What Really Matters?

As you travel on this pathway we call life, have you considered what matters most to you? If you were to develop a terminal illness, do you think your life priorities might shift? Remain the same?

Although I have no life-threatening illness I am aware of, I have for several weeks now journeyed at the side of a friend with incurable brain cancer. I see this virulent, aggressive disease steal a little more of her life each week—loss of mobility, loss of the use of one arm, loss of speech, loss of the ability to live independently, loss of self care skills, loss of cherished leisure skills, and in time, the glioblastoma will pilfer her final possession: her life.

Sorrowed by a serious set-back a few days ago at a time when we were geared up to work at therapies that would help her walk again and use both her arms, I have been ruminating about what’s truly important in life, and about how we use our precious time here on earth together. When we arrive at the end of our days—as we all will one day—what are the things we’ll remember as the things that truly mattered? Will it be the size or elegance of our home? The kind of car or truck we drive? The brand name of furniture we place in our homes? The size of our bank accounts? Or something else? While i felt the above are all nice, I discarded each as not one that matters most.

I thought back to my young neighbor years ago, Louise, who developed colon cancer and soon died. After visiting with her one day at her home, Louise walked outside into the warm sunny Catskill day with me as I prepared to leave. I opened the car door to slide in, when she suddenly said, “Oh, look at the beautiful yellow bird,” and pointed to a young tree close to us, where the bird perched. I looked at the bright, lemon-colored bird and then looked at Louise’s face as she told me what kind it was. Her blue eyes glowed with pleasure from the bird’s presence, her smile was peace-filled and lovely, and her entire face radiated inner joy, a reflection of the gifts the yellow bird had given her.

After Louise died, I remembered that brief moment often and vividly, as I still do today, feeling the cloudless blue sky and sun envelop us all in that brief moment of warmth and profound pleasure. Small perfect moments like these matter so much, moments that can easily slip away unnoticed, yet moments to vigilantly watch for, in order to enter into them fully and deeply.

A colorful kaleidoscope of rich memories like these passed through my mind as I pondered: my children young, completely and happily absorbed into moments of deep pleasure: watching a tadpole swim, opening a birthday gift, swinging high in the park, engrossed in a book. These were interspersed with a slideshow of times with friends, with past clients and patients with whom I worked.

These are the events, to me, that matter most in life: our complete presence with each other. Our willingness to “hold space” with one another.

A Facebook friend recently shared an excellent article about holding space with each other that captures what I am describing. Although it centers on an end-of-life moment, I believe we can hold space with another at any time in life. If you’d like to read more, the link is: http://heatherplett.com/2015/03/hold-space/

As I hold space with my friend each day now, I can think of nothing that matters more in life.

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A Modest Proposal

With deference to Jonathan Swift for borrowing his book title, I have long thought about this proposal for every politician in America. The proposal would not go to the house or senate for a vote; it would go to our citizens and, if passed, would become a permanent law of the land, until or unless the people wanted a re-vote.

Like the title, my proposal is not new. It’s actually a spin-off concept, simply a very good idea, from a non-profit organization in rural upstate New York’s Delaware County where I worked for thirteen years. The agency was deeply dedicated to excellence in an area of human services—serving the mentally delayed and mentally ill—that often lacks quality. Here’s what we did:

When a new employee was hired, regardless of job title, he or she spent the first day of employment in a role play as a client receiving our organization’s services. Each was given a disability (eg., confined to a wheelchair, paralyzed on one side of the body, blindness, inability to speak) and several other daily living goals to promote identified growth areas: eating skills, verbal skills, gross and fine motor skills, social skills, and often goals to improve maladaptive behaviors. The employee role-play goal: to increase empathy in a highly positive environment for those we served.

You may now sense where I’m heading: I submit that anyone who wishes to serve the people in our country be required to enter a minimum week-long, 24 hour-day role-play, stepping into the shoes of a huge segment of our population, those who live within or close to poverty guidelines.

This candidate would become a single parent of three children, 13, 9, and 6, employed as a stock/check-out person at a big box store, earn $18,700 per year gross income (40 hour week x 52 weeks x $9.00 per hour), have chronic asthma, requiring an inhaler that cost $100.00 per month, and have no medical benefits. Home would have two bedrooms, noisy neighbors, and be located in a moderately high crime rate area. The car would be ten years old, have worn tires, brakes, and an overdue inspection.

During the role-play week, the following would occur:

• The youngest child wakes up sick and must stay home. Parent choices: (1) call into work, say she/he is staying home with the child. With no personal time, the day is unpaid, or (2) have the oldest child stay home from school to care for the sick child. Child Protective Services has already investigated several of these “illegal” absences. Paying a babysitter is not possible.
• Driving to work, the parent is stopped for the expired inspection sticker. The parent gets a temporary inspection during lunch hour using food money to pay the fee; the tires and brakes must be fixed in a week for a fee of $174.00.
• In mid-week, the parent’s breathing inhaler empties; the parent must choose: buy another inhaler or tonight’s food from the dwindling food dollars.
• At home, a final disconnect letter waits from the electric company for $129.00. The parent puts this on a credit card which she/he pays $20.00 per month.

These problems are but sample barriers that our fellow low-income, uninsured citizens encounter daily, yet are problems so far from our politicians’ lifestyles.

I cannot stop imagining our country as one where everyone could earn a living wage….

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Pondering Oxymorons

This morning I sat outside on Nora’s peaceful patio here in Arizona,  practicing mindful meditation on this late-April morning. The day had not warmed yet the dry air comfortably surrounded my bare legs and arms. When my eyes opened, they serenely gazed at a plant in gorgeous bloom, then moved to the swimmer’s pool where water gently rippled toward the tree end of the pool, as three small trees cast stunning shadows onto the walkway, rocks, and water’s rhythm. IMG_20150428_084907429

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A mockingbird sang to me as, far away, I heard heavy equipment tell its raucous story of new construction in this desert place where, when Nora bought this home two decades ago, there were no other homes, just hers and the stunning desert mountains.

I felt surrounded and embraced by beauty, today unable to pair this natural beauty with Nora, fifteen minutes away in a hospital ward, quietly, gracefully, determinedly waging her silent battle against the disease named glioblastoma that seeks to steal her body.

The pale, balding, easily nauseated, seemingly gentle blue-eyed woman chooses to deal with her disease with unfathomable grace. She has never uttered a word of complaint. She moves through each moment of her day with all the poise she can manage: she reads the paper and magazines that arrive in the mail; she watches her favorite television programs; she checks her emails on her smart phone; she enjoys visitors.

My eyes lifted up and outward then to the breathtaking mountains so near. Nora mentioned yesterday there’s not one of these that she’s not climbed several times. She retired early at 60 and never ceased her love of hiking, this woman who has been so healthy and so fit all her life that it was utterly incongruous to accept the diagnosis of stage 4 brain cancer.

If I think of Nora’s body as the sparkling pool water, then imagine pouring gallons of black oil into it and watching the horrific assault of pollution slowly seep into every corner of the pool as that brain cancer did, that’s the level of incongruity I feel. We’re in a hard place right now, three weeks after chemo and radiation completed, her white blood count is dangerously low and she is hospitalized in isolation, at a high risk for infection. Visitors must wear masks, gloves, and gowns. Strong, broad spectrum antibiotics drip into her veins along with anti-nausea medication.

We view this time as another slide into the black holeIMG_20150428_092740368_HDR, and affirm that she’ll climb out again. She is working hard at physical therapy to regain use of her right leg and arm, part of her body–that tall, gentle lifetime companion to her soul who has become this recent stranger. In my mind, I picture her one day home again, sitting next to me here drinking in the peace, solitude, and beauty that she created long ago.

In this time of uncertainty, I do know one thing for certain: whatever course this disease travels, Nora has created an amazing space in our world. Just as her spirit is here with it now, the quiet stunning grace and gentleness such a profound reflection of her psyche, she will forever be a part of this landscape.

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Climb Every Mountain: a Quilt Story

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Have you ever felt you are exactly where you need to be in the universe? If so, you will understand how I feel when I look at the Climb Every Mountain quilt that hangs majestically on cousin Nora’s huge wall above her king-sized bed. Her sister, Lynne, made the quilt and though I’ve never asked Lynne, I feel certain she chose that pattern because Nora has climbed so many mountains in her lifetime.

She and Lynn grew up with their parents on a small family dairy farm in a small dairy community.

Life there was peaceful as Nora grew up and she became fascinated with the earth that surrounded her. I didn’t know Nora then (her father and my former mother-in-law were siblings) yet in my mind’s eye I easily see her endlessly exploring the hills and meadows on the farm with quiet fascination. After high school and college, she went to Alaska for an advanced degree and became a geologist, studying rocks all over the world that told her much about how our earth was created. The only continent she has not visited is Australia.

Nora’s work brought her to the desert a few decades ago and she settled here, then retired a few years ago. Her desert home is a living, breathing reflection of her love for the earth: outside, the house is surrounded with rocks and desert plants, landscaping that Nora has done over the years she’s been here. Inside her home, reside more rocks, many with fossils, quietly sitting in nooks and crannies, on shelves, window ledges, and some gathered in boxes on the floor. If you look closely at the headboard in the picture, you’ll see a pint Mason jar. It contains ashes from Mount Saint Helens.

After retirement, Nora continued her world travels, hiking into new places and climbing more mountains. Last Thanksgiving she flew to Virginia to spend the holiday with our small family. It was a memorable several days: making seven pies the night before Thanksgiving (for six people), hiking, catching up after many months, and simply enjoying each other’s company.

During her Virginia stay with us Nora mentioned experiencing numbness in her right arm and soon, after returning home, went to a doctor. Within a few days of testing, Nora learned she had glioblastoma, stage IV brain cancer. We were all stunned, not Nora, who had one of the best brains in the family, who had always led a super healthy lifestyle. It was irrational thinking in those first days; we simply couldn’t process it. Until everything changed very quickly: surgery that removed much but not all of the cancer, plans for treatment, a flight to Houston for a second opinion, a return home when they could offer no more than Las Vegas, chemo and radiation simultaneously that have been completed today, seizures that left her right side partially non-functional, and most recently, clots in her lungs, which are now dissipating.

My daughter, Susan, stayed with Nora during the past six weeks, then needed to return home. On Easter Sunday I flew in to stay indefinitely. I had known on a visceral level that I would share this journey with her.

Now, as Nora climbs the most difficult mountain of her life, we’re able to walk together for part of her journey. As she has done all her life when she quietly and determinedly reached for each of her goals, she is working very hard. We all affirm she will overcome this profoundly unwelcome stranger in our midst.

There is still that one more continent to explore.

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Some Thoughts on Kindness

If ever you feel a need for an infusion of kindness, I have a recommendation for you. For those who know me, you are aware that kindness is a high-priority personal value of mine. Recently, while searching my library for books about kindness, I discovered a tiny treasure. The cover, simple yet intriguing with cursive letters, announced: Congratulations, by the way: some thoughts on kindness by George Saunders. What I found inside the thin book, slightly larger than my Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style was, surprisingly, a commencement address given by Professor of English George Saunders to the Syracuse University convocation ceremony in May, 2013. The pairing of a graduation address with the value of kindness seemed incongruous to me. Not for long though.

Saunders’ introductory words were:   

   Down through the ages, a traditional form has evolved for this type of speech, which is:

   Some old fart, his best years behind him, who, over the course of his life, has made a series of dreadful mistakes (that would be me), gives heartfelt advice to a group of shining, energetic young people, with all of their best years ahead of them (that would be you).    

   And I intend to respect that tradition.

Saunders then described some common regrets he might have had, as some of his peers had, but did not. Instead, he recalled a girl, Ellen (pseudonym), who came to his school in the 7th grade. Ellen wore blue cat’s-eye glasses that, at the time, only old ladies wore. When nervous, which was pretty much always, she had a habit of taking a strand of hair into her mouth and chewing on it. She became a target of teasing and/or silence by her peers. And then one day Ellen was gone as abruptly as she had appeared.

Saunders continued:

So here’s something I know to be true, although it’s a little corny, and I don’t quite know what to do with it:

What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded … sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.

His remaining words were deeply moving, and I wondered how they might have impacted me if spoken to my graduating class. Later, Saunders’ message was published on The New York Times webpage. Within days it had been re-posted more than a million times and led to book publication, which I discovered shortly thereafter.

I’ve re-read Congratulations… so many times. The address itself is easy to find online and takes just fifteen minutes to read. Each re-read fills my heart with the wish to be kinder and an impetus to do a kindness that day.

If you’ve not read the full commencement address, here is the heart of Saunders’ challenge:

Find out what makes you kinder, what opens you up and brings out the most loving, generous, and unafraid version of you—and go after those things as if nothing else matters.

Because, actually, nothing else does.

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Wisdom of the Palm Tree

Blogger Friends, I lay no claim to being a poet. These are simply wise words I heard the palms whisper to me. —Lake Worth, FL – 2.15.15

Wisdom of the Palm Tree

Graceful palms, you speak to me today
Beneath warm sunshine
And a gentle breeze that
Causes you to gently sway.

You willingly bend wherever
The breeze takes you and
With whatever comes your way
Just like a willow.

When hurricanes come, I watch
You bow beneath the whipping winds that
Nearly break you at times, yet you remain
Always graceful despite the frantically snapping air.

You have no inner voice that rants,
“Why me? This is not fair!”
You bow and bend with whatever life brings,
Freely sharing your wisdom: what is, is.

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Unfinished Projects

During the past half-century (has it really been that long?) I have enjoyed creating so many kinds of craft projects: sewing, quilting, knitting, crocheting, cross-stitch, candle-making, macramé, creating and selling children’s Quiet Time Books to teach fine motor skills such as buttoning, zippering, connecting Velcro, and more. Today, knitting and quilting are the two I still give much time to and, as with most crafters, you may not be surprised to hear that I have a few uncompleted projects tucked away. Last September I wrote about one of those projects in my Rising from Dark Places post.

Toward the end of last year, I knew I would not put up my artificial Christmas tree, so I pulled out a Christmas tree wall hanging I’d started more than five years ago. I’d found the pattern in a 1995 book by Debbie Munn: Quick Country Christmas Quilts. The tree was simple and, aside from the quilted hanging, it gave instructions for several small ornaments to hang on the buttons of the branches. Their creation was, for me, nothing short of a child’s delight in play.

Now, several days into this new year, the tree still hangs on the wall, swelling my heart with much pleasure whenever I look at it. Perhaps that’s, in part, because I’ve always loved the simplistic pattern. More, it’s also that I finally completed it. It’s so true, is it not? Good things often take more time than we might think.

That thought led me to ponder my memoir, a project I’ve worked at off and on for more than a decade. I completed the full draft and some revisions mid-last year, then sent it to an editor who gave me wonderful feedback (she liked it!) and revision suggestions. Just as I was digging in to revise, life intervened and I shelved the story again. For three months the large apricot colored binder with its thick manuscript quietly rested on my desk. It often reminded me of the bread dough that regularly and silently rises on my kitchen counter. After the right amount of time, the dough transforms beneath the towel that covers it and is ready to transform into its final product.

Within me, a similar process has been going on these recent months, as well. The story is nearly always present in my heart. During the months I have rested from it, the wonderful internal process of writing has brought an abundance of new ideas for content and structure, and I’ve jotted each down. I’m ready now to start what will be my final revision before I seek a publisher (or decide to self publish.) Today I will open the manuscript again to weave the new ideas into the present fabric of words.

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Good things can often take more time than we might think. And sometimes that’s perfectly okay.

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A Tale of Three Christmas Trees

 

This year our family was scattered for the holidays, so my son, Chip, and I planned to share a non-traditional meal on Christmas afternoon: I’d make creamed turkey with veggies, he’d make crepes, and we’d have cranberry sauce on the side. A few days before Christmas, he called to ask if I’d like to split the three large stacks of wood on my property on Christmas afternoon. A friend had loaned us his splitter.

“That’s great. Yes,” I replied, smiling with anticipation.

Aesthetically, I love to look at woodpiles, especially when they are neatly cut chunks tidily stacked. A year ago, we had made three stacks in the yard: one by the stream (a fallen tree), one by the woods I call The Glen, and a third (diseased by years of poison ivy rope strangulation), in a grassy space near the road. Whenever I went outside, my eyes fastened on the beauty of the wood walls, and I felt much pleasure in the beautiful symmetry of the stacked circles. Now, after months of providing serene splendor in the yard, it was time for their next life season: providing heat.

The day was surprisingly warm and sunny, about 60 degrees. Chip arrived, checked the splitter’s gas tank, and found it empty. He knew I always have an extra gas can handy, but today it was empty. Nearby gas stations were closed. Fortunately our next idea proved fruitful: we found some gas (maybe a gallon) in the riding mower, siphoned it out, filled the splitter, and got to work. Chip loaded the chunks on the platform (the hard work) and I ran the hydraulic wedge back and forth (the easy work.) Soon, we got into an easy rhythm and I was running the wedge back and forth non-stop. But moments of unease nagged at me as I wondered if we had enough gas. We hoped to split all the wood today; the splitter needed to be returned that night.

As we completed the oak tree in The Glen and moved to the cherry tree near the road, I again worried about the gas.

“Hey, we’ll split until we run out and finish another day, if we have to,” Chip said. We resumed our work. Time pleasantly passed as we worked through the oak wood wall, when a sudden small knowing inside me silently slipped out and spread through my body. Deeply spiritual but not connected with formal religion, I had just remembered the story of Jesus feeding a multitude with just a few fish and loaves of bread. Suddenly I knew we would have enough gas to complete our task.

The release of that deep knowing instantly transformed our moments into a sacrosanct place. I noticed more closely Chip’s woodsman garb and slid back in time to when we lived on our Catskill Mountain farm. I saw our much younger selves engaged in this same activity. I recalled Christmases on the farm. I remembered a gift from my ARC co-workers when I resigned to move to Virginia: Shel Silverstein’s book, The Giving Tree. I thought of the unending generosity of that giving tree. Standing amidst pieces of split wood under clear sky and sweet winter sunshine, working with my wonderful son, I awoke fully to the day’s incredible abundance: majestic trees surrounding us, breezes whispering by us, mother earth beneath us, blue sky over us, the stream’s gentle trickle near us….

When we split the last chunk, Chip unscrewed the splitter’s gas cap. “We’ve got gas left over,” he reported, hazel eyes twinkling. “Merry Christmas, Mom.”

I hugged Chip tightly, as the full impact of both his and the day’s sacred gifts embraced me.

 

 

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In My Bones

Is there anyone who does not love homemade bread? If so, I have not met that person, have you?

As a young mother of two toddlers in the early 60s, I was gifted with a kind neighbor who taught me to make white bread, the only kind we ate back then. I loved my new skill for two reasons: my bread tasted so much better than Wonder Bread and, for as long as I was an at-home mom, I was proud to be able to make all our bread. Then life led me onto unexpected paths outside my home and I lost that precious time for several years.

In the late 70s, I remarried, a Catskill Mountain dairy farmer, a decision that brought two more toddlers and my unrelenting quest to learn how to make and preserve all our food from scratch. Microwaves had just hit the market but Cuisinart hadn’t invented bread machines yet, so the bread maker was—well—me. I thrived for more than a decade pursuing this lifestyle I loved until the farm economy nose-dived and I needed to return to work off the farm. Once again, I shelved my precious lifestyle mission.

Now, in retirement, I’ve embraced that wonderful quest again. I prefer, as much as possible, to be intimately acquainted with each ingredient I use and know where it came from. Recently I was kneading a batch of whole-grained bread for stuffing the Thanksgiving turkey and reflecting how many ways we can make delicious breads today. First, of course, are the bread-making machines on our kitchen counters. Mine is an unexpectedly acquired stainless rectangle that takes a lot of counter space bur does a decent job if I’m short on time.  Second is a recent quick way to make no-knead yeast dough: put all ingredients into a bowl, stir briskly until mixed, and refrigerate for up to two weeks. Whenever you want bread or pizza dough, you simply scoop out a ball of the dough and bake it.

Then there’s the old-fashioned way I learned five decades ago. As I kneaded the large stuffing dough ball, I decided this would always be my favorite method. I loved the feel of the gingerbread colored dough moving back and forth beneath my palms and of the many bits of cracked wheat that dimpled the ball. The sound of the dough sliding on the lightly floured breadboard beneath my hands also whispered promises of mouth-watering moments later on.

When just enough flour had been kneaded in, the dough lost all stickiness and felt cool, smooth, and pliable. Then I rolled it in my oiled bread bowl and covered it with a towel with these embroidered words, “Thank you for friends between us, food before us, Your presence among us.” As I began another task I smiled as I thought about the silent magical task that dough ball was about to begin to double its size in the dark beneath the towel.

My thoughts slid back to long-ago maple syrup seasons on the farm. On an unknown day in late winter, as the nights stayed cool, but the days began to warm, I’d step outside into a warm moistness in the air and know intuitively that sap had begun to run in the maple trees. The time had arrived to tap the trees and boil the sap into delectable maple syrup.  No one told me; the knowledge had, over the years, simply become stored in my bones.

Later, as my baking bread filled my small house with an aroma that no bread machine could duplicate, I understood that the act of making bread the old-fashioned way was for me as visceral as knowing when the sap had begun to flow. It was a silent, mysterious, and exquisite act of tapping into ancient wisdom.

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I Can’t Breathe

I grew up on the east end of Long Island, near the Hamptons, in a lower middle class family of five. When I started school, more than half my classmates were “colored,” as we called them in the 50s. They were children of Long Island’s large migrant population who worked on the duck and potato farms. The Long Island Railroad ran though our town and those tracks marked the divide between white and black residents’ homes. North of the tracks most homes were small, often unkempt shanties that usually had a shiny new car parked in the driveway. The “n” word was prevalent and we used to joke about those sparkling clean cars parked in weed-filled yards. The general attitude in my home and community was that black people were second-class citizens and I believed it.

Despite our financial difficulties, my mother was adamant that I attend college and I entered an upstate university to become an English teacher. Just a handful of black students attended and I vaguely wondered why. I didn’t yet tie that fact to another one:  by the time we graduated from high school in 1959, less than 25% of us were black.

As I was journeying into “happily ever after,” working at my degree, marrying my high school sweetheart, becoming the mother of two sons, the dream suddenly shattered when he disappeared with another woman. I, not yet degreed, was now a single mother of two small children, with a mortgage and without a car or income. I got a job I could walk to but quickly saw the minimum income would not be enough, so I did the unthinkable: I applied for public assistance for my children. In our town, people on public assistance were in the same boat as blacks: we were second class, society’s leaches, looking for a handout.

I could barely breathe the day I applied for “welfare.” I felt so shamed, helpless, and angry. In time I pulled our life back together, returned to college, finished my degree. Yet I never forgot those eighteen months on public assistance. To this day, I vividly remember standing in lines for government surplus food. Each time my check arrived, my face burned with humiliation.

I never became an English teacher either, for having fully experienced the predicament of my fellow “second-class” peers had changed my life. Suddenly I had a passion to help others move ahead in their difficult journeys, as I had been fortunate to do.

Four years ago I retired from a varied human services career, where I often met myself daily in each new client. The challenge to assist remains, yet now we have a new spotlight: police violence. Ferguson and Manhattan blasted to the forefront our crisis of the unnecessary killing of unarmed black men.

When Eric Garner cried out to the police that he couldn’t breathe, beyond the tragedy of his death, he also poignantly articulated the plight of all his peers. When will we all be able to breathe?

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