A Sweet Gift

Each Christmas time there comes a card or a letter or a gift that deepens the meaning of this set-apart time (one definition of “Holy”). This year it is a book by Charlie Mackery called The Boy, the mole, the fox and the Horse.(Harper One, 2019) You can read it front to back or back to front or just open it in the middle. It is a book of the wisdom of these four creatures who become friends.

The book comes as a balm to my soul. The grief of the last year had settled down to sleep for a while but two days ago, I saw a video of my friend who passed , and it rose up on one elbow and howled again. And just as all the grief books predict, it brought with it the losses of my father and sister who both died in the 80’s, the grief that my 96 year-old mother has COVID now and the collective grief of so many in the time of uncertainty and loss. My heart aches for our human community.

So the book comes telling what I hold as the great Truths of living, especially in these times. I wish I could send it to everyone. I know I will be ordering some soon.

“Tears fall for a reason and they are your strength, not weakness,” says the Horse.

“When the big things feel out of control….focus on what you love right under your nose.”

So I wrapped my heart in friendship on the night of Winter Solstice, singing and drumming and throwing what I need to release written on a piece of paper into the fire. In this way, I keep walking toward light, even if it feels hidden, like the “stars” of Jupiter and Saturn in the Great Conjunction were hidden beneath a cloud that night. But the light is there. Blessings to all who read this and are suffering. May we hold on together.

When there is nothing

I have this desire to write on my blog this morning, but I’ve just sat here watching the cursor blink, as if I am watching its heart beat. It is waiting for me while I wait for something to arise beside just this desire. When there is nothing to write there is always a feeling of a hole in my soul. If there is nothing, am I nothing? And if I am nothing, is that okay? Such an existential morning.

Yet when I wished my friend happy birthday just now, something did arise. I couldn’t help remembering one of those unexpected pilgrimages with her to Verona in 2006. The first night, the cobblestones were still wet and glistening from rain as we walked to clear our heads of the long flight. Spring had come late to Verona that year, and yet while the trees were still black and bare, the grass was green and flowering bushes were shouting out colors of pink and yellow. I was letting my soul catch up with me after 30 hours in the air, taking in the ochre colored buildings, the ornate wooden doors that opened to intriguing courtyards, the shop windows gorged with pastries and cakes, the other pedestrians dressed mostly in black, with scarves and red hair and shoes not seen in Alaska.

We were near to Fiume Adige, the river that horseshoes through the town, when I heard the sound of a clarinet playing an alluring song. I struggled to remember its name. An old song. And then yes, La Vie en rose. Like a siren, the notes wrapped around me and lured me toward the source. Turning a corner, I saw him in moonlight. He was alone, on the bridge over the Adige, looking down at the water– a dark, curly-haired younger man in a black leather coat, hunched over his clarinet, moving slightly up and down with the music. There was no one else on the ponte but he and the music and his desire to play it into the night. It was my official welcome to the city of Love.

La Vie en rose literally means “life in the pink” but can also be translated as “life in rosy hues”, “life in happy hues,” or “life seen through happy lenses.” Written in 1945, the lyrics express the joy of finding true love, probably a song that worked also as an antidote to all those healing from the horrors and hatred of World War II. The lyrics don’t appeal to me as much as the music itself–especially with violin, cello or clarinet. (and maybe Louis Armstrong on trumpet). It feels like a sweep of the deepest desire of all humanity, to be carried away with the beauty of this life. To play to the river and have it blush, to let the notes wind around golden and shining in dark streets looking for a lover, to entice the heartbroken back to dancing, to give the hopeless the reason to keep on. Or for me to recognize that I am that music.

As the days grow shorter and shorter and darkness comes early and stays late, as the pandemic shutters me away from life outside my home, and the stories of such suffering come sifting through the news, I am listening to La Vie en rose as I write. The music doesn’t erase the realities around me, but gently reminds that life is this as well, “life in happy hues.”

Even when it seems there is nothing, the words are just waiting.

November musings and mutterings

I haven’t been writing on my blog this past 6 weeks; and I’ve been writing on my book–a memoir that at this point is entitled A Long Walk Home: One Woman’s Life as Pilgrimage. I started writing on it a little casually but then heard that my niece was going to take part in the annual NaNoWriMo challenge–writing a draft of 50,000 words during the month of November. Two other members of my writing group joined in and we are now midway in the challenge. In fact, I already have over 50,000 words because I had drafts of prior pilgrimages already started. I even just found an editor. My goal now is to write two hours a day in editing out words and writing in the transitions from one piece to another.

It has been a perfect way to spend this month as it seems we need to hunker down again with COVID cases surging. My husband and I had dinner with someone who got positive test results 5 days later, so we have been seeing a lot of mostly each other now for 12 days–with no symptoms. Yesterday we received our negative test results. But it’s starting to feel like we can’t dodge this bullet forever as now I know several people closer to me that have tested positive. It seems the circle is tightening. Part of me just wants to get the virus (but not get sick). Another part is staying vigilant for myself and for others.

We are negotiating Thanksgiving; my grandson was in a classroom with two first graders who tested positive so that part of our family won’t be able to join us. We will just have a friend and our son for dinner, both of whom have been isolating. Strange times; maybe the only other time I have had such a small Thanksgiving gathering was when my friend Julie and I were in Florence, Italy at age 23. Of course there was no turkey and dressing. We had something with pasta I’m sure. This pandemic has re-organized us externally and internally. We are in the doldrums of it now; it’s more serious now in Alaska than ever and yet it’s apparent that is because many are just tired of being isolated and careful and strategizing and planning and fearful. I get it. I want to see my mother at her nursing home in Iowa. I want to have Christmas parties and gatherings. I want to just go to the store without apprehension.

And I find myself grateful–grateful for scientists who can discover a vaccine; I marvel at their intelligence and diligence in pursuing a solution to this pandemic. I try to imagine how their brains work so differently from mine! I’m grateful for those nurses and technicians that stand out in the cold, going from car to car in 1 degree weather, swabbing noses and being cheerful. I’m grateful I have a warm home and just celebrating 41 years of marriage with Steve. Thankful I can still ski and hike and FaceTime with the grandkids. I live in a time when the news predicts soon there may be commercial flights to the space station and we know there could be water on Mars. I live with the knowledge that “this too shall pass.” And that if I just look out the window, I have the choice to be amazed.

Happy Thanksgiving in whatever way you celebrate this unusual year. May it be unusually perfect.

(I see this piece needs some editing, but sorry, back to the book!)

After Love, Repose.

The DeHaviland Beaver droned over the foothills of the Brooks Range as I craned my neck to see the tundra below. My husband and I had yearned for wilderness again, especially this wilderness so far north and remote.

We circled and landed on our destination, a small lake, hearing that comforting sound of a small splash, our anticipation swelling with the thought of the ten days of walking and wandering that lay ahead. Shouldering our heavy packs, tightening the straps and our boot laces, we headed west across a relatively flat plain of low brush, moving slowly and letting our bodies adjust to the new rhythm of this land. There was only the sound of our packs creaking and the shush of the brush as the deep silence settled in on us; my body began to relax and the mind to empty. I only had to walk and notice.

After a few hours into this reverie, I was brought to a stop by an unusual mound on my feet. What was it? As I knelt and peered more closely, I could see it was a pile of dwarf birch leaves, about the size of a thumbprint. But it wasn’t a natural falling of leaves. It was too early in the season and never would these leaves have dropped into this very precise mound. That is what struck me first–that it seemed it had been built with much care and intention, as if each leaf have been lain down individually. But why? I smoothed away some of the leaves to see if there was something under it–and there was. A white ptarmigan lay on its side, pristine and unharmed, yet obviously dead. There were no marks on it, no sign of a struggle or attack. It was if mourners had come and covered this bird with a pall of tiny birch leaves, no other kind, although there was plenty of willow and grasses around. Again, there was such intention with this seeming burial, that I was touched. In this raw wilderness that surrounded me, lay this act that appeared to be an honoring, a reverence, a laying to rest. I so wish I had seen this ritual.

Today, I will lay my friend to rest, down at the river near her home with just a few friends. I’m preparing a small ceremony, the ritual that mysteriously heals. I want it to be as intentional, as honoring, as much a laying to rest in that same sense as that white bird I once glimpsed. I want it to be memorable and full of wild mystery, a true repose–done with such infinite and precise care as that which I touched me to the core.

Yet as I think of the past 8 months and her long journey of illness, I realize I have been part of something that has been preparing this ceremony for a long time. I have watched so many friends and members of her family honor her each day, in the worst of times. Some have brought food, some sent flowers, some ran errands, some sat by her bed and read poetry or sang hymns. A few of us helped her bathe and gathered all the hair that fell into the drain after chemo started. Some sat in meditation with her. Some created prayer flags. Some brought lotion. Some redecorated the small downstairs room she was moved to. Some talked to her of memories. Some talked to her of what was to come. Some cried with her and some laughed, some commiserated, some listened. Some bought her socks or a new soft blanket or mattress. And particularly a few changed her dressings and got medical supplies and were endless advocates for her to receive the best health care possible. Some made an engagement part and the wedding of her daughter possible just three weeks before she died. Some called on the phone, some texted, some wrote. Some sewed her presents or brought her gifts. I was some of those who did these things. But also it wasn’t really me.

What I sense now is that Love does these things. It was so powerful that I never considered not being there, not responding. It was what I wanted to do even though it was so very hard. It wasn’t sentimental or unselfish, because, how can I say it, it just WAS something moving through all of us which we can only say was Love. It was so abundant and ever-present. It never failed or faltered. It sustained and held us as we held her. She was Love, we were Love, it was all Love.

It’s been a long walk with her in a different kind of wilderness than the Brooks Range, and not one I looked forward to. It was wild and full of Mystery and not knowing like that journey. It was uncomfortable and tiring and literally gut-wrenching. Yet mostly I will remember the delicate tenderness that surrounded her and the uninhibited kindness and the unending steadiness of so many. So many small leaves were laid down around with deep regard and intention.

Fly away now, my white bird. With our love.

Antidotes to Fear of Death

The following poem was written by Rebecca Elson, young astrophysicist studying the first images from the Hubble telescope, who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of 29. She was not yet forty when she “returned her atoms to the universe” (Maria Popova in Brain Pickings). My friend who just died had a fascination with her relationship to the universe, often referring to herself as “stardust” and captivated with the cosmology of Brian Swimme (The Universe is a Green Dragon.) I thought of her as I read this poem; we have laid on our backs before “eating stars.”

Antidotes to the Fear of Death

Sometimes as an antidote To fear of death, I eat the stars

Those nights, lying on my back, I suck them from the quenching dark Til they are all, all inside me, Pepper hot and sharp.

Sometimes, instead, I stir myself into a universe still young, Still warm as blood:

No outer space, just space, the light of all the not yet stars Drifting like a bright mist, And all of us, and everything Already there but unconstrained by form.

And sometimes it’s enough To lie down here on earth Beside our long ancestral bones:

To walk across the cobble fields Of our discarded skulls, Each like a treasure, like a chrysalis, Thinking: whatever left these husks Flew off on bright wings.

Just This

Yesterday at this time, I was blessing the body of my exquisite soul friend. She passed away in the night after a nearly 8 month journey with metastatic cancer. I’ve written a lot about it in my prior posts. Yet today, as much as I wanted to write about her, write about the end, I couldn’t find a way to begin. It all sounded too cliched to say how amazing she was, how loving she was, how creative she was. It wouldn’t explain how our souls wound together like a walk in a labyrinth, just waiting and trusting that the path would unfold before us, how our deepest yearning was to rend the veils that kept us from being with Being. How we swam in the wavy path of the full moon on tropical oceans, how we dressed up in ridiculous costumes and danced to the pull of the Spirit on retreat, how we met and walked and talked ourselves into a friendship that was as deep as a pilgrim path. Could simple words honor the challenge we made to each other to always see “the more to the More”? Do I even know now how that 35 year-old friendship crafted and sculpted my soul, trimmed my fears, exulted my joy?

I surrendered all the trying and just sat, feeling defeated. Maybe I wouldn’t write anything at all. Maybe sometimes that aren’t enough words or the right ones. I sat….and I noticed the flowers in the vase before me on the coffee table, the last of those blooming on my deck. I had cut them and brought them inside to eke out a little more of summer beauty, as the leaves fall and the garden goes fallow.

I realized as I gazed at them, that surprisingly my heart was supremely happy and undeniably content. Just that. I loved the dusty pink of their petals, the petals themselves as they radiated out. I loved their tiny centers, the little seeds that promised life again in the spring. I loved their stillness. I loved their simple Beauty. Their undeniable being just as they are. Their touching closeness. Their steady blooming even as others in the vase were wilting.

Their beckoning me to dwell in simple presence.

Yes, this was our love for each other.

This is our love for each other.

Just this is enough to say.

Zuihitsu Revisited:

I explored this form in a previous blog–it is Japanese for “follow the brushstroke.” What is here now.

  1. It happened this week. Summer became fall. Not because of any date per se, but because I feel the land itself sigh and begin to slow. Just a few leaves, but they are falling, yellow and brown. The high bush cranberry bushes on my path are a brilliant red and soon, but not quite yet the berries will begin to smell as if something has died. The garden has begun to fade and there are big bare patches now where the spinach, peas and turnips have been harvested. The flowers are getting leggy and the bleeding hearts are collapsing. Time to trim and cut. It is dark again at night and it’s like lingering to let go of a lover’s hand to see the light slip away again. And most of all, I know it’s fall, because it’s something in the air–a new chill, a more rugged wind, the scent of snow on the mountain tops in the morning. The rains have begun, my husband is packing for moose camp and I’m harvesting late raspberries. The earth is turning away from the sun in my part of the world and I feel the stillness of deep winter whispering up the valley.
  2. I’m wondering why grief feels so tiring to my body. What is the chemical reaction going on that translates to this sluggishness? Do I ken into her dying, her slowing down? The wedding of her daughter this past weekend miraculously balanced joy with the poignancy of her being able to attend the wedding. Against the odds, she is still here 7 months since the diagnosis and although weak and thin, the inner beauty radiates. But it was like being at a wake for her before she has died. There was a good bye in the ceremony and celebration that added depth and intensity to the wedding, as if we all attuned to that very moment, forgetting ourselves and opening to Love in many expressions. It was so imperfectly perfect. And I am tired. And letting it be.
  3. My 3 year old granddaughter is learning Bible stories and educated me yesterday; she had the creation story down to about Day 3 so there were the heavens and earth, the sky and the water, the sun and the moon and the stars. Then she said, “That’s it.” So no animals, trees or humans in her story. Then she said, “You remember Jesus?” “Yes,” I said. “Well, he just buyed one of the grapes at the animal farm where the giraffes and lions and tigers live. Then he fell asleep where the lions and tigers were super mean.” “Really,” I said. “What did Jesus do?” “He woke up and that was it,” she said. I’m trying to decide if this was an embellished version of Daniel in the lion’s den??
  4. Reading Love Unveiled by A.H. Almaas, in which he quotes this Rumi poem. “To rend, every instant, a hundred veils. The first moment, to renounce life; The last step, to fare without feet. To regard this world as invisible, Not to see what appears to one’s self. “O heart,” I said, “may it bless thee to have entered the circle of lovers, to look beyond the range of the eye, to penetrate the siding of the bosom!” Rending veils is becoming my work now.
  5. I sometimes pull a Tarot card, not for divination but to see what the card evokes in me for the day and how it makes meaning; today I pulled the Major Arcana card called STRENGTH. It shows a woman in a white gown opening a lion’s mouth. An infinity sign is above her head and the scene around her is bright golden and green. After just acknowledging how tired I am, I could read this as a message of hope–that strength will be given to me in some form, power enough to open a lion’s mouth. But it could also mean taming my animal soul–that part of me that lives and reacts by the instinctual needs of survival, being social, finding pleasure. To live beyond these needs meets the truly human soul that is learning to love and to find truth. The infinity symbol represents the never-ending cycle of this evolution. Is this tiredness my animal soul just wanting pleasure instead of this pain? Or my human soul grieving my friend’s dying?
  6. My mother turns 96 tomorrow. I can’t be with her in her locked down nursing home. She will light up with joy to see me if we can connect by FaceTime tomorrow, but she won’t remember we talked when the screen goes dark. Yet I am still there in her. And she is still in me. As the card said that I sent her, “I MISS MY MOM”–in many ways.
  7. “If you realize all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold onto. If you aren’t afraid of dying, there is nothing you can’t achieve. Trying to control the future is like trying to take the Master Carpenter’s place; when you handle the Master Carpenter’s tools, chances are, you’ll cut yourself.” Tao Te Ching (translated by Stephen Mitchell)

The Gift of a Ring

I am wearing a ring that I once gave to my friend who is dying. She returned it to me this week, along with several sets of earrings we bought together over the years as we traveled, both outwardly and inwardly. There’s the Eiffel Tower earrings from our trip to Paris, the Celtic earrings we bought in the lower bowels of the abbey in Iona. Moonstones earrings that we often traveled with in tropical places and laid out in the light of the full moon to “recharge”. And the ring with the pearl that I am wearing now that symbolized for me the luminescent quality of her being when I gave it to her. Only now, the pearl is missing from the ring. And she doesn’t have the energy or will to find it. But I want it on my hand. I am wearing it without a setting, without that pearl and it feels strangely right.

When I sense into what that rightness is, it’s not symbolic really of the loss I feel as she is leaving this earth– which would seem to make sense. There is an obvious hole in the setting, something surely missing. But that sentiment is not here. My months of shock, dread, rejection, descent, nausea, weeping, and anxiety have all quieted down. What is here is a surprising sense of wonder. What will I replace in the setting? Another pearl? A stone that is meaningful to each of us? Even a diamond to represent the eternal nature of our soul connection? What will I find? What will find me? I want something that isn’t so much keeping a memory but a continuing of our travel together, but now in a new way. Something of wonder, of mystery, of potential.

Another gift from her was a small sterling silver mobius–the never-ending twisted loop. On it are inscribed the words, “My possibilities are endless.” I let my fingers rub over its edges, feeling not only possibility of her journey onward into realms beyond this one, but the endlessness of love that will travel with her. That’s a wonder too.

“The Thrilling Emergency of the Present”

In answer to a question put to him by a follower on his website, Nick Cave answered her question about the lapping circles of loss when a loved one dies with these beautiful words:

” I think this feeling you describe, of alertness to the inner-spirit of things — this humming — comes from a hard-earned understanding of the impermanence of things and, indeed, our own impermanence. This lesson ultimately animates and illuminates our lives. We become witnesses to the thrilling emergency of the present — a series of exquisite and burning moments, each extinguished as the next arises. These magical moments are the bright jewels of loss to which we cling.” (the redhandfiles.com)

I have just read the tender words of my dear friend, Bill who wrote his update on his wife’s journey with cancer. His clarity and courage brought my tears and gratitude for his integrity on a journey he never wanted to take. Now there are no more treatment options and the plan to bring her home today and begin hospice for her final days is clear. And his acceptance begins.

After reading his entry on the Caring Bridge website, I was called to the door by a friend, and as I stepped out into the morning sunlight, a sparrow hit the kitchen window beside me and fell stunned to the deck a few feet from my door. I groaned with the sadness of watching it suffer, and wavered in my wanting to bend down and help it or let it be. Another sparrow landed at the foot of the stairs to the deck, waiting. My neighbor and I stood and held our breath for a few moments, staying still. And then suddenly it revived itself, shook its head and flew into the branches of the birch tree nearby. I noticed the leaves of the tree were each illuminated by the morning sun, so that they were shining, illuminated, iridescent. As Nick Cave said so brilliantly, I was a witness “to the thrilling emergency of the present.”

This now is my fervent intention, my desire to infiltrate my way of being– as each day becomes a vigil for my friend, my Anam Cara, my Kasama, my soul sister of 36 years. I will honor her by being witness to the bright jewels of loss that will wake me to the wonder of this life, this impermanent life. I will cherish what comes, the way of the shining in the dark that pervades, the lilt of love that embroiders my encounters, that holds my gentle exquisite tears. Tears themselves small jewels as they gather and fall.

Her dying shakes me awake, though I lie stunned…

in that thrilling emergency…

I remember

flying.

Photo by Flickr on Pexels.com

And Now…

It’s been four weeks since what we have taken to calling, Black Sunday. On June 14th, my friend who has Stage 4 cancer, called me from the hospital. I hadn’t talked to her since she was admitted and had emergency surgery for a secondary infection. She called me to tell me goodbye. She had decided that she was stopping treatment and going to palliative care. She would just stay in the hospital to make it easier on her family as it wouldn’t be long without the antibiotics to curb the infection.

I remember snippets of our conversation–some special memories, promises I’d made about her children, our cherished gift of our shared love. I struggled to keep the conversation going, just one more little laugh between us, one more confidence, one more assurance that we would always be connected. But other than that she had so few preferences about her ending. Just simple and easy. Whatever we wanted for a celebration of life. And I could sense that I was holding on when she asking for just the opposite.

That night and the next morning was a weeping time, sharing of the news with close friends, texting each other pictures of us together, consoling each other, sitting in silence. And as we had done since she was diagnosed, we howled at 8:00 p.m. facing the far away hospital.

Then the next morning her husband called and said simply, “Linda is back in the game.” Overnight some of the systems that had seemed to shut down were working again. The white cell count was down. The docs assured her that if she wanted it, she could have more time with her family. Ten days later she was released from the hospital. She is home, finding her way back to eating and sleeping and walking on her own. She has lots of preferences again. She wants us to be around and there is much that we can do to assist.

And I..I find that I have been transformed. I almost feel guilty about how much my dear friend is giving me life as she struggles to do the same. Somebody asked what it was like to let her go and then she’s back? Was I resistant or even irritated in some irrational way? I could see what she meant. But somehow in that goodbye phone call, when I at last, had really surrendered my control over keeping her here and had sensed her beyond her bodily form, ready to be formless again, a great peace came, even joy. I remember saying to her, “I think you are going to feel so much more at home where you are going than being here–you’ve always felt part saint to me.” She laughed.

Now a month later, that peace that I thought might be temporary is still here. I sometimes stop and look within deeply to see if I am just in denial, protecting myself from feeling the grief that will come again. But I can’t find it. There’s no sick feeling in my gut anymore. No feeling of waking up with a sense of doom. When I am with her, I see actual luminous light around her. I feel thrilled when I walk in and there she is. Another moment with her or a whole day, just cooking her food she likes or bringing her something to drink or walking the dog or just having one of those conversations about spirituality that we both so love to delve into. I’ve probably said a thousand times or more in my life to “just be present to the moment”. But that was almost me trying to be present, like I should be present because that’s a good thing to do–like “stop and smell the roses.” But now, I simply am living that with her. I am wrapped up in the cherished moment, always sensing it, always grateful, always feeling this ridiculous joy inside just being able to find the right protein bar she can eat.

I don’t know what it’s like for her. She says she made the decision to stay with treatment to give her family a little more time to let her go. She never says she needed it. Although she is stronger every day, it’s incredibly hard still with all the meds and pokes and bandage changes, all the push to eat instead of enjoy eating, all the encouragement to get back up the flight of stairs when just making a loop around the house with her walker takes effort.

The tumors are still there and without the immunotherapy, they have grown a bit from a month ago. Even that news doesn’t strike me in the gut like the last time I heard it. Perhaps it’s no surprise now. Yet also, I have less of a line between good news and bad news. I’ve even let go of that. Who am I to say what is best? For her to stay here or move on to a higher realm and greater purpose? There is a softness about just being here and now, not turning away from reality, letting myself feel what I feel, and watching what grace can do with an open heart. Knowing a different dimension of what I’ve called Love.