite significant opposition to my seeking out help, I was steely in my determination to get better. So, I began a long road, addressing old wounds and learning to care, at last, for myself.

Here I am, years later, full of deep gratitude, knowing profound contentment, and daily acquainted with joy. Along the way I have ended a marriage and lost friends. Yet, life is abundant for me now in ways that I couldn’t imagine before.

Here is what I want to say to you, in a most heartfelt way: if you are struggling, you do not have to live that way. Whatever challenges, opposition, or difficult choices may lie in your path, you do not have to live in pain. There are many, many people equipped to help and who want to help.

In my deepest heart I believe we are meant to take pleasure in this life, in the living of it. Most of us have painful experiences that keep us from the joy we are created to embrace. But pain does not have the last word here. Joy does.

If are hurting and need help finding a way forward, please email me if you think I can be of assistance to you. You’ll find an email link to the right of this page. Just as we were made for joy, we were made to find our way forward in community, with help from others. And you deserve it.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Grief central

This month marks a year since my mother’s sudden death from a massive stroke. In this year I have found grief a strange experience. During, and the first few days after, her death I was superwoman, high on adrenaline and working through the endless list of things that need to be done following a death. Focused on my elderly father and his grief, I paid little attention to my own. Then the fog set in.

Those of you who have lived through the death of a close friend or relation understand what I mean by “the fog.” My brain just went fuzzy the day after the memorial service. I had trouble concentrating. I felt I was unfit to drive, I was that distracted. The tears crept in then, randomly. As when someone mentioned the word “hemorrhage.” Or when someone asked if I’d been terribly shocked by her death. Well, yes. She was fine until the moment the stroke hit. 24 hours later she was dead. I’d say I was shocked. Or when the realization of all the celebrations, weddings, birthdays, and shopping trips she would miss: the thing she loved most was being with her family and she leaves a gaping hole.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross helpfully mapped out her stages of grief in 1969. She proposes five stages to grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are not linear and not everyone experiences each stage. I’m finding them to be a bit of a stew, mixed up together. One day I found myself weeping for Mom in the morning and feeling profoundly connected to her and in acceptance by the afternoon. It is a bit of a roller coaster ride.

While I am experiencing this roller coaster, there are also a few underlying spiritual convictions that are helping me. One is that my mother is fine. She is in a place where she is safe, content and useful. I even feel she is busy. Motivated by love in this life, I’m convinced she is busy spreading the love around in the next.

Another thing that is helping me is the feeling that she remains present in my life. She may be on another plane, one that I do not understand, but her love reaches me and her guidance is mine for the asking. With my whole heart I reach out to her and feel her near, continuing to always wish good for me. If I can let her presence in, she will offer her help, through my dreams and intuition.

Finally, and most importantly, is gratitude. My mother was tender and nurturing. The experience of this gave me the ability to recover from my own wounds. She was also smart and interested in the world and in those she loved. I am one of the fortunate few who can say that my parents were truly devoted to each other and I witnessed their mutual admiration for each other. This gratitude is deep, sustaining, and enables me to experience joy in the midst of my grief.

Grief isn’t really about despair. It is about memories, about loss, and about experiencing the vacuum created when a loved one leaves us. But it is also about the vibrant life shared, about the gifts given and received, and about joy. Because grief is so multi-faceted I am finding that I can embrace my own life, the life given me by my mother, even while I miss her terribly. 

Friday, October 5, 2012

An evening at the symphony

My heart continues to soar this morning after attending last night’s performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony by the Nashville Symphony Orchestra. From those first, famous "Ba-ba-ba-bom" notes, I was captivated and keenly present. The music itself is tremendously moving but to watch an orchestra skillfully perform this physically demanding music is inspiring.

As I sat in the symphony hall I was bathed in an awareness of good fortune. There I sat, with my wounded heart, seated in this world-class, exquisite hall, surrounded by other music lovers with their own wounds and worries. My heart, bursting with the pleasure of the moment, hearing this music composed long ago by a man unable to hear his own compositions, wrote from his own wounded heart.

Conductor Giancarlo Guerrero vigorously led a talented orchestra through the movements. His stocky form moved with grace, an athlete at work in his fitted tuxedo. It was all invigorating and profoundly moving.

While the music was exquisite, what struck me with force is the vast, collective talent the performance represented. I sat in this breathtakingly beautiful building. It was dreamed of for years by the city’s cultural movers and shakers. Their vision and planning brought the needed funds to reality. Other talents designed a hall to rival the best symphony halls in Europe. A survivor of the historic and massive 2010 flood that hit Nashville, the hall is restored. It is a true delight to be in the building. One of the things I enjoy about going to the symphony hall is standing at the railing of the second floor balcony above the Grand Foyer and watching the people of Nashville milling around below.

The building is one thing. Another is the amassed talent on stage. Young and old, the musicians performed with rigor, feeling and precision. And the bass clarinet player almost made me swoon!

Here’s the thing: people thought up all of this. People similar to myself, with profound wounds, physical limitations, griefs, psychological burdens or all kinds. Like each of us, each one contributing to last night’s beauty and wonder, were and are profoundly human.

I think we so often, in our woundedness, forget the wonders of which we are truly capable. When we give from where we are, as we are, the results can be remarkable. Beethoven didn’t stop writing because he was deaf.

You may not have contributed to the making of a remarkable musical performance (although many of my Nashville friends have!). But I have no doubt you have touched another’s life with your abilities, wisdom, or love. And that is equally remarkable to Beethoven’s fifth.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Brain chatter

Yesterday afternoon I sat in meditation with my wonderful group that meets weekly. It was a beautiful fall day, the first to be cool and crisp in the morning, warming as the day moved on. I felt happy as I padded into the space in my bare feet and sat on the floor at the front. Enjoying myself, I sank into meditation.

About ten minutes into the sit, a man came in late and sat behind me. And then he started to cough intermittently. Out of peace my judgmental mind jumped into action: really? You’re going to come in late, walk down to the front, and then start coughing? Where is your ricola?

And here I was, confronted with a “difficult” person and having to deal, right in my meditation practice, with my own judgmental mind. What I wanted was release from this judgment. I often long for release from this judging mind, especially while driving. When driving it can show up in a firestorm, tormenting me as I judge bad drivers making similar bad choices to ones which I have, at times, made while driving.

As I sat there on my cushion yesterday with all of this chatter going on, I realized that what I want even more than release from the judgmental mind is to have a compassionate heart. And at that moment, I began to find relief from the brain chatter. I turned a heart of compassion on coughing-man and began to practice loving-kindness meditation toward him. When I did that, the judgment ceased.

Loving-kindness meditation is a simple practice. It begins with self, moves to someone I care for, and then moves toward someone I may find difficult. It goes like this:

May I be safe from internal and external harm.
May I be happy.
May I be healthy.
May I be at ease and know peace.

Yesterday, I began to use this practice with coughing-man. May he be safe, may he be happy, may he be healthy, may he know peace. And, as these things work, I was the one who began to find some peace.

As the meditation practice came to a close and Kathy began her talk, she announced that the title of her talk was “Living skillfully in the difficult.” All I could do with that was quietly chuckle to myself.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


I had a wonderful trip to Seattle last week. The weather was perfect: in the 70s, bright sunshine, a crisp blue sky. I was able to take advantage of some of the walking trails the city has to offer, many beside water. And, of course, I drank copious amounts of coffee, brewed by hand by the cute barista at the local café a few blocks from where I was staying. What could be happier than taking an early morning stroll through a charming neighborhood to enjoy fresh, hot coffee and a good book?

As happy-making as all of that was, the highlight of the trip was the evening I spent with my friends, Lee and Lisa. I’ve known them for more than 25 years and it has been fascinating to follow their journey over that time. Lee and Lisa have two biological children. It is these sons who led Lisa to the path that would be their “great” journey. It was in their younger son’s school that Lisa first met Siobhan. This little girl was in trouble, her home life filled with chaos and neglect. Over time, seeing the need, Lisa and Lee felt moved to take her in, to foster Siobhan and to eventually adopt her. Now grown and a marine, Siobhan was married this summer.

Through this one little girl, Lisa and Lee found what I think of as their true calling. They have gone on to adopt two more children and are fostering another (and hope to adopt him), nurturing them and advocating on their behalf to see them each begin to emerge and thrive for themselves. As I listen to Lisa, I hear that she is fully herself in this parenthood work. And Lee, my poet friend, also expresses himself fully through parenthood, poetry, and a unique ability to be fiercely present in this world.

They have come fully into themselves, their true selves. I don’t want to imply that they don’t have challenges or pain in this life but I think that, even when faced with challenges, they are able to stay centered in themselves.

I am not advocating for all of us to go out and start fostering needy children today. What I am suggesting is that our job in this life is to be the best version of ourself, our truest self, we can be.

For Lee and Lisa that has come in loving six amazing children, as well as writing and gardening and child advocacy work.

For others of us it may be working with the homeless or creating a beautiful work of art. Or being the best soldier you can be. Or the best employee. I know people who are dog people, they rescue them and make a place for them in this world. Your particular gift may be the gift of stillness and you are your best self when sitting in silence.

Whoever you are, be the very best Amy, Paul, or George you can be. That is your job. No one else can do it for you. And doing that, being yourself fully, being the best at being you, will bring you joy, just as it has my dear friends, Lee and Lisa.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Beautiful wreck

‘Cause we’re only human,
Oh yes we are, only human
If it’s our only excuse, do you think we’ll
Keep on being only human?
Oh yes, we are, only human…
--Jason Mraz

This idea that we are “only” human is powerful. I’ve heard it used as an excuse to explain natural limitations as in, “but I’m only human.” At its most hurtful this is wielded as a weapon and spat out as in, “well what do you expect, I’m only human!” Used as either weapon or excuse, this keeps the person claiming to be “only human” from recognizing their limits and taking responsibility for them. And to view being “only human” in this way seems to me shortsighted.

I actually think our humanity, our naturally limited nature, is one of our greatest gifts. It is our limitations that allow us to learn and grow, it lets grace in, and it causes us to need others. My own limitations have brought me pain, it is true, but they have also been the path I walked to grace, gratitude and joy. Without my faults, I could hardly know any of these God-given wonders.

But this grace I have experienced didn’t just wash over me due to my shortcomings. I had to own up to them, take responsibility for my mistakes and limitations; I had to embrace them in a way. If I had pushed them away or denied them, I wouldn’t have been able to learn. It was in moving toward my faults that I found freedom in them. I really see limitations as a wonderful opportunity.

For without my limitations, how would I ever need anyone else? Where would there be room in me for relationships with other people or with the divine? How would I ever be able to let anyone else in?

It is my humanity that opens the door to compassion, for self and others. It turns out that I’m just a beautiful wreck. And so are you. What can I learn from this, how can I grow, and how can I serve other beautiful wrecks that I encounter along the way?

Okay people! I don’t want to hear any more of this “but I’m only human” stuff. Let’s have some “I’m human! Thank God, I’m human! Now what shall I do with that today?”

Today I’m sending you love, from one beautiful wreck to another.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Forgiving others takes work

A deep, authentic forgiveness takes work. It doesn’t just happen by wishing for it. It can often take years. One person from my life took me quite some years, the result of work and some cursing.

Others have come more easily. But they have all taken effort.

I like to write. Obviously. And I find writing a helpful tool when I am working on things. I’ve found it especially helpful in dealing with my emotions around the challenging people in my life. Here is how I wrote some forgiveness into my life.

To begin, I made a list of people I wanted to forgive. The list was fairly short but spanned decades of my life. I was ready to set old wounds to rest.

For each person I wrote a stream of consciousness account of how and when they had hurt me. For one of these people this was long and detailed. For the others, the accounting was more about the consequences of the hurt, the impact it had on my life.

This next part, I think, is the most important. I wrote how I failed myself in the moment with each person. What I found with this is that I often failed to set boundaries, to say no. I tended, in these moments, to allow the other person’s bad behavior into my life. Then I wrote a promise to myself with specific ways I plan to do better on my own behalf in the future. This is likely the most important part of this whole exercise and calls for some time given to reflecting. The power to not be a victim often lies within us.

After penning this account for each person, and assessing my part in it, I also asked a trusted friend to hear my act of forgiveness. I read over what I’d written and then I declared, in front of her, my intention to forgive. There was something powerful about having a witness hear my intent, like the power in a wave or gust of wind, like a force of nature. And I was purged.

Forgiveness brings freedom, a deep-seated shaking off of the old, a release of old resentments. Once these old ghosts are released, the internal newsreel somehow stops, and I found that I was no longer captive to the actions of others and became more empowered to embrace my own path.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

The transformational power of forgiveness, part II: forgiving others

I attend a weekly meditation practice here in Nashville led by Gordon Peerman and Kathy Woods. It enriches my life in so many ways, for which I am immensely grateful.

The format is thirty minutes of guided meditation followed by a thirty minute talk. Yesterday Gordon guided us through meditation which focused on compassion. It began with a time of compassion toward self, then compassion toward a loved one, followed by compassion extended toward someone we find difficult.

As I focused upon my chosen “difficult” person, I could feel resistance in my chest to the prayer I offered on this person’s behalf. “May she be free from suffering…” I could feel, as I offered this, a little interior tug, not wanting to completely embrace this freedom for this person. I was uncomfortable with this, thinking, “really? I want her to suffer?” This led me to think of her, of times she had shared her struggles, including a profound loneliness. As she became a more whole person in my mind, I could feel a movement toward compassion for her in my heart. And I felt freer.

I began this series on forgiveness with self-forgiveness, just as Gordon began our meditation on compassion with compassion for self. To some, this may seem selfish, but it is quite intentional. It is that old paradox that in attending to self first, being self-ish, it provides energy and heart space to attend to others. In this way, learning to forgive self teaches compassion for the self which, in turn, allows for greater compassion toward others.

We have, all of us, experienced some wound caused by others. It may be as small as a hurtful word or as large as a physical attack. None of us are exempt; it may be a betrayal, a lashing out, a lie, a manipulation, or a deeply traumatizing event. We have all been disappointed in another.

We can spend our lives absorbed by these events, swallowed by blame and resentment: he said, she said, he did, she did. But none of the blaming really matters because another person’s hurtful, wounding actions, regardless of the pain it may have caused you, is really about them.

Their wounding action has to do with their weakness, their fear, their greed, their need to feed their own ego. It is about their pain or their need. What it absolutely is not about is you. This truth may do little to lessen the pain it causes in the moment but this realization may aid in you being able, eventually, to let it go.

Forgiving another is a process. It takes time. And it is for your benefit. That is right, it is for your benefit rather than the benefit of the person who you are forgiving.

Forgiving someone doesn’t make what they did okay. It doesn’t justify thoughtless, hurtful, or violent behavior. And, it actually does very little for the person being forgiven.

But it does a great deal, spiritually and emotionally, for the one who forgives.

For me, forgiving the deepest injuries in my life have taken time, prayer and work. But my reward is a much lighter load, both on my mind and in my heart. Forgiving those who have injured me has blessed me. And it can free you, as well.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

A simple tool to help with self-forgiveness

For some of us, getting to a place of self-forgiveness is a lot of hard work. This is a simple tool that I have used to help with the journey.

This is a written exercise so have a notepad or notebook handy, find a quiet place, and set aside some uninterrupted time. After getting settled, let whatever incident is bothering you come to mind. Let the emotions around it wash over you. Then start writing. Write down everything about the situation that is bothering you. Really pour it out. Let this be a stream-of-consciousness activity. Then bring your focus to your part in it. Write this all down, too. Ask yourself: Where was I responsible for the situation? How could I have made better choices on my own behalf? What are ways I didn’t take responsibility for myself?

Now carefully think about and write out ways you plan on taking better care of yourself in the future. What are ways you can do that? Can you begin to accept your own shortcomings so that you might live into forgiveness?

Then sit quietly and tell God that you release all of this into God’s loving care. Ask for help in the future and do your best to let it go for today.

I leave you with blessings for a joyous journey.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

The transformational power of forgiveness, part I: self-forgiveness

I have a friend in the process of divorce. Married for over two decades, he is struggling to understand what has happened to his marriage and grappling with his part in its demise. I saw him last spring, when we discussed this soul searching. His anguish over his role in the breakdown of the marriage was palpable and at one point he said to me, “I need her to forgive me.”

My response to him was that he has no power over whether his soon-to-be ex-wife forgives him or not. The larger question for both his current and future peace of mind is this: can he forgive himself?

I’ve thought for some time that a key developmental task of middle age is to learn self-forgiveness. It sounds so easy, yet is so very hard. Like many of us, I am my own worst critic. I would never speak to another person the way I speak to myself. This harsh inner voice is a burden and keeps me from joy, from intimacy, from fully living. Like my friend going through the divorce, it is far easier to look for forgiveness from another than to delve into the murky depths where I might claim it for myself.

I am not speaking here of lightly dismissing when we wound others. We are, after all, so limited by our own humanity. When we wound others we offer our apologies, acknowledge our shortcomings, and then move on. Most powerfully, this involves giving up the need to be right. Because being right really doesn’t matter. When we let go of the need to be right, we suddenly have all the freedom to be our true, human, hurt, limited self.

When we can forgive ourselves our own mistakes and shortcomings, they take on the power of opportunity. Now we are offered the magical moment to really learn and grow. Mistakes, limitations, short-comings are simply grace in disguise. When we can get past the fact of our limitation, the fact that we are not perfect, that is when we can rest in grace and really learn. And amazingly, that is the moment we become our most true selves. That is the moment when we start to fly. It is then that we live into God and shine.

How can you begin the process of forgiving yourself today?

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Giving up the isolationist mentality

Recently, I made a thorough job of personal isolation. And not in an “I need a little down time to recharge my batteries” way, either.

I’d had a pain in my side for a few months, like a stitch one might get when running. I’d discussed it with a friend but told no one when I went to the doctor. I didn’t want to bother anyone. I didn’t want to worry anyone. I didn’t want to seem alarmist over a little twinge in my side.

So off to the doctor I went and, as I thought she might, she ordered an ultrasound. That is how I found myself lying on an examination table, having one of the countless medical procedures that strip one of dignity, feeling frightened and profoundly alone. Afraid, I was being poked and prodded, while a very young woman watched my reproductive organs on a screen and periodically cleared her throat.

And I knew that the experience would have been entirely different for me if I’d told even one trusted person where I was going, what I was doing that day, and why.

In that moment, feeling frightened and lonely, I decided to stop. Realistically, about 90% of any heartache I have is of my own making. Why do I do this to myself? There are any number of people who would have gone with me that day. There are many people in this world who love me. I hurt by shutting them out.

And now I am going to work to open the doors to these people because this is all a choice.

Today, I am going to choose to let people into my life. I choose this, I choose who they are, and I choose to give up my own isolation.

And you can, too. Whoever you are, I guarantee that there are people in your life who love you and who want to treat you with kindness and respect. You have the power to choose to let them in. Or not.

Oh—and me? I’m going to be fine. It isn’t any of the big, scary stuff. And when I went to see the gynecologist, my sister was in the waiting room and greeted my good news with relief and pleasure. Because she loves me. And because I let her.

Who will you let into your life today?

Thursday, August 2, 2012

5 simple ways to practice gratitude

“Every day, think as you wake up, today I am fortunate to be alive, I have a precious human life, I am not going to waste it.” –Dalai Lama

I wanted to follow-up on my previous post by offering some simple ways to practice gratitude. Let’s face it, life offers challenges. Sometimes, too close together. Practicing gratitude helps me maintain perspective in the midst of challenges. This simple practice helps me keep a positive attitude which, in turn, helps me address whatever challenges I may be encountering.

  1. Keep a gratitude list. My list always begins with a roof over my head, my good health, my children, their good health, work colleagues I enjoy, my parents, siblings and friends. And that is just the beginning. See? It’s working already. My sister always includes coffee on her list. Anything is open for consideration. And I find that once I start, I begin to look at things in new ways. “A washer and dryer! I have a washer and dryer! In my house. Isn’t that amazing?” You get the idea, and this really works. Who has time to whine when one has a machine to do the dishes?
  2. Breathe deeply in this moment. Really. Take that deep breath and look around. Notice your surroundings. When I take a moment to do this I am struck by where I am. It goes like this: breathe in, notice patio. Realize I have a patio to enjoy. Enjoy it.
  3. Eat mindfully. How often do we race through our meals, another task to be accomplished in our busy life? I am so guilty of this one, often eating in front of the computer while I work or in front of the television to catch a little news. How very different my meals are when I sit down at the table and notice the smells and colors on the plate. When I take the time to savor each bite, I notice the taste and textures of what I am eating. Then I am grateful, not only for the nourishment, but also for the beauty of the arugula leaf or the vibrancy of the blueberry.
  4. Take a walk outside. This is a fast way to shed anxiety and worry. Look around and mindfully notice what is around you. See the plants, trees, and flowers. I so enjoy a stroll through my neighborhood, in part because of the self-expression found in other’s yards. People take such pride in their homes. I also find that the simple act of moving brings gratitude for this body and the ability to walk around on this earth.
  5. Make a list of all the people who have helped you. My list begins with my parents and goes on from there. The thing about this list is that I never get to the end. There is always someone else to include. I can add several people just from the day I had yesterday. And some people deserve to be listed repeatedly. Like my parents. And there you go: the endless list of people who care enough to help. If that isn’t love in this world, I don’t know what is. And for that, I am grateful.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Gratitude works like magic

My friend Cynthia, who died last December, is my guide when it comes to a life lived in gratitude. She’d known emotional challenges and the grief that comes with infertility. There were other sorrows for her along the way. And her great challenge, at the end of her life, was in dying this painful death from cancer. Cancer strips a person of everything in the end: physical command, dignity, choice. But it can never strip a person of their essential essence, if the person can find some way of living in grace to the end, as Cynthia did.

Even in the face of the raw strip-down of cancer, Cynthia was able to live in gratitude. A few nights before her death, I stayed with her so that her husband could go home and get some rest.

I sat beside her bed in the dimly lighted room, feeding her ice chips and talking quietly to her. As I fed her she stopped munching, looked directly at me and whispered, “this is magic.” And it was. Cynthia’s sense of wonder and gratitude, even mired as we were in pain and grief, permeated the moment and brought us joy.

Each moment holds the possibility of something remarkable. A moment may be steeped in fear, grief, or resistance. And it can still hold gratitude. Life is so often not one thing or another thing. It is often, I find, full of moments that are fear AND joy; or sorrow AND wonder; or rebellion AND gratitude. It is crazy and mixed up that way. But the thing is that gratitude itself has a calming, grounding, and steadying quality to it that makes even the most trying experiences endurable.

The ability to find the remarkable in the moment, as Cynthia did, is the practice of gratitude. I claim gratitude to be magical because it brings relief from obsession with self. And relief from self opens the doors for community, freedom from self-absorption, and an ability to experience the wonders of each moment.

Mary Oliver so ably captures this sense of wonder-in-the-moment in her poem The Swan:

Across the wide waters
  something comes
    floating—a slim
      and delicate

ship, filled
  with white flowers—
    and it moves
      on its miraculous muscles

as though time didn’t exist
  as though bringing such gifts
    to the dry shore
      was a happiness

almost beyond bearing.
  And now it turns its dark eyes,
    it rearranges
      the clouds of its wings,

it trails
  an elaborate webbed foot,
    the color of charcoal.
      Soon it will be here.

Oh, what shall I do
  when that poppy-colored beak
    rests in my hand?
      Said Mrs. Blake of the poet:

I miss my husband’s company—
  he is so often
    in paradise.
      Of course! the path to heaven

doesn’t lie down in flat miles.
  It’s in the imagination
    with which you perceive
      this world,

and the gestures
  with which you honor it.
    Oh, what will I do, what will I say, when those
                  white wings
            touch the shore?

Peace in this life is found in gratitude in the moment. “It’s in the imagination with which you perceive this world, and the gestures with which you honor it.” Thank you, Mary Oliver, for the reminder.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The spiritual quality of usefulness

Last winter I spent a Saturday evening with a friend and her delightful ten year old daughter. After a delicious meal, warm conversation, and an activity, lead by the ten year old wonder, known as making “goo,” I headed home.

My friend and I attend the same church, although I am more than spotty in my attendance these days. As I hugged my dear hosts good-bye, my friend called to me, “I have coffee fellowship tomorrow.” I called back, “I have Radnor Lake tomorrow!” She then responded to this with, “you’ll be having a spiritual experience while I make coffee.”

I thought about this exchange as I drove home. True, I would have a spiritual experience at Radnor Lake. It is difficult not to have one in such a place. A nature preserve, it has hiking trails looping protected woodland and that picturesque lake. Teeming with animals, one is sure to encounter deer, turkeys, water foul, woodpeckers, or owls. The day promised a bright blue sky and sunshine. Of course I would find my bliss.

However, I am not quick to dismiss my friend’s coffee service from the realm of spiritual experience. She would spend the morning brewing coffee, serving it to others, straightening up after them and washing dishes. This time spent performing seemingly mundane tasks leads to what I call the spiritual quality of usefulness. Yes, my friend “only” made coffee that morning. But because of her presence at the coffee bar, others were free to enjoy coffee and each other’s company instead of making it themselves or doing without. And my friend had the opportunity to be useful.

This sense of usefulness is powerful. It helps us celebrate our gifts, our strengths, and the qualities we have been given by God that we then pass along to others. This ability to identify and enjoy our own strengths also helps us feel connected to a larger spiritual reality. We are connected to the earth, to every plant and animal and person on the planet. It helps us know that we belong here, that we have a place in this world, and a contribution to make. And it includes you.

No matter who you are, what your situation may be, you are a part of this world and have a place in it. I like to think of the universe as an enormous organism and myself, a tiny cell in that organism. I’m just a cell. But I have my job to do and my contribution to make. Now I’m going to get up and make it!

Saturday, July 21, 2012

I attended a funeral recently. The deceased, Jack Fichtner, grew up in the harshest of circumstances. His father was an alcoholic who gambled, raged and impoverished his family. As a child, Jack was intimately acquainted with poverty and violence. Beaten regularly by his father, Jack knew little protection or comfort from his mother. Yet, his fondest childhood memory was of one of the few times he could recall his mother holding him. This occurred after his father had beaten him so severely that he should have been hospitalized. Strangely, Jack remembered this with fondness because, although wounded and traumatized by the beating, he was comforted by his mother holding him.

Born into a house of violence and neglect, the Jack spoken of at his funeral was very different from the environment in which he grew up. His six children, their spouses, and his 18 grandchildren were there, grieving for him. His widow of 59 years was there, lost without him. The stories told about him were of a man who loved, was fun, guided his large family, and gave generously to those he encountered who were in need.

Jack had plenty of demons from his past, fear being one of the largest. Yet, he overcame fears and rage to love and to give in this world. And he did this by surrendering spiritually.

Complete spiritual surrender. In his case, to Jesus Christ. “The notion of releasing our power of choice to a Divine force remains the greatest struggle for the individual seeking to become conscious,” writes spiritual teacher and medical intuitive Caroline Myss.

Jack’s childhood was one of complete powerlessness to horrific forces. His early adulthood was a struggle with that powerlessness and his own search for power. In his early 40’s, he surrendered to his God. And then, despite some ongoing fears, he was able to love and be loved, to give generously, and to find contentment in service to others. Because of this spiritual surrender, Jack was able to find joy. And beyond joy, he found a sense of purpose and usefulness in giving to others. 

He found this abundance in spiritual transformation. Like him, we are all wounded, and feel our limits deeply. This grace and freedom is available to all of us, if we simply let go into the divine.Transformation is our for the asking.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Live into the darkness

One morning not long ago, two of my morning readings (Rachel Remen’s Kitchen Table Wisdom and Mastin Kipp’s daily blog, The Daily Love) were about the power of darkness. I’ve been feeling the darkness nipping at my heels the last several days –not the suffocating darkness of depression—rather the soft, blanketing darkness of grief and loneliness. My mother’s death, followed closely by the death of a friend, has left a gaping hole in my life.

But this darkness isn’t a yawing pit of blackness, threatening to overwhelm or swallow me. It is no threat to my existence and I don’t need to fix it. Quite the opposite.

Darkness can be a place of healing, growth, and transformation. Babies are formed in darkness. Caterpillars are transformed within the silent darkness of the cocoon to become butterflies. Wounds, beneath their dressings, mend in darkness.

When I began a journey of recovery from childhood trauma, I had to head home after each meeting with my therapist to rest. This was in the beginning, when I was first allowing my painful truth to unfold. My mind and spirit were both exhausted at the end of each session from the effort of telling the story.

Arriving home, I would wrap myself in the fluffy comfort of my duvet and recover in its welcome. My therapist, with good reason, called this “cocooning” and said that it is necessary for healing.

This was my introduction to the idea of valid gentleness and rest; to the truth that the darkness can be soft, safe, renewing.

Yet, this place of darkness is not passive. It is where active recovery is at work. Think for a moment of REM sleep. We lie in darkness, our bodies resting and recovering from the busyness of our lives, while our brains are active, processing our experience and setting our minds in order through our dream life. All while in darkness.

I am learning to not resist the darkness but to move toward it, allowing myself to rest and recover. This is a rare thing in this over-scheduled, constantly plugged-in, frantically busy world. But it is a gift, spouting from the fire hose, blessed darkness to be quiet and simply be.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Secret Garden

Recently, I was reminded of a spiritual practice that I have often used over the years. My teacher, Kathy Woods, was speaking of the idea of saying to the wounded child she once was, “I can help you now.” The idea is to go, as the adult self, to the child in whatever wounding situation that child may have experienced.

I have used this technique often over the years to help my own wounded inner child recover from childhood trauma. When, as an adult, those old feelings of fear, isolation, and helplessness threaten to overwhelm me, I comfort the child.

The technique I have used is more elaborate than the simple, “I can help you,” that Kathy suggested. My approach is a visualized meditation. I visualize a beautiful garden. It is fenced in with French doors opening from a safe house. There is a gate to this garden, guarded day and night, by a beautiful angel, who has long blond hair and a flaming sword. The garden is always in bloom with hydrangeas, lavender, roses and a thronging riot of abundance. There is a well tended lawn, perfect for a little girl to play.

I visualize little Janet playing there, blowing bubbles, enjoying the flowers, playing with a puppy. When that little-me is anxious or afraid, I envision the adult-me going to her, reassuring her that I am here now, that nothing can hurt her in the garden. When she is cranky and out-of-sorts, I see my adult-self erecting a beautiful open tent, hung with flowing white curtains. There are cushions in this tent, and I gently help little Janet curl up to rest. When she needs comforting, adult-me cradles her.

This visualization can be tailored to whatever works for you. If the garden feels like a safe place, use that. If it is a tree house, cave, beach, or mountain cabin that feels safe, use that image. Create a safe haven for your child-self, using your imagination. Help the child-self find activities which you remember with pleasure from childhood. Enjoy digging in the dirt? Give your child-self a shiny new shovel. Love trucks? Give your child-self a Tonka toy. Dolls? Put a cradle in the corner. Books? Place a small shelf with favorite childhood titles such as Treasure Island  or The Secret Garden. Safety, pleasure, authentic interests, comfort: these are the things that the adult-self can openly offer the child-self in this visualization.

The idea is for your adult-self to take responsibility for your own wounds. For most of us, those wounds began in childhood. For others, it may be the adolescent who needs guidance and comfort. Do whatever works for you. Use your imagination. Go to the child of your heart and, as an adult, offer that child the comfort and security she or he needed at that wounding time. Then offer your whole-self into the care of the divine, knowing that healing and grace are God’s deepest desire for you.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Spiritual practice is not one-size-fits-all

My spiritual practice has evolved over time. Currently it takes the form of 30 minutes of meditation in the mornings and 10 minutes at night with a daily poem from Hafiz to spice things up.

In the past I have practiced contemplative prayer, done daily scripture reading, used a daily reflection book, gone on long walks in the woods, prayed for help, and, at times, ignored God. What worked for me then doesn’t necessarily work for me now.

My friend Susan seeks a spiritual practice. She is an energetic person and sitting in meditation for 30 minutes a day isn’t going to work well for her. She ends up criticizing herself for not “doing it right.” For her, spiritual practice needs to be more active: a walk outdoors, acts of service to others, practice living in the moment.

Meditative practice is not for everyone. Just as outdoor activities are not for everyone. Find what is right for you and then practice the discipline. We call it “practice” because it is just that. We don’t arrive at some perfect spiritual habit or space. We meet it daily in our practice.

You might try some of these:

*Read a poem each morning. Mary Oliver, Hafiz, Czeslaw Milosz, and Rumi are a few of my favorites.

*Practice living in the moment. Regrets over the past bog us down. The past is best left in the past. The future is yet to be and is way beyond our control. Yet we each have this moment. Breathe it in and practice returning your awareness to the now, focusing your attention on what is.

*Nature walks with awareness help us stay centered. Attend to the details – the wonder of the trees, the sounds of the birds, the presence of chipmunks and deer alike.

*Many communities have groups that gather together for meditation practice. Here in Nashville we are fortunate to have Insight Nashville, lead by Kathy Woods and Gordon Peerman. Ask around your community. You may be pleasantly surprised by what you discover.

The spiritual life is a daily practice of surrender, returning awareness to the moment, and of release. In it you will find joy.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

This is a blog about the spiritual journey; our spiritual journey, yours and mine. It assumes a spiritual experience on the part of the reader. It also assumes the existence of a benevolent higher power. I’m not terribly interested in defining the nature of this higher power beyond an understanding that it wants profound good for each of us and makes grace constantly available. I’m way past the “trying to figure out” the nature of God phase. Who can figure out God? This is the ultimate mystery and way beyond the limits of my mind.

An image for this constantly available grace that I’ve been given is a fire hose, gushing forth with light and goodness. This hose is on, full blast, all the time and is ours to sip. We simply need to open up to it and let it fill us. A fire hose, when on, is blasting away and is powerful and can be overwhelming. Because we are limited, human, we sip from it, a little at a time, so as not to be overcome. A little goes a long way.

Dream teacher Robert Moss writes, ‘“We will change all things if we can make imagination sacred,” Yeats wrote in The Speckled Bird. Let’s choose now to harness the great fire hose of imagination to that, and make sure we have it pointing the right way.’

This great fire hose is for us, from a loving, divine source. It will fuel our sacred imagination, fill our longing hearts, and bring us a serenity we cannot imagine on our own. Sip with me, friends, and let us be filled and be at ease.