The year was 2006 and I was standing behind a podium at the Los Angeles VA Hospital in a small conference room with an audience of my peers, other palliative care fellows, and a few physicians and nurses who stopped in to eat their lunch and listen to my presentation on spirituality and end of life care. It was near the end of my year long palliative care fellowship as the one social worker on the team. I had struggled the whole year for a sense of direction. I was a young 28 year old. What did I know about helping veterans with a terminal illness? What did I know of suffering then? I don’t really remember what I presented, but I do recall ending with Rainer Maria Rilke’s words from “Letters to a Young Poet,” Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Rilke’s words gave me the confidence to stand before those medical professionals and share my truth and also say I don’t know.
This year of the pandemic, the great political divide, and ongoing natural disasters of climate change have brought so many questions that we continue to live. On this winter solstice night, I leave you with another poem, Go to the Limits of Your Longing by Rainer Maria Rilke, from Book of Hours I 59 to hold onto in this time of darkness.
God speaks to each of us as he makes us, then walks with us silently out of the night.
These are the words we dimly hear:
You, sent out beyond your recall, go to the limits of your longing, Embody me.
Flare up like a flame and make big shadows I can move in.
Let everything happen to you: beauty and terror. Just keep going. No feeling is final. Don’t let yourself lose me.
Nearby is the country they call life. You will know it by its seriousness.
My word for this month is peace, but all I’ve been feeling with each passing day is increasingly more irritability and stress. Every month until now I have felt a sense of accomplishment in moving towards greater courage, more creativity, discipline in getting up consistently around the same time each day even on the weekends, taking action, moving towards connection, understanding, and staying motivated, but peace eludes me in this last month of the year.
The constant “mama, mama” when I’ve responded multiple times already waiting to hear what is wanted, and all I get as a response is more “mama, mama.” How can I not respond with an irritated, WHAT? And then, “what can I dooooooooo?” How is it that my child is 6, nearly 7 and doesn’t know how to play? He’ll often gladly do work, help me fold clothes, bake muffins, or rake leaves. But play with his toys on his own? That is an impossible task for him.
I finally had to escape to my “office,” you know the office every parent has in their home where you lock the door and sit on your throne. Yep, that one. I pulled out a Sundance catalog I hid in the drawer and lost myself in the shiny, pretty things on each page. And then God found me again. Even here, I thought. I had to laugh and of course cry. There on the page of the Sundance catalog was a quotation from St. Therese, the saint I chose for my confirmation, speaking to me about peace.
Here it is below in case you are straining your eyes to read the photo above:
She said, “May today there be peace within. May you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise, and love. It is there for each and every one of us.”
I was listening to the On Being podcast with angel Kyodo williams yesterday. She was talking about love as space. She shared “It is developing our own capacity for spaciousness within ourselves to allow others to be as they are–that that is love. And that doesn’t mean that we don’t have hopes or wishes that things are changed or shifted, but that to come from a place of love is to be in acceptance of what is, even in the face of moving it towards something that is more whole, more just, more spacious for all of us.”
I think that if I find more spaciousness, I will stumble upon more peace. It’s clear to me that I feel very small, compressed, squeezed dry when I am stressed and irritable. I have nothing more to give. And so when I left my “office” in tears, I had to tell my family that I needed to take some space for myself. I walked out to the screened in porch and wrote and breathed and let the sun shine on me. And as I put this day to rest, I tell myself–tomorrow is a new day to begin again.
It’s Sunday morning and Zoey asks me, “Do you think God regrets having made humans?” I think how do I answer this question and then I just speak from the heart. No theology lesson here for my 9 year-old, just a deep felt sincere answer. In the split second before I answer, I think about the parallel between God viewed as “Father” or as a parent and the human attribute of God’s disappointment in humans and perhaps Zoey’s growing consciousness as a 9 year-old and her struggles to live up to her own parents’ expectations and perceived disappointment. I tell her no, I don’t think God regrets creating humans and I add on that the God she is learning about at school when she hears the Old Testament stories is how the Hebrew people understood God a long long time ago, but that it’s not necessarily how God is understood today, nor how I understand God. And of course I can’t pass up the opportunity to question what makes her ask. But she doesn’t explain. I continue to think about her question in light of the world events today. It prompts me to pull out my Jerusalem Bible and reread the creation stories in Genesis. It’s when I get to the Flood story that I see the line “Yahweh regretted having made man on the earth, and his heart grieved” (Genesis 6:6). This verse must have been living in her since her teacher told her the story of Noah’s ark last week.
I’ve been reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle, who I heard speak on Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us, a new favorite of mine. There are so many gems in this book. Here is one I love for the times we are living now: ” . . .the deepest truth is not what we can see but what we can imagine.” What we can see can be limiting and in times like now disheartening, but the possibilities within our imagination are endless. In our imagination we can dream of a beautiful world where we tend to the earth and take care of each other regardless of borders, the color of our skin, our language, culture, or religion. In our small mind of the intellect, maybe we can only understand God as having human feelings and reactions. And if that is so, then yes maybe God is disappointed in humanity, how we continue to commit acts of violence in our actions and words and fail to live in right relationship with those around us and the natural world. And I don’t think it’s a big stretch to consider that Zoey might be wondering if her own parents regret having had her. I have had too many clients in the past who have shared their mothers directly voiced that they regretted having them. It still pierces me to the heart thinking of the pain of knowing your mother never wanted you. But I am not one of those women, who for whatever reason, wanted a different path for their life. Nevertheless, I do find myself feeling more frustrated these days as my instructions to Zoey get brushed aside as she does what she wants when she wants. And she sees my frustration and perhaps wonders do I have regrets? I pause and have to consider, am I just building a cage around this beautiful, kind, and loving being who strives to be her own person and am I trying to mold her into my own expectations of how she should be?
The autumn always reminds me that the cycle of death and letting go is a normal part of life. And regret and disappointment serve a purpose. If we let ourselves feel the regret and disappointment, it can open up space for change and doing something different next time. The biblical restart was what came after the flood. Perhaps for us in America our restart will be what happens after the November election.
What Zoey doesn’t yet realize is that we can never live up to the ideal. We may strive for the Garden of Eden before the “fall,” but who wants to live without human consciousness? There is no perfect human being. Part of being human is that you’re going to make mistakes and disappoint someone. And you have to learn as you grow what you need to let go of, what part of you needs to die so that something new may form and blossom. I am still trying to prune my need to please others. My need to please God. My need to please friends. My need to please my husband. I’ve somehow managed to get over my need to please my own parents. I have to let go of my need to control my beautiful butterfly of a daughter. I have to trust that as Stephen and I provide the safe boundaries she needs, she will find her own way of being in this world.
Yesterday Zane and I celebrated his half-birthday at Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park. It wasn’t really our intention to celebrate his half-birthday, but it was a good excuse to get out of the house while Zoey stayed at home on dog duty, catching up on the Anne of Green Gables series she’s started watching. Zane and I went for a short hike, found a shady spot on a rock to have our picnic lunch, read a little from The House at Pooh Corner, and dug in the sand with seashells.
I’ve been reflecting on how slow our summer passed compared to our whirlwind adventure last summer. Our daily rhythm for the past month has seemed even slower than usual due to welcoming Ziggy, our 12 week old miniature poodle, into our family.
And yet at the same time, I feel like a new mother exhausted with the constant care of a newborn except that at least Ziggy sleeps through the night! I’ve been waking again around 5:30 a.m., some mornings closer to 6:00 a.m. if Ziggy is able to sleep in a little later. As much as I detest waking up in the dark, I love being outside as the dawn arrives and birds begin their morning songs. Two days ago I saw a porcupine on our front lawn as I took Ziggy out. Ziggy didn’t even notice.
We’ve also welcomed six Rhode Island Red chicks into our family. Three days after we brought Ziggy home, Stephen and the kids went to Tractor Supply and brought home the chicks. In about two weeks they should be old enough to move out of the basement permanently into the chicken coop Stephen built.
The kids have been taking them out to the coop during the day, but bring them back to the basement at night.
Although the warm days still feel like summer, the school year has begun. Zoey started school August 26th and Zane started on the 31st. They are making new friends and returning to the familiar rhythm of Waldorf education even though they are at a new school. Zane returns to one more year of kindergarten, just like his mama who needed a little extra time strengthening social skills. His class meets outside all day with everyone wearing masks. He’s been enjoying digging deep holes in the sandbox with a small garden shovel. Zoey has been climbing trees with classmates in the forest on campus, learning Hebrew for her first main lesson block of hearing Old Testament stories, learning French, painting, crocheting, doing math games, and playing the ukulele. Her third grade class is supposed to start violin or cello this year, but because they are unable to do much if any singing this year, her teacher thought they would enjoy learning the ukulele.
I’ve been using my 3 hours that Zane is at school (he has half day Kindergarten until noon) doing my online continuing education classes to reactivate my license. I’m considering some telemental health work options. As much as I would love to do my student teaching to complete my Waldorf teaching certificate, it doesn’t seem like the best choice for me and my family right now during this pandemic.
The past several months as I’ve read the news, I’ve carried in my heart the question of what can I do to bring about a positive change in this world? How can I be of service to others? Those questions have lived in me since I was a child in Catholic school. How can I embody Christ in my actions and words? I haven’t been able to live up to that ideal but I am striving. I fail again and again within my own family, but I start again. I was drawn to social work 17 years ago because I saw it as a way to connect with others, to bring some assistance and relief to those in need or who were suffering, and it was meaningful work that I saw as an act of social justice. I have never seen myself as an expert in mental health, but I still feel called to walk alongside those who are struggling and to try to bring some more light into their life.
I know I am not alone in feeling the heaviness of reading the news daily. Time and again I question how we could elect a leader who exhibits the very opposite behavior of how we want our children to behave. I shudder to think there may be a reasonable, intelligent adult in our country who upholds our president as a role model for their child. In the darkness and division we hear about and live in our daily lives, I think about this idea of “soul food.” Chris Bennett, one of my instructors at the West Coast Institute told my class one time about the importance of telling your students a story at the end of main lesson, that it’s important to give them “soul food.” He was referencing Rudolf Steiner’s idea that “Feelings are for the soul what food is for the body.” I think we all need some soul food right now, something that nourishes us and fills us in these difficult times. For me, I’ve been getting my dose of soul food listening to several audiobooks by Clarissa Pinkola Estes on Hoopla (for you Mendocino County folks). I love hearing her stories, some well known fairytales and others I’ve never heard before, in her own voice. I feel blessed with an inner strength after listening. In one of her audiobooks she retells the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes. If you don’t remember the story, which I’m sure you must have heard during childhood, go ahead and read it again in light of the current political reality we live in. Those who commit violence with their words, underneath there is much fear. And those who remain silent, unable to stand up against the bullies and oppressors in this world, they too have much fear. But I also believe that the wisdom of the child, like in The Emperor’s New Clothes, lives in all of us which is that ability to name the truth and to see things as they really are. Who among us will be brave enough to stand up for what is right and stand in solidarity with our fellow human beings regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, political party, etc?
“Come to the edge,” he said. “We can’t, we’re afraid! they responded. “Come to the edge,” he said. “We can’t, We will fall! they responded. “Come to the edge,” he said. And so they came. And he pushed them. And they flew. -Guillaume Apollinaire
Earlier this week at work I was struck with sorrow for a co-worker who had experienced a traumatic death in her family, someone very close to her. Her world was falling apart, yet she showed up to work because that is what she had to do. Did we embrace her with gentle, loving kindness? We who work with children who have experienced trauma, did we embrace this co-worker who was in our midst drowning trying to stay afloat and manage the details of her life while showing up for work? No. We didn’t. We failed to support her through the chaos of her life. Sure we signed a card for her and said, “we’re sorry for your loss.” But we expected her to follow all the rules the next day. Act normal. We thought to ourselves, “what do you mean you have to take care of personal things during work hours? What do you mean you can’t keep it together and not cry?” I wonder, if we can’t break the rules sometimes to be kind, we who experience trauma everyday through the eyes of our clients, who can? And where will there be kindness in the world if we who are helpers can’t even muster the ability to do it? And then I heard this poem on an OnBeing podcast by Naomi Shihab Nye and found hope again. Because kindness begins with you and me.
Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing. You must wake up with sorrow. You must speak to it till your voice catches the thread of all sorrows and you see the size of the cloth. Then it is only kindness that makes sense anymore, only kindness that ties your shoes and sends you out into the day to gaze at bread, only kindness that raises its head from the crowd of the world to say It is I you have been looking for, and then goes with you everywhere like a shadow or a friend.
–by Naomi Shihab Nye
I heard someone say the other day that they felt they were becoming more cynical and negative about humanity. As I do this work as a therapist facing the pain of my clients, I am reminded again, this time around, of the importance of letting go of the story of suffering that is not my own. I come home and I smudge myself with sage–symbolic perhaps, but a necessary ritual nonetheless, to acknowledge that the pain of my clients cannot become my own. I let go of the day’s work. And I say a prayer of healing. On many levels throughout the day, I carry my clients suffering with me. My clients past and present, whether I like it or not, have influenced my own story. And while for a time, I carry their story with me, there comes a time when I have to let them go or the burden becomes too heavy.
In talking to my coworkers, it was fascinating to hear how many of us do not watch the news. The news about the world that we do take in is very selective. It’s not so difficult to understand why that is. For me, there is only so much negative news I can take in. It’s not that we don’t care about world events, but the work we do requires us to also take care of ourselves and to nurture our own spirits so that we have space enough to contain the suffering of our clients–until it is time to let it go. The work we do requires that we make a point of seeking out the beauty in life and that we seek out the good in people. Otherwise it is too easy to drown in the sorrows of the world. There are many people–babies, children, teens, adults, the elderly who are suffering in this world. None of us are exempt. We all hold the light and dark within us, and we all are called to do our part in making the world more beautiful.
How would our lives change if we filtered our lives through the lens of beauty? How would we see each other if we sought out the beauty in each other? What words would we speak to friend or foe if we spoke that which was beautiful? May we be wise enough to know what we need to hold on to and what we need to let go of.
Today was one of those days where everything I fretted about in the morning as I began my work day seemed to fall into place. I didn’t have to drive a client home after our session, her mother picked her up, the session I thought I was going to be late for, the mother called and asked for a later time. All day it went–things falling into place making what might have been a stressful day turn into a day that flowed smoothly.
I am remembering as I work as a therapist that there are many times that I have to do things I dread and really don’t want to do, but I have to because it is part of my job. A metaphor for my life right now. I’d rather not change poopy diapers. I’d rather not have to bathe little ones at the end of the day when I’m bone tired and just want to take care of myself. But we all do what we must do, and if we don’t, well, I’ll see you in therapy. Perhaps it’s the Catholic in me, lessons learned through many Lents observed, that one’s character is strengthened by the trials we endure. Sometimes life hurts, but we come out the other side with our wounds and know we can do it again if we have to. I want my children to look at Stephen and me and know that we’ve tried hard, and we keep moving forward.
If life is a struggle for you today, my blessing for you is that your life will fall into place.
Zoey found this butterfly yesterday off our back patio in the grass. It was resting on a stick. She picked up the stick and brought it over to show me. It dropped onto the concrete patio, and I took this photograph. It was still alive, but hardly moving. My life has felt a bit delicate this month of May. Delicate and fragile. Stephen’s aunt passed away on Mother’s Day. He flew to Texas for the funeral, while the kids and I stayed here. We’ve been dancing the whirlwind of trying to keep a stable home for the kids while working out the messiness of our lives.
I am reminded again and again to treat others with gentleness and kindness because you never really know what a person is experiencing. All may seem outwardly okay, but inwardly or in one’s private life, there may be rupture and chaos ensuing. I leave you with a poem–not my own. A poem as reminder that you, too need gentleness and kindness as do I for myself. When we make mistakes and act foolishly, as we all do at some point in our life–remember this:
I stirred in the small hours of the morning. Sensing a presence, I did not return to sleep, but ventured into the living room, apprehensively.
There, by the balcony, sat a familiar figure — cross-legged and reading in the semi-dark, with just the milky moonlight for company.
I do not know how I knew, but I did. I recognized the intruder, at once, with a mixture of dread and affection.
“I’m sorry,” were the only words to leave my lips. “I’m sorry, too,” replied my longed-for-self, with a sigh of infinite kindness and pity.
He did not rise to greet me and, somehow, spoke without words, transmitting what was needed.
Catching his glistening eye, the caring made me cry. “You’ve taken every detour to avoid me,” he gently reproached. “For every step I’ve taken towards you, you’ve taken back two”.
I did not know what to say in my defense (how could I protest against myself?) “I missed you,” he said, and feared you’d forgotten me.”
His admonishment was tender as a kiss. “I visit from time to time, and hope you’ll ask me to stay.” I knew what he said was true, and felt that way, too.
“I worried,” he continued, “if I postponed this visit, we might never meet, in this life… and so I came to sharpen your appetite.”
He rose and moved towards me. “There’s no need to speak, return to sleep. But when you rise, try to remember me. And to keep awake.”
Friday nights at home
Wind chimes serenading us through the day
Soft small arms wrapped around my neck
Saturday afternoon naps on the bed with Zoey and Zane
Walks through the garden to check on new sprouts
Farm fresh eggs
Lester jumping on my lap to be rubbed
Sweet kisses from my beloved
Gentle yoga in the evening
Sleeping by the light of the full moon
Spotting wild turkey
Discovering new wildflowers
Hiking through tall grass
Greeting the day with a light heart
It’s the beginning of the week, and I already feel like I am swimming against the current. So this is how it feels to not be able to do it all. The weekend came and it dawned on me–I have a choice. I can spend all my time doing housework because it’s the only time I have to do it, or I can spend good quality time with the kids. I’ve never been very good at juggling although I’ve tried many times.
Some photos from our weekend. The wildflowers are in abundance on our land even though down in town they have begun to wither. Anyone know what those pink flowers are called?