I work in a school community where, together with a group of other dedicated adults, I am responsible for the safety of more than 200 children. I’ve lost a lot of sleep since the most recent school massacre.
Thirty years ago, when I became a Montessori teacher working with three-to-six-year olds, we regularly practiced what we called “Exit Drills”-- we taught the children to stop what they were doing anytime the bell or alarm sounded, to listen for direction from the adults, to make a calm line and follow silently to a designated space outside of the school building, where we would take attendance to be sure no one had been left behind. Some children, no matter how calmly we discussed it, would scream or cry at the sound of the bell or alarm. In that case, I might pick up the scared child and carry him outside. Always, I was holding at least two little hands who needed that extra bit of comfort during an unsettling situation.
Nowadays, we are also tasked with teaching children what to do in the event of an earthquake, and in case of something now known as a lockdown. Whether running from an inside threat or hiding from an outside threat, the adults job is to keep the children calm and help them to believe that they are safe.
But the truth is, they aren’t safe. None of us are safe. Living here in the United States of America, the so-called ‘land of the free,’ no one of us is safe. Because United States citizens are regularly gunned down at schools, in places of worship, at malls and in movie theaters. Not to mention the increasing violence that occurs behind closed doors in the form of domestic abuse.
So, as adults who work with children, we focus on the steps over which we do have some control. Our grounds are secure. Check. Our classrooms are equipped with doors that allow for a quick lockdown. Check. Our staff regularly revisit all the steps required of us, should a threat occur. Check.
And we do our best to feign confidence in our ability to protect the children, so that they have safe places to air their concerns, despite what we all secretly know is just a show. None among us possess actual confidence in our ability to protect them, for the reasons already stated.
And despite the myriad intense opinions expressed on social media and in the news - fake and otherwise - I haven’t heard anybody offering compelling reasons why the incidence of gun violence at the hands of white men has reached epidemic rates, or why nothing is being done about it.
A recent news headline (on Slate, I think) resonated deeply and I’ve been pondering it: Violence is not a result of mental illness. Violence is a result of anger. I agree, and I disagree. I would say, instead, that violence is the result of anger that has turned into aggression.
When we work with children, boys and girls alike, empowering them to express all their feelings, those feelings include anger. Anger, like all feelings, needs to flow in order to move through and out. Feeling and expressing anger in appropriate ways lets children learn how to set and hold healthy boundaries.
Suppression of anger is where things get problematic. When anger isn’t allowed to flow and be expressed in appropriate ways, it can lead to aggression. Aggression is the result of suppressed anger, and violence is an act of aggression.
And, it would appear, based upon rates of violent crime among white American men, that they are the group most susceptible to acting out aggressively in response to suppressed anger.
So, on Sunday, when I read my friend Jen’s Facebook post expressing the exact questions I’d been mulling, with a genuine sense of curiosity and deep respect for men who would be brave enough to respond, I asked her if I could share it with my own online community. I then re-posted her request to the white men I know and love, to answer any or all of these questions: What is one helpful insight you've had about the anger and violence within you? What is one productive way you've found, on your own or with others, to work with, heal, or transform the anger and violence within you? What's one thing you commit to doing this week, on your own or with others, to work with, heal your relationship with, or learn about the anger and violence within you?
These questions resonate as a meaningful starting place for dialogue because they are open-ended; they do not assume that all white men act violently or express anger in the same way, nor do they assume that violence does not also exist in women or in men of other races. They do, however, invite deep and introspective exploration of a particular concern about the unchecked, unexamined anger in white men which so often leads to aggression and violence.
Men were asked to focus on their own lived, embodied experience and intentions. I wrote that links to or sharing of analysis-based “solutions,” or comments denying male anger or framed around the “not all white men” argument would deleted, and they were. The first few responses from men who came across as defensive and, well, angry, took me by surprise. One directed me to look at my own anger as the root of my misguided generalizations about men; another accused me of gaslighting with the questions I posed.
At the same time, I was completely humbled and moved by the deep and thoughtful insights from many of the other men who responded.
They bravely acknowledged having carried or carrying anger caused by biology or something akin to an automatic response, early influences of family or conditioning, a perceived lack of control of their circumstances, fear.
With such authenticity they shared the ways in which they have learned to manage or work with or overcome their anger: through awakening to the anger and their relationship to it, to the choices they face; through movement, spiritualism, time in nature and experiencing the cycles of life; through releasing attachment to perceived needs and desires; through experiencing true love from others and of self.
With clarity and compassion, they shared the commitments they make on a daily basis to everything from conscious movement to the care and tending of others; to expressing their feelings with courage and truth.
I want to share in its entirety the response of one young man who I am honored to have first met when he was seven and who is now aged 22--one whose clarity and authenticity is perhaps reflective of the new generation of visionary young people who are leading us through this dark time of violence and into a brighter future:
“Anger is constricting but when you bring awareness to it, it can provide lots of energy that can be used to uplift and empower. It also teaches me what I need to take action on because it shows me what I have difficulty in accepting. (I) take time to be still and use meditation and exercise to be able to look at my anger without judgement. Anger stirs lots of thoughts and mental noise so when it's quieted it's easier to see it for what it is. Then I can take needed action with a clearer mind. I commit to facing it and using it to make decisions that don't create mental debris. This is timely because I was angry very recently and finally accepted it with the help of awareness to it and body movement, and I felt very happy and light with most of the anger transformed. Now I can make a clear decision and I'm not put off by the initial discomfort it takes to face this issue. It's nice to write all this down too!” (DF)
If you’re connected with me on Facebook, you can read the whole thread in a post on Sunday, February 18th. And, if you are so moved, your own responses to the questions are most welcome and encouraged.
That we live in a culture that broadly fails to acknowledge white men as the most common perpetrators of gun violence is a problem. That there are mature, thoughtful men in the world, like these men, who are willing to acknowledge some of the reasons for anger among men and offer some ways of working with it, is indeed hopeful. My heart is filled with gratitude for the gift of knowing these men and, in particular, for the insight and wisdom they so generously share with me and with the world.
Let’s keep the dialogue going — that we may do better, as we know better.
photo credit: Annie Spratt on UnSplash
The quiver of a dancing leaf;
where your breath ends, mine begins.
The silver thread of spider's web;
as I squint my eyes, you tilt your head.
The shadow of a waning moon;
masks a moment gone too soon.
Leaf and web and moon remain,
but only memory brings us back again.
Years ago, while sitting across from my therapist, processing the latest relationship disaster that rendered me a pathetic heap of self-loathing, she explained a pattern that dramatically shifted my understanding and turned me at least in the direction of healing.
Most people, she explained, spend their lives trying to disprove a set of mistaken core beliefs about self, those acquired in earliest childhood: 'I’m unlovable, unworthy, undeserving' of this, that or the other thing. It's what drives toward achieving things like good grades, awards, degrees and certificates. The crazy part is, at the same time as we're trying to disprove our own unworthiness, we are collecting evidence to fuel our deepest fear: that we are, in fact, unlovable, unworthy, and undeserving; which is what drives some of us to engage in unhealthy relationships with unhealthy partners who affirm these fears.
I found this notion difficult to grock, and I'm really still getting my head around it. After all, like most of the women I know, I regard myself as intelligent and, at least intellectually, I really do believe myself deserving of healthy, mature, authentic love.
Here's the tricky part: these deeply held core beliefs can't be healed or resolved by merely thinking. If they could, Narcissus (and any of his modern day pseudonyms) would be hard pressed to find a date. But, because so many of us are still waking up to this pattern and learning how to interrupt it, Narcissus and his buddies have black books filled with the names of smart women like you and me.
While I officially passed the midlife mark a few years ago, without having achieved the societal success marker of a long term romantic partnership - because of that aforementioned tendency to choose Narcissistic men who have neither the interest nor the capacity for authentic partnership - I have learned to identify the cycle earlier and change course more quickly; which was the topic of today's morning pages. Because it's so timely, I thought to share:
Within moments of meeting, we’d fallen into easy conversation about a myriad of common interests; he seamlessly dropped the names of people I respect and admire, highlighting his connection to them and how they influence his work in the world. He looked deep into my eyes with genuine interest; there was instant rapport, warmth and laughter. He readily acknowledged my worth by asking if he could read some of my writing to learn more about me. He sometimes came uncomfortably close; brushing my arm or playfully touching my hand. I could feel his breath. Time seemed to stand still. How could so many hours have passed? Within that time out of time, the level of familiarity increased to the point I began to imagine what intimacy might be like with him. Within days, we had fallen into bed to culminate our sensual curiosities, and I had easily fallen headlong in love with the notion of him as the leading man in my love story. My infatuation with him dominated my thoughts in day time and dream time until, a few weeks into our delicious romance, he revealed his broody, distant, controlling self; the one he he’d left at home during those early outings. He criticized commitment and spoke with disdain for his ex-wife, demanding no strings be attached to our shared intimacy. His sudden, unexplained detachment left me reeling from shock and wondering what I had done wrong. I scrambled to remake myself in the image in which he had first delighted, exhausting my emotional reserves as he refocused his attention on the next, new shiny object of desire.
It's a generalization, to be sure, and some relationships included months or even years long periods of monogamy; still, the above story aptly describes most of the intimate relationships in my life until now. Which is a bitter pill for a smart woman to swallow. How could I not see it coming? Why would I waste even a moment with another self-absorbed ego-maniacal man? Why am I hopelessly attracted to men who lack the capacity for deep and authentic emotional connection?
The answer is obvious: if I don't love myself deeply and unconditionally, I can't draw that kind of love toward me. So, like most of the women I know, I worked on incorporating activities focused on self-love into my daily life. And, despite not having any sort of permanent grip on the influences driving my self-destructive relationship choices, I developed some survival/coping mechanisms. Such as, an unhealthy relationship with food and a tendency toward over-drinking to dull the chronic disappointment and grief. Over the last 30 years, I've lost and gained huge amounts of weight, depending upon whether I was curating an idealized self image or protecting myself against the next narcissist encounter.
And, even though I wasn't always able to stop myself from walking right into the metaphorical spider's web, I became very practiced at identifying the charismatic, narcissistic personalities that would prove the truth of my self-doubt and feed my fears of inevitable abandonment. In a crowd of hundreds, I could pick out the most self-involved musician; brilliant new thought guru, broody philosopher.
A couple of years ago I wrote a list titled ‘Ideal Mate,’ and have updated it several times since, to remind me of the love that is my birthright. Not surprisingly, the top ten attributes on this list include those that are present in my closest friends, and which I myself possess: honesty, kindness, empathy, compassion, generosity, openheartedness, presence, affection, humor, fidelity.
On a recent stroll through the forest, my friend asked, “where will you be in ten years?” I giggled aloud, recalling the intense flutter in my belly the first time he had posed that question, just after we met. I don’t remember what I said that day because, frankly, my mind was clouded with infatuation at his slightly sexy air of all-knowingness (read, arrogance) and impressive ability to quote Campbell and Krishnamurti on demand.
Thankfully, those silly idealized notions wore off awhile ago and so on this day, my answer rang out loud and clear, like a prayer:
Wherever I am ten years from now, I’ll be fully there, present and openhearted; passionately seeking the love that is also seeking me. And doing my best not to settle for less.
photo credit: Roman Kraft on Unsplash
This is a time of rebirth, as it springs up in tiny green shoots in the garden or as a sacred anthem of the reborn self.
Such as the one told by a woman on the radio the other day; yet another #metoo story to add to the mountain of stories upon which we stand, as women healing. I listened with rapt attention, as one does when reliving personal trauma through another. Just then my phone buzzed to signal an incoming text:
"Hey, love, you there? Still at this number?"
Bloody hell. Smart women don't fall for such narcissistic shenanigans. It's so damn cliche!
"I passed your exit the other night on my way home from a gig, and have been thinking about you since. Want to meet for a drink sometime? I miss you, baby."
Every few months he pops in to take my temperature, to find out if I'm available, or at least open... even just a little. Probably, his latest girlfriend has just dumped him. He's fishing for some nurturing, a bit of comfort, and a chance to lap up drink at the fountain of the divine feminine.
"Hey, sweetie, you there?"
Actually, I'm not; I'm back there, remembering how this story goes:
He'll be there, waiting, and wrap me up in a longer-than-just-friends hug and a kiss that will land somewhere on my neck. By then he'll have my rapt attention. What we had was really special, he'll say. I am one of his great loves, he'll say. Then, he'll regale me with tales of his latest and most brilliant work -- an award-winning composition or jaw-dropping performance. He knows me, trusts that I'll sense his insecurity and meet it with loving comments about his creative brilliance, building him up and reminding him of the greatness I fell in love with back then. He'll feign vulnerability as he describes in great detail the ongoing existential crisis that robs him of sleep; how his extreme sensitivity makes it difficult to deal with others expectations of him or to conform to traditional love structures. He'll gaze deep into my eyes, without really seeing me at all, and then say "you know..." as a way of affirming my ability to really see him.
"Are you dating anyone? Just tell me if you want me to leave you alone."
My tummy is in intense knots of nausea now, a signal that I'm dangerously merged with my inner child. Of course I see the wounded little boy beneath the fragile facade that fails to shield his weakened, rage-filled heart. That's what empaths do; we see. But seeing him doesn't excuse him, and doesn't help me break this vicious cycle.
"Hey. Remember, I asked you not to contact me again?"
I'm recalling the last time we were together. It had been a traumatic, tearful breakup and I should have known better than to go over when he called, but thought of being held seemed more important at the time than setting boundary. And I was still attached to my idealized image of him and of us. And I was deep, deep in agonizing grief ... about so many losses. He'd called me upstairs to his bedroom, where he lay in his bathrobe. He'd pulled me into him and forcefully kissed me hard, a basketball game blaring on the screen behind him. He'd penetrated me in a way that left me feeling sad and violated, not loved. After, I could see the anger in his eyes as he held my face and said, "I'll always love you."
Then, like so many times before, with his tank full and mine completely empty, he had walked away; leaving me with only myself to hold onto.
"Listen," I said, " for a minute I thought maybe we could be friends, but I was wrong. I love you, but I don't like you; and I don't like me when I'm with you. I can't help you, so please stop asking. Because love should not be pathological."
Nothing worth having is easy,
but if you leave before the final act
you risk losing the gift you had waited so long to receive,
the answer to the one question you came to ask.
You risk losing the moment of twilight
or glimpse of daylight
in which the wish fades into reality
and you realize you are already home.
Despite living almost directly in the path of totality, and having procured special eclipse viewing glasses, I didn’t choose to directly witness what is being called the great American eclipse.
I did, however, perform a quiet solitary ritual in the early morning, in honor of the intimate eclipse of sun and moon. And as the light began to shift, I snuggled into meditation position and began adding my mantra recitations to the collective prayers for peace. At some point I fell deeply asleep, and later awakened to discover that the eclipse had come and gone.
As I read magical accounts of those who put themselves on the path of totality, standing shoulder to shoulder with faces pressed into boxes and colanders and heads wrapped in tin foil, peering out into space through pin holes and paper glasses; I wondered if I’d later regret “meditating” through the most anticipated cosmological event of my life.
I had very intentionally chosen to follow my inner voice and allow my instincts to guide me, to honor the totality of the dark moon in darkness and quiet, alone. I thought about the phases of the moon, and earth’s revolution around sun as a measurement, marker and milestone of human existence; of the intimate dance in which the moment when one celestial body fully obscures the other is known as totality.
Totality means the whole of something; oneness. How can obscuration be viewed as oneness? I realize I’m hardly qualified to be picking bones with scientists, but this is where my mind wandered off to as most of America squinted through paper sunglasses to witness the stunningly brief union of Lune and Soleil.
Could it be that our witnessing of the event, the convergent awareness of our connection with the larger whole that creates the totality experience? Or perhaps it’s enough to tap into the collective hope and anticipation that what is hidden in darkness will soon be bathed in light. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in praying to the celestial beings overhead, for the unveiling of concealed truths and for a much needed healing of earth and her people.
Sometime later in the day I realized that, despite not having viewed it directly, the energy of the eclipse reverberated throughout my body. Bringing quiet attention to that vibration and settling deeply into it, evoked several poignant memories of personal brushes with totality.
The first occurred during a near-drowning when I was nine years old. Terrified, I choked and struggled against the downward pull of white water until, unable to fight any longer, I let go and my body floated toward an incandescent light that twinkled with the warmth of home. Years later, when I held my newborn son for the first time, I recognized the same shimmering light in his eyes. Finally, I watched in awe as each of my parents, taking their respective leaves of this temporary earth home, stepped into the same portal of warm light through which they had once escorted me. And ever so briefly, there was something resembling wholeness.
Truth and totality are moving targets, widely open to interpretation. Yet, a few fleeting moments of grace have anchored a connection to something larger than me, and in some inexplicable way I believe yesterday's eclipse did that too.
Still, next time I might wear the glasses… just for shits and giggles.
Yesterday I walked out into the yard to discover my favorite rose bush awash in crimson. Her name is Pumpkin Patch, and she has a story to tell.
In early October 2011, less than a week before she died, my mother stood at the bedroom window staring out at her beloved rose bushes. They were planted in whiskey barrels and, even so late in the season, were covered with blooms.
I wondered if the faraway look in her eyes belied sadness, or if she was lost in the mental fog caused by the cancer pressing on her brain. "What are you thinking, Ma?" I inquired. "We need a rose for that empty barrel, don't you think?" She said, pointing to one that had stood empty for many months; an indication of her decline.
By this time Mom was incredibly weak and unstable on her feet, even with the walker, so I was surprised when she yelled to my dad who was resting nearby in his easy chair, "Ole, get up! We're taking Sis to the nursery to pick out a rose!"
Dad and I tried to talk her out of it, but she wouldn't be dissuaded. Dad drove and I sat in the back with Mom, whose eyes scanned the landscape along her favorite county road. "Remember that nice farm stand, Deed?" I nodded, recalling many times we traveled that road together in search of an estate sale, or explore the antique stores in Coburg, or walk through the pioneer cemetery. I squeezed her hand as the memories washed over me, hoping she didn't notice my tears.
At the first nursery they told us their rose crop had been wiped out by a pest. Dad and I exchanged worried glances through the rear-view mirror. "Drive to Bloomers, they'll have what we want!" Mom directed. Dad had barely stopped the car in front of Bloomers Nursery when Mom flung her door open, heaved herself out of the car, and began pushing her walker across the gravel driveway. I ran ahead to clear a path. Dad followed behind, anxiously pushing his own walker over the unsteady ground and yelling, "Sis, stop her before she falls!"
But there was no stopping her. In what would be a final burst of energy my mother, with her signature tenacity, hoisted her walker over a railroad tie and came to a stop in front of a bush covered in gorgeous deep orange blooms. "This is it, don't you think?" she said, grinning and glancing at me for approval.
She appeared to sleep on the ride home, but as soon as Dad pulled into the driveway Mom sprung back into action, barking orders from her perch on a rickety bench: "get my trowel from the wheelbarrow; bring that bag of garden mulch and there's a box of bone meal in the shed; be careful as you remove her from the container, her roots are fragile; fill the hole with water and fertilizer before you put her in; take your time, don't hurry, give her roots time to settle."
Everything I know about roses, I learned from my mother. She'd walked me through the steps of planting, transplanting, pruning and feeding many times before. This time she recited every detail as it if were the first time, though I imagine she took such care because she knew it would be the last.
Later, I came into the bedroom to find my mother once again standing at the window, peering out at the patio. "She's a beauty, isn't she?" she said, motioning to Pumpkin Patch. "She's just perfect," I replied.
"Afterwards" she said, "you'll take her home with you, okay?"
And every time she blooms I'll think of you, Mom.
On a quest for magic in plain sight, I embarked upon an informal little experiment to explore the relationship between presence and perspective.
I began with an intention to notice when I am present (and when I'm not) and to record at least one daily experience of presence.
I have several weeks worth of words and images to represent these moments within which I experienced the Divine. As the days went on it was more difficult, because there were so many sacred moments from which to choose.
The more deeply I peered into places I’d only glanced before, the more I noticed finite details that seemed to grow and expand to fill the space of my witnessing. I began to realize how much I miss when I'm peering through the lens of the mind. Everywhere I looked, I saw evidence of Spirit’s enchanting, seductive presence in every corner of my world. I'll share a few...
One Saturday afternoon, my friend and I meandered through a tag sale at local farm, perusing antiques and sipping cups of soda infused with lavender; served by the farmer who had grown it. The air was thick with dusty nostalgia. I recognized the dandelion pattern on an pitcher like the one my aunt poured from during childhood visits; blue Ball jars just like the ones my ma used to store flour and sugar; and delicate embroidered doilies like the ones draped over the arms of thread-bare chairs at my grandparent’s house.
I picked up a bell jar and carried it around for awhile, cradling it in my arms like an ghostly baby doll. I realized that my attention had slipped into the past. On my way to return the jar I spotted the Sacred Heart of Jesus in statue form, draped with an antique rosary and nestled among other religious trinkets in the yard. The owner, having noticed my interest, explained that an old lady down the road had died and this was the last of her statuary collection. “You must be Catholic?” I explained that I'm a collector of hearts.
That sacred heart statue now stands guard among the fir and fern in my little front yard forest, greeting visitors with a message of love for humanity... and evokes a smile every time I pass. As did the dandelion seed "wish" that landed in my hand on another recent day, and the visit to my beloved childhood cottonwood tree, where my little girl spent many a dreamy hour observing the antics of crow and squirrel and occasionally joining in their games.
I reveled in the metaphors that appeared at every turn; the perfect Mandala of the artichoke, razor-sharp petals forming a geometrical fortress of walls within walls to shield the delicate, delicious heart hidden at her center. And ivy, weaving her path of destructive beauty around the trunk of a tall fir, warns of the dangers of entanglement. The intensity of her attachment, if the connection is not broken, will eventually kill her host and leave her homeless.
In these moments of presence, I noticed myself taking in slow, deep breaths to fully experience the earthy aromas and gentle messages of Spirit.
One evening, whilst snuggled in against my favorite fir, a waxing crescent moon hung high on the dusky horizon; playing tricks on my eyes as celestial goddesses danced nearby. I said a prayer of gratitude for Luna and her luminous cradle of creativity. The next morning, upon discovering a brilliant blue feather and two empty nut shells atop a stone adorned with moss, I wondered if Jay and Squirrel had arranged their sacraments by the light of that Goddess moon.
For the past few weeks I’ve been experimenting with being present. The deal is, when I catch myself rushing to dampen the intensity of some feeling with a mood-altering "fix"-- a glass of wine or game of solitaire or chapter of fiction--I wait. And I attempt to stand fully in the presence of the thing I wish to avoid, to put a name to the internal conflict for which I seek an external remedy.
What I've often noticed, in such intentional moments of quiet awareness, is that some deeply held belief left over from childhood bubbles to the surface as the chaos-making culprit.
That's what happened recently, when a treasured friend (and sometime lover) abruptly ceased communicating. After a long period of being MIA, he sent a vague, cryptic message to let me know that he'd be returning some books I'd loaned him. I'd been stuffing my sadness for weeks, but when a large envelope appeared on the front porch labeled with his distinctive scrawl, the familiar story of abandonment (mine) washed over me, signaling the urge to pour a big glass of wine. Corkscrew in hand, I remembered the promise I’d made to myself and set the corkscrew aside in order to feel the full weight of my disappointment.
Truth is, the dance was familiar to me; he had disappeared before. So, I had enough awareness to let my friend (and my expectations) go, but not before speaking the truth that seized in my throat. I told him of the emotional pain I felt at his leaving and he replied that, by sharing my own pain, I had overwhelmed him and challenged his healing. Sometimes life events chart a course that cannot be corrected, he said. On the road less traveled, he said, that is to be expected. And he withdrew.
It's important to mention that the man I had romanticized him to be bore little resemblance to the actual object of my affection. My imaginary lover-friend, in a grand epiphany, would have shown up at my door in person, offering profuse and genuine apologies for his selfishness and emotional ineptitude. That heartfelt reunion would have led to long hours of intimate dialogue and hand-in-hand walks in the forest, followed by passionate lovemaking and some idyllic version of happily-ever-after. Of course, such delightful narratives are the projections of an unhealed self, destined to crumble beneath the harsh realities of human relationship... but my, what a lovely distraction from the real work.
Willing myself to stay present to the reality of the package in my hands, I invited the feelings to come. They tumbled out in a sort of jumbled mass that filled my belly with nausea and my throat with a choking sensation. I took a deep breath and named those feelings confusion and disappointment; I acknowledged their presence and invited them to speak. In my mind's eye, I saw a sobbing little girl who knew with dismal certainty that the contents of that envelope signaled the loss of something important. And I saw that it was her pain churning in my belly.
Fearing I might vomit, I finally tore the mailer open and started to unpack the books – there were more than I remembered having loaned, plus a short message scribbled on the back of a postcard bearing the image of a Mandala: "with deepest gratitude." How ironic that he had chosen a symbol of life never ending on which to write his brief parting message.
I had loaned him the books--simple stories with spiritual metaphors about trees and turtles and gardens, and one about a little girl with a very brave heart—as read-aloud material for his loved one, who had cherished children and books before her terminal illness, carefully selecting them with that in mind. So I was surprised to open the cover of one to find pages stuck together and stained with mildew. I checked the envelope for a note of explanation; none was given. Why hadn't he cared enough to wrap them carefully or deliver them personally? It doesn't matter, I thought--and then came to a deeper conclusion: I don't matter.
It was as if the tenderness, caring, and love I'd given so freely had been tossed in a heap on my doorstep, completely discarded. Emptying that envelope was like unpacking one childhood core belief after another: I'm not lovable, not worthy, not enough. I don't matter. They tumbled forth accompanied by the overwhelming emotion I've spent most of my life avoiding, distracting myself from, and reciting endless verses of "I'm okay" over: GRIEF.
Now, reaching down into a pool of tears, I grabbed the shaky hand of a tiny girl drowning in fear and imagined putting her firmly on my lap. “Of course you feel abandoned,” I said aloud to her. “You have a lot of source material for that belief! I'm so sorry for all those disappointments you suffered. Every little girl deserves to be loved and cherished." I assured her that I would always stay, that she would always have me; that she would never be abandoned again.
Determined to stay present, I allowed myself to feel the impact of all her losses. My heart ached for her never having felt like enough, grieved for those who left too soon or never really showed up, bled for her fruitless search for love in all the wrong places. I felt the desperate intensity of her desire to be held and protected, and her recklessness and self-destruction when the world felt entirely unsafe.
As I acknowledged her presence, affirmed her feelings, and offered myself as the healthy adult in whom she could trust, I began to recognize some deeper truths.
I think that grief over losing his loved one rendered my friend's heart incapable of fully opening to me or to anyone. But having carried the weight of my own grief for so long, and having let go of my expectations—often not reality-based--I could finally conjure some empathy for him and his little boy within.
And I promised to stay with my little girl self, even when I'm afraid. Especially then, I promised her, I'll stay.
In August, 1988, I moved from Portland, Oregon to Dallas, Texas, where I began my career as a Montessori guide. A couple of months into the experience, I hit an emotional wall of heat fatigue and home-sickness. I phoned my parents and tearfully recited all the reasons I’d like to quit my job and come back to Oregon, including; oppressive heat and humidity, aggressive insects, an overabundance of fried foods, and a serious shortage of trees and mountains. “Now, c’mon sis…” consoled my mother before quickly passing the phone to Dad, who responded to my whiny diatribe with a stern invitation to "tell me about the blessings." I thought he was being insensitive when he told me how daily gratitude had transformed his life. "I begin and end every day by giving thanks," he said and, with a tone of mild annoyance, suggested I give it a try.
A few weeks later, an envelope arrived. It was the one and only letter I would ever receive from my father. Inside, on a sheet of yellow legal paper, the kind he always had on his desk, Dad had written his gratitude prayer. It began, “Thank you, Dear Lord, for this day. Thank you for all of my blessings;” and ended with, “Bless my efforts that they may be good, that they may be productive, and to thy glory.” I put that paper by my bedside as a reminder to recite the prayer morning and night, until at last the words came automatically without thought. Then, I tucked it in my wallet where it stayed for years; until the yellow paper began to disintegrate. I still carry a copy of the original. And we had a copy printed on the order of worship at Dad’s funeral, scattering his blessing a bit wider and further.
A few nights ago I awakened from a dream dialogue with my dad but, by the time I’d located my journal and pen in the dark, only this fragment remained within conscious reach: “You have only one responsibility in life and that is to listen intently for the still quiet voice of God, and allow it to show you where you are needed most. It is only in the care of others that we evolve as souls.”
In life, my father was all about service so his sage advice echoing across the veil wasn’t surprising; I hear from him now and again. Still, I found it quite profound to receive this particular message in the early morning hours of my 54th birthday. Particularly because the night before, slightly in my cups, I’d written a very long journal entry about my wishes, hopes and dreams for the year ahead.
It is only in the care of others that we evolve as souls.
It’s easy to fall into an internal dialogue around an unrealized desire; or to become attached to a romanticized notion of a person, place or experience. Such notions may distract for a moment from the reality that what tethers us to this place is neither the gravitational pull of earth nor the hands we are blessed to hold along the way, but rather the invisible thread to the Divine home from whence we came and where we will soon return.
And if we are very, very blessed, we may experience fleeting moments of sheer bliss in relationship to another, or to nature, or to art. In the presence of this kind of love, one cannot help but want to hold it close; letting go feels counter-intuitive. Bless my efforts...
Near the end of my father’s earthly journey, in 2011 my son and I were able to capture a few moments of him on videotape while sitting in the office where he continued to go almost every day until he died. He was shy about the recorder, but reluctantly agreed when I said it was important for his grandchildren and their children. In that dialogue, Dad recited a list of guiding tenets which he credited to his own father and other mentors along the way. What follow is that list as well as a brief excerpt from the interview:
1. Work hard – nothing worth having comes easily
2. Be grateful for what you have – even if it doesn’t seem like enough
3. Tell the truth – even if it means losing relationships
4. Invest in people – join with those who share your values
5. Avoid going into debt – be a good steward of what you have
6. Allow relationships to grow – and take time to nurture them
7. Don’t be afraid to say no – clear boundaries are necessary
And give thanks every day, at least twice.