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 dear person in my life 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 beloved, in a grand epiphany, would have shown up at my door offering genuine apologies for his emotional ineptitude. Of course, such delightful narratives bear no resemblance to real life. They 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.
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.
As a child, I would lay for hours beneath the big cottonwood tree in the backyard, staring up into its branches and eavesdropping on the private conversations of crow and squirrel. One day, a beautiful, glistening object glided down to rest in my hand, lightweight and fragile. I gently cupped my hand around it and went inside to find my mom. “What?” she asked, without looking up from the kitchen table. I carefully opened my hand to reveal the delightful little shimmering ball inside, to which she said, “Oh, that’s just a weed … it’s from a dandelion. Take it outside, make a wish, and blow on it. Maybe something good will happen.”
I thought it the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, that wish. In my bedroom, the movement of my hands opening sent the shimmering seed upward, dancing above the bed. I made a wish, for more wishes. When it came to rest on my pink dresser, I carefully placed it in my special jar on the highest shelf.
I wasn’t good at making friends with other children, but I found companionship in the wishes that accumulated in my special jar and in the crows and squirrels who called out to me from the big cottonwood tree.
Sometimes I opened the jar and released the wishes into the room. Dancing the dream of my wishes, I forgot about my shyness and fear, and my spirit floated to a happy, magical place.
One summer day, my mom said, like it or not, I was going to camp. When the day came to board the bus, I begged to stay at home. My cries were met with admonitions of “Don’t be silly; it will be good for you. You need to make friends.” As I waited with the other campers, I caught sight of a glimmer just above my head. A wish! I reached up and grabbed it, without calling attention from the other children, and tucked it into the outside pocket of my overnight bag.
The next day, we arrived at the place where stony outcroppings created a rocky slide into a clear green pool of water. I sat down in the grassy space beside the water, explaining to the counselor that I preferred to watch; I was afraid to say I couldn’t swim. But other campers coaxed… “C’mon, don’t be a sissy! You’ll be fine!” I didn’t believe them. I knew better. It wasn’t safe.
Trembling, I eased my body into the freezing cold water, holding my breath and wrapping my arms tightly around the waist of the boy in front of me. Just then, I noticed a wish floating above the water… out of reach. As I watched the wish float up and away with the wind, the train of children began moving downward, sliding more and more quickly over the rocks. In the next instant, the boy I had been clinging to was gone. I was alone. My arms flailed wildly, grasping for anything to hold onto. My screams erupted from beneath the water; I struggled, choking and terrified, until I couldn't struggle any more. My body floated freely, my voice mute.
Cradled by the same invisible arms that had carried me into the world, glimpses of home flashed before my eyes: my family, smiling and laughing; my dog, my books, and my jar of wishes. A bright light in the distance drew me into its warmth. I wanted to go there. I wanted to stay there.
When I awoke, I felt the warmth of stone against my cheek. I had been propped against a large rock in the sun, and my bare feet rested on the earth. I had glimpsed something extraordinary and magical and wonderful; a place that felt like home.
As I grew, so too did my jar of wishes. They appeared on gentle breezes with messages of hope whispered in my ear. Some followed me home as I ran to escape the jeers of a school bully. One wiggled its way into the pages of my favorite storybook. Another appeared on my bedspread like a twinkling light to calm my fear of darkness.
I carried the jar into adulthood, introducing my son to the magic of wishes and giving him his very own wishing jar. On the day Gram died, a wish went into his jar. Another went in on the day his papa moved away. More came as we restructured our family. We collected wishes while searching for lost kitties and going for walks. A few landed in the little white basket on the front of his bike, while others flew in his bedroom window on summer evenings.
After joyful celebrations of graduation and his passage into adulthood, my sweet boy left for college. I was alone then, really alone, for the first time in decades. Silence, which at one time had been such a comfort to me, now felt suffocating. In my grief, solitude, and loneliness, I wasn’t sure how to go on, or if I even wanted to.
Friends, concerned about my isolation, began to organize potential matches. I hated the idea of dating but I went along, reluctantly. One afternoon, I arrived to meet a tall, handsome, dark-haired man who “would be a perfect partner,” according to the well-intentioned matchmaker. He was so engrossed in a loud telephone conversation that he nearly ran me over in the restaurant lobby. “Be right with you, honey,” he said.
I knew I should go right then, but before I could take a step toward the door, in one broad gesture he dropped his phone on the table, threw his arm around my shoulders, and swooped in to kiss me on the mouth. I was stunned.
Despite his boorish manner, a fondness stirred within me as he regaled me with stories of his brilliant musical career, his awards and travels and adventures. He recognized me as a member of his “tribe,” he said. I assumed that meant he was spiritual.
I dreamt of him that night and awakened with a jumble of feelings and a dull ache in my belly. When he came calling the next day, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He noted my ability to really “see” him; I noted that something about him felt familiar, like family.
Within weeks, I had fallen completely in love. I was charmed by his laugh, his sharp wit, his talent, and the fierceness of our lovemaking. I began to abandon my life at home in order to inhabit his world; I changed plans to be with him, cheered at his performances and giggled at his boyish antics. I naively accepted his infidelities as evidence of his broken spirit, and I believed him when he assured me he was working to heal that fractured part of himself.
A few months into the relationship, in a brief moment of clarity, I realized I had begun to lose myself in him, to disconnect from things and people who had once been so important to me. Tending to his broken spirit was breaking mine.
One morning, as we lay, bodies entwined and speaking in whispers, I bravely opened my heart wide and blurted out my deepest desire: “I want your presence and your partnership.” I told him I wanted to get close enough to explore every inch of each other, inside and out. “I want your commitment,” I told him, “and I want your devotion.”
Saying those words aloud felt so liberating and exhilarating. But he pushed away from me, wide-eyed and speechless. Soon his words began tumbling out, tentative at first but with a tinge of what sounded like anger. He loved me, he said, more than he had ever loved anyone but, still, he wasn’t certain that a life with me would be the most interesting adventure of all. He asked me to be patient, to stay and support his process of self-discovery; he said he’d like to marry me someday. I vowed to stay, to accept him, and he praised me for my openheartedness.
One winter morning, watching a beautiful leaf from the big maple outside his bedroom gliding gently to earth, I was overcome by a feeling of deep contentment. The veil of sadness covering my spirit seemed to lift a little as the sun streamed into the bedroom window. In the months to come, we spent long hours talking about the life we could build together, traveling together, planning our future. Those were moments of intoxicating happiness for me, and it was easy to associate the brightness of my spirit with the person in whose arms I lay.
When we weren’t together, though, I began to feel anxious and unsettled again. It became more and more difficult to overlook his leering at other women, to keep up the pretense of partnership. Driving home one rainy afternoon, I was overcome with deep sadness. Through my tears, I didn’t see the car stop abruptly in front of me. The crash was deafening. I couldn’t catch my breath. The woman from the other car pounded on my window, screaming for me to get out.
Sobbing and shaken, I stood beside the smoldering wreck of my car, pondering the shuddering wreck of my life. The paramedics said I should not be alone that night, so I called my love from the tow truck, explaining what had happened. “Sweetie, I’m so sorry,” he said. “Can you call a friend?” he said. “Mary and I have already rescheduled once,” he said. “I’ll call you in the morning,” he said. “I love you,” he said.
The tow-truck driver dropped me in front of my house, where I made my way to my favorite fir tree and collapsed there. In the pouring rain, I cried out God and Goddess, angels and ancestors, begging them to quiet the chaos of my heart.
There was no turning back after the crash. When he called the next day, my voice erupted with passion, venting months of stored up disappointment and rage, confusion and sadness. I told him how his emotional abandonment and selfishness had worn away at my self esteem and caused me to doubt myself, how it had eroded my trust in me and in him.
“I showed you who I was from the beginning and you refused to accept me! I loved you more than anyone, but it wasn’t enough!” he screamed, and hung up.
He was right; he had shown me who he was, in so many ways. I had refused to see him, and he didn't have the capacity to see me. His version of love felt so familiar, like home, but there was no hope of redemption there. The object of my desire, the man I regarded as beloved, was just another version of the mother who shamed me; a hungry ghost feeding endlessly on the energy with which I showered him; a broken, frightened little boy in a grown man’s body.
He was the star, the prince in my fairy tale of idealized love; a brilliant, beautiful catalyst for my awareness and healing.
I reached into my pocket for a tissue and found a crumpled wish. Holding it gently, I climbed to the high shelf where my jar of wishes sat, neglected for years. Carefully carrying the jar down and dusting if off, I opened the lid and blew lightly to release the wishes into the room. I waved my arms and began to dance, closing my eyes, conjuring distant memories of expectancy and hope.
I danced for a long time, and gradually clarity danced along with me. It was time to accept what my heart had known all along, to reconnect with the magical, wise little girl within. In the months that followed, amid oceans of tears, I discovered the core of my own inner strength and wisdom. I left behind notions of fairy tale princes and princesses, of true love and happily ever after, and I began to assemble the pieces of myself that had long been scattered. I met and embraced the little girl who had been the keeper of my wishes and dreams, the one who so desperately needed protection and who sought it in all the wrong places.
I learned to draw on my own inner resources to protect her, and to assure her that she would never be abandoned again. And, finally, she and I began to walk in the world as one.
Ever since I was a child, my wishes, those gentle messengers of spirit, had offered me glimpses of my own divinity and illuminated the deepest knowing of my heart. Their sacred purpose had been revealed in the expectancy of a little girl who needed to believe in her voice long before it arrived, and in the hope of a grownup girl whose longing for love eventually led her back to the hearth of her own heart.
Armed with a reservoir of gratitude that had, at last, grown stronger than my fear, and with a wish tucked in my pocket, I took my first tentative steps toward the greatest adventure of all: a love affair with my own mythic journey.
I see your true heart
through the lens of our lifetimes;
too many to count.
I inhale your breath
and recognize your laughter;
echoing old days.
I feel your embrace
and remember your whispers;
against my forehead.
I hold you again
dreaming, so I remember;
when my body sleeps.
When we meet again
I will know you by your heart;
your breath, your embrace.
And I will love you
better than I did today;