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.