When Did I Start to Look Like My Mother?

When I glanced at myself in a mirror the other day, I thought I saw my mother.

That’s pretty hard to do when she passed away more than 30 years ago. But really – I thought I saw my mother. Or at least someone who looked an awfully lot like her.

That someone was me.

Wow. What an eye-opener…

When did I get so old? When did my jowls start to sag and my hair start to show some gray? What about those lines in my face or that strange growth underneath my neck? The swollen ankles? The beginnings of an apple shape when I used to only be a pear?

body type

Like I said, when did I start to look like my mother? When I looked in the mirror and a stranger looked back, it was me. That’s sobering.

Remember when your parents used to warn you about how “time flies” when you get older? I think time must have flown on the wings of a supersonic bird for this transformation to have taken place. Maybe even a pterodactyl…

It’s time for a reality check. Let’s survey this venerable temple of mine to see its history.

That knot of muscle sticking out of my left shoulder? That formed the day my son got his tonsils out in 1st grade. I hadn’t met the surgeon ahead of time, and the thought of having my only child go under the knife with a stranger had me at the Emergency Room the night after his successful surgery, in pain. That knot gets worked on every two weeks by my faithful massage therapist, 25 + years later. A badge of honor…

That crevice line on my forehead, just between and above my eyes? That’s from hearing hour after hour of tragic situations from my patients/clients/students over the years – the loss, abuse, addiction, mental illness, shame, suicidal thoughts… It takes its toll.

That vertical abdominal scar that no amount of vitamin E could make disappear? That’s the Caesarean section (almost) 34 years ago for the birth of my son. I can still remember the feeling of the two surgeons’ hands inside my body (yes, you do feel pressure, but no pain with an epidural). Or else it’s from the hysterectomy that was recommended I have 2 years later because of my cancer history.

That cough that turns up when I laugh too much? That’s from 7th grade, when my teacher used to actually take points away from all my tests (I almost always got 100’s because I studied all the time), explaining to my parents and me, “Theresa doesn’t need all those As; other students in the class need them more.” It was weeks until our family doctor determined that my cough was stress-related; after all, it wasn’t fair that the As I worked so hard for were taken away from me, was it? What a fine example of a teacher…

Those cracked caps on my back teeth? Those came from when I fainted in the bathroom while recovering from “GOK (God Only Knows) Disease” and clenched my teeth when I hit the floor. After which my brain couldn’t put together thoughts, let alone sentences for almost 2 months… The only way this wordsmith could survive that frustrating period was to figure out that maybe God wanted me to be quiet and listen.
teeth

That tiny scar in the upper right quadrant of my abdomen? That’s the emergency gall bladder surgery, where my gall bladder went from 100% to zero percent functioning in what seemed like the space of a day. I never really liked fried foods that much anyway…

Those skin indentations on my face that look like scars every morning? That’s from the face mask that I have to wear because I stop breathing 11 times every hour while asleep – that’s with the C-pap machine. The good news is that the impressions disappear about an hour after I start the day.

That shadow of sadness that lurks deep within my eyes? That goes along with the crevice line on my forehead (see above) along with struggles with depression. You know – that “melancholy” that fueled Abraham Lincoln’s greatness and made him the perfect leader during our Civil War; that illness that Winston Churchill called his “black dog” and helped win World War II.

The graying hair that I put a rinse on now and again to make me look less “frumpy?” [An aside here – why is it that gray hair in a woman is often considered “frumpy” while gray hair in a man is often considered “distinguished?”] I think the most recent contributor was my husband being sick with his own GOK Disease, in the hospital for a week and unable to work for almost a month. That, along with the fact that there is yet to be a diagnosis… Oh, and let’s not forget my own hospital visit last fall and the mini-stroke that brought about my stepping aside from my job.

The occasional swollen ankles? I don’t use salt, I drink plenty of fluids and I’m not going into congestive heart failure. I think my legs are just tired of carrying me around for so long. Plus, they outran wildlife on the Serengeti Plain – that’s no small feat!

The addition of a telltale apple shape on top of the always present pear shape? This one, I must say, is from the release of gallons of Cortisol caused by stress, which is directly related to belly fat distribution in women. Why it hasn’t disappeared since I took time off from working is a mystery to me. But, I just ordered an abs wheel and exercise mat on-line, so I’m going to get back to just a pear shape in the next few months. And I must say – I never thought I’d be glad to return to “just” a pear shape…

The road map of lines that cover my face? Let’s see – almost 12 years of higher education after high school, marriage, divorce, setting up my own practice, building a house and an office, moving, changing careers, death of both parents, multiple surgeries, responsibility-laden jobs, death of 3 cats in the past 14 months (see: “In Memory of Peanut“), my husband’s hospitalization, being a mother and wife… I’m stopping before I get too depressed; those transitions can do a person in! (see: “The In-Between Time“)

modernantiaging.com

modernantiaging.com

Last, but not least, what’s with the loose pouch of skin fat under my chin? The one that my Mom thought for sure was a tumor growing when she first noticed hers. The one that makes me look like I’m related to a turkey. This one is another mystery, but I know it must be related to the gravitational pull that influences ocean tides and sunspots.

But this seasoned body – so flawed, scarred, exhausted, sagging – is also the body that is still standing. It’s weathered a lot of storms, and by doing so, forged my own unique path that has gifted me with the privilege of being present with others while they examine their own scars – the kind that we don’t actually see.

And perhaps most sacred of all, almost 34 years ago, this maturing body delivered the miracle of my son, who I count as my greatest blessing.

So, I’ll ask again: when did I start to look like my mother?

I’m thinking that with everything she went through in her life (see: “Remembrance“), that’s not a bad way to look. Even in the last month of her life, battling breast cancer at 59 in the hospital, head shaved, feverish, swollen – she was beautiful.

She never complained, she knew the life stories of the nurses who brought her special foods and drinks to tempt her appetite, and she faced her cancer with courage for as long as she was physically able.

Like I said, Mom was beautiful. The essence of who she was – her spirit – the part of her that could not be diminished regardless of what was destroying her body – shone forth.

Now that I think of it, I’m honored to look like my mother.

slowjams.com

slowjams.com

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Kaleidoscope

colors

You of magnificent beauty.

You soar, you leap, you create.

You allow molten tears to scald my heart,
to carve deep channels of pain and loss.

Yet those random channels follow a course as old as time…
No — older — pulled in a direction already known.

And so the tears flow, scarring my heart.
They sear into my soul,
then collect into a reservoir
carpeted in the velvet of midnight.

No movement. Into the abyss of despair.

Then a glimmer…faint.

No — silence; all is still.

Then, a swirl — a spiral —
of blues and turquoise, of teal and purple —
spearing the darkness with light.
Dancing, sparkling, shooting upward.

You glimmer and spark and shimmer
as you bounce across the heavens.
Moving toward the darkest of broken places,
leaving brilliant cascades of shimmering light
in Your wake.

Until each of those bursts of shimmering light
coalescence into a kaleidoscope of magnificent beauty.

I am struck. I gasp. I kneel, only to collapse.

My tears immerse me in baptism
until my heart explodes in a whirlwind of color,
and the love pours over me, through me.

Its wings envelop me,
and I soar toward that which is
almost painful to gaze upon.

I cannot look, but I must see.

Racing, longing, streaming toward the place of my creation —
of all creation — of oneness. Whole.

I left, only to return.

I wept, only to gasp.

I burned, only to temper.

The vibration. The fire.

I dissolve. I merge. I end.

I begin. I am home.

I am. Yours.

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Labyrinth of My Heart

Solvitur ambulando . . . It is solved by walking . . .
~ St. Augustine ~

LABYRINTH OF MY HEART

A pilgrim, I stand at the entrance of this Sacred Path,
this Path of Prayer,
this Journey to the Center of Being.
I know not what to expect, but am assured that
walking forward will bring me closer to You.

I cannot see my way to the center;
the path twists and turns with no seeming direction.
One foot in front of the other,
one step at a time,
patient trust that You will show me the Way.

Walking the path without a map,
feeling myself empty in the quiet,
letting go of the control that I seem to need
so very much outside this circle,
releasing the chains as I move on.

Walking the curved path dulls my outside awareness,
while inside glistens with claritas and focus.
My heartbeat slows to a soothing rhythm,
lulling me to a place of peace
as I drink in this well for my spirit.

I hesitate, then stop, dropping to my knees,
resistant to the Way that lies before me.
You and Your Blessed Mother, one on each side of me,
lean down and whisper,
“Come with us, little one. Come.”

I shake my head no as my chin sinks to my chest,
exhausted, fearful,
a cloud of unknowing fogging my heart and my head.
“Don’t ask me to do this,” I beg, frozen, huddled
and twisted about my Being.

For I know if I move forward
I will be forever changed.
I will hand over myself
to journey to a place unknown.
I am comfortable where I remain.

Yet I stand up, shaking, knowing that
I will take this further journey.
The next step is commitment, a marriage,
a promise, a vow.
I will go but You must lead me.

What I lose, I may gain ten-fold;
what paralyzes me may set me free.
If I move on, I let go.
Total, fearless surrender.
Truth. Discovery. Light.

In the center – a communion of all
the tears, loss and desolation into
a treasury of sorts of all that is good;
into a community of love that surpasses
all understanding.

Sitting in the quiet, the whisper of spirit
on my face as I gain strength
for what is Being asked of me.
Be still and know that I am. Be still and know.
Be still. Be.

Centered, in the womb
of this mystical union between heaven and earth,
I receive the blessings of awareness and wholeness
as I return to the collective memory of my soul.
As above, so below.

I struggle to rise, then I am lifted unaware.
Empowered as the path unwinds
beneath my sure-footed steps,
its rhythms beckoning me, calling me
on my journey back to a life renewed.

My leaving becomes an arriving as I dance
in the shimmering light that is Grace.
Bringer of Light. Seeker of Truth.
Bearer of this Sacred Heart.
You are their Light.  Shine.

labyrinth 6____________________________________

I’m Still Standing

For those of us who have reached “a certain age,” that of late adulthood (65+), life takes on a whole new meaning. Mourning midlife becomes an everyday occurrence.

Dreams disintegrate.
Bodies stiffen.
Hair whitens.
Passion breeds affection.
Words escape.
Importance wanes.
Good-byes increase.
The future shortens.
Decisions narrow.
Memories fade.
Joints ache.
Eyes cloud.
Hearing erodes.
Opinions minimize.
Belongings lose importance.
Money depreciates.
Hope dims.
Shadows loom.
Friends depart.
Breathing exerts.
Faces line.
Time hastens.
Distractions multiply.
Dying rules.

We are actually quite invisible to a society in which technology rules. Communication is by abbreviations and emojis on social media platforms, where eye contact and shaking hands are a thing of the past. Baby boomers are obsolete, you say? No longer part of the bigger picture?

Whatever happened to the mythology of the old crone, full of wisdom gained through a life of pain and sorrow? Wisdom gained by suffering through the human condition, witnessing countless tragedies and upheavals, hoping so desperately to make meaning of it all, and to leave the world better than you found it?

At times, I feel invisible out there. Ignored by sales clerks. Doors closed in my face. Cars beeping their horns at crosswalks. Doctors writing everything off to aging, impatient and patronizing. Young people snickering as I walk by, albeit moving more slowly. Opinions being cast aside. Conversations shortened. Phone calls being ignored. (Did I really grimace at times when I saw my father’s name on caller ID, not wanting to hear about his latest health problems? Would that I could see his name come up just one more time…I would answer it in a heartbeat.)

In my lifetime, I saw black and white TVs turn into color. I saw man’s first step on the moon. I remember where I was when Kennedy was shot. I got my first calculator as a Junior in college and said goodbye to my slide rule. I witnessed the carnage of 9/11, and saw mankind at war so often that I’ve lost count. I saw computers go from the size of huge rooms to fitting into my pocket. I saw gay marriage recognized. And I watched as a society became inured to active shooters and their messages of hate.

I have a lived quite a lifetime in these 65 years. I’ve been through marriage and divorce, illness, the loss of jobs and identities, childbirth, the death of both parents, along with 11 years of higher education (yes, you read that right). I could go on and on, but I won’t. Suffice it to say, to borrow the words of a man by the name of Elton John, “I’m Still Standing.”

My life counts for something. I matter. And I will not remain invisible to a society that shows so little respect to the elderly.

Ageism, ugly as it is, exists. But I will not be ignored.

I have a voice, and my truth will be heard.

I have eyes that see with compassion and love.

I have hands that will continue to reach out.

I have ears that actively listen.

I have a smile that welcomes you into my space.

I have wisdom to share with the generations that follow me, ready for the taking.

I will continue to create and nurture and mentor and bring about positive change.

I will produce. I will be involved. I will contribute.

And I will find a way for my contributions to outlast me, however small.

Countless graces have been bestowed upon me in this lifetime, and I am truly blessed.

Now let me pass those gifts on to others.
______________________________

My Heart is Heavy

My heart is heavy.

If I could gather together sages from the past, these are the questions I would ask them:

Jesus of Nazareth: Why do we forget the love, and how can we get it back?

Love each other.

Mahatma Gandhi: Why do we resort to violence as a way to solve problems, and instead create wars? How can we bring about world peace?

Communicate with each other.

Blessed Mother Teresa: Who will care for those in need, those dying in the streets, whether of Ebola or malnutrition or gunshot wounds or neglect? How can we remember the least of these are our brothers, our sisters, ourselves?

Hold each other.

Beethoven: How can we soothe our savage natures with the universal language of music? Who will play your concertos in the midst of war?

Listen to each other.

Michelangelo: How can we protect your priceless works of art from the bombing, so that generations to come will see and feel your heart song?

Look beyond that which you see.

Albert Schweitzer: How can we save humanity from the Fellowship of Pain and degradation that is foisted upon them by their own kind?

Bind each others’ wounds.

St. Francis of Assisi: How can we honor all creatures great and small?

Honor each other with dignity and respect.

Friedrich Nietzsche: How will we survive today’s world?

“That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”

Viktor Frankl: Why?

There is meaning in suffering. “Those who have a ‘why’ to live, can bear with almost any ‘how’.”

My heart is heavy, but now filled with hope.

Thursday Re-View — Americans All

[9/11 Memorial Museum Dedication Week]

She was beautiful.

Dressed in a fashionable ensemble, a dusty rose hijab with black piping covering her hair, she stood hesitant, alone, lost.

I asked how I could help. Her voice quiet, reserved, she told me her son was not quite 19 years old when he was called to the towers on 9/11 as a first responder.

No, this 18-year-old young man did not die that day, at least not in the physical sense. Instead, what he saw that day brought him to a place for the living dead – into the world of addiction. Her son was living and breathing, but for 8 long years, they lost him to the downward spiral that was the world of drugs.

But they never gave up on him.

And now he was on his feet, clean and sober, struggling to view the world with clear and steady eyes. He wasn’t yet ready to view the reality of the museum, so his mother was here in his stead.

If only we could offer easy answers for his difficult questions, but we are not foolish in the aftermath.

She grabbed both of my hands and clutched them tightly.

“You can probably tell I’m Muslim. I almost didn’t come today because I didn’t know how I would be received. I didn’t know if I would be accepted.”

My heart broke.

“We are all Americans here,” I answered softly, squeezing her hand in reassurance. “We’re different, but yet we’re all the same.”

After all, those we lost on 9/11 represented more than 90 countries. And she, in a way, lost her son for 8 long years, but at least got him back.

Three thousand other families could not say the same.

Muslim? Christian? Hindu? Buddhist? Agnostic? Atheist? Something else?

It didn’t matter.

It doesn’t matter.

We all lost some one, some thing, a part of ourselves that day. Let us stand united.

Hate solves nothing, while love and peace benefit all.

We are One.

9 11 wall

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Thursday Re-View — In Memoriam

[ 9/11 Memorial Museum – In Memoriam Exhibit ]

[please see: Collage of the Heart]

He stood alone in his dress FDNY uniform, ribbons aligned perfectly, shoes buffed to a patent leather shine, gloves snowy white.

He walked up to a specific one of the 2,983 pictures on the Wall of Faces, gently placed his gloved hand flat on the portrait, lowered his head, and stood motionless for a full minute.

His prayer done, he moved to another FDNY face in another photograph in another row, placed his gloved hand flat on the portrait, lowered his head, and stood motionless for a full minute.

And then he did it again for another of his FDNY brothers.

And again.

And again.

I lost count. But he didn’t.

He performed the same homage over and over, honoring each of his many fallen comrades.

Too many lost. Gone too soon. Too much heartache.

At last he reached his Captain. He placed his gloved hand flat on the portrait, lowered his head, and stood motionless for a full minute. Then he smartly saluted his superior, his hand steady and strong.

And the tears flowed…

salute

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Thursday Re-View — Collage of the Heart

[ 9/11 Memorial Museum – In Memoriam Exhibit ]

The 2,983 photos cover the four walls, this microcosm of humanity. Gone too soon, and far too young, no matter the age.

The Wall of Faces.

Young and old; black, white, red, brown and yellow; smiling and carefree; serious and professional.

Mothers and fathers; brothers and sisters; husbands and wives; sons and daughters; bosses and co-workers; captains and lieutenants; lovers and friends.

People from over 90 countries, but Americans all.

The impact of the sheer number of people lost punches you in the chest, the intake of breath keening out in an anguished, “Oh, my God…,” over and over in a litany of disbelief.

Oh – my – God.

Frozen tears pour out in a scalding torrent.

Here, then, a Captain in the Fire Department of New York, dress uniform shining and starched, dedication in his gaze.

Next to him, a middle-aged woman, motherly, soft around the edges, her eyes rimmed with lines from years of laughter.

Down some rows to the handsome young man in a tuxedo – model handsome – with a smile that can light up a room, along with his wife’s heart.

My eyes move up to the older man, graying at the temples, dignified in his Wall Street clothing, his face a mask of professionalism.

The young woman, so vibrant and full of life, the girl-next-door, prom queen and cheer-leading captain all rolled into one.

The man of indeterminate age, his ebony skin matching his eyes which radiate compassion and a quiet reserve.

The young EMT, eager to help, focused, smiling, full of hope.

I remove my glasses as if to rub the images from my vision and instead visualize a sea of colors, a tapestry, that together unite into one huge photograph of humanity.

Out of many – One.

Oh. My. God.

9 11 wall of faces

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Thursday Re-View — To My Son on His Wedding Day

September 13, 2014

The day is finally here. You’re getting married. To a lovely young woman, too. Another milestone in your life. You learned how to walk and talk and use the potty and swim, gave up diapers and bottles and pacifiers, graduated from high school and college, went to prom and got your driver’s license, passed your boards, became a second degree black belt, learned krav maga and so much more… But this milestone is huge. This is being an adult, big-time.

I’ll spare you the “it seems like only yesterday” that I remember so and so or such and such. Well – maybe just one – it seems like yesterday that I held you in the hospital, the baby against the odds…my Alex. Here we are, 29 (lightning) years later.

Now you’re to be someone else’s Alex besides mine. I’d like to impart age-old wisdom about marriage, but if I had all the answers, your Dad and I wouldn’t have gotten divorced. But that had nothing to do with you, only to do with us. None of us gets married expecting to part, and neither should you.

But I have learned some things along the way – important things; vitally important things.

Like the need for trust, respect, honesty, equality and communication in a relationship.

To trust the other person with yourself. To respect the dignity of another human being at all costs. To seek the truth and be honest, always. To recognize your spouse as different, but equal. Above all, to keep the communication channels open, even when you don’t feel like it.

If you remember these things, almost any differences – and there will be plenty of those – can be resolved in a mutually beneficial way.

Marriage is not easy. Sometimes it’s a challenge to remember those vows, even on a day-to-day basis. But it’s worth it. Human beings were made for companionship, to work in partnership, to experience love.

And remember that you can love someone but not always like them. Go easy on yourself; you’re only human. And so is your wife. No one is perfect, and no one has all the answers. Everyone has good days and not-so-good days. But when the two of you work together, you’ll get through just about anything that life puts in front of you.

Remember, too, not to lose yourself in another person. There’s that wonderful part of the two of you that no one else can touch, but it’s so important to allow each other your own identities as well. You’ll be Marissa’s husband, Theresa’s son, Ed’s partner, Poppy and Mimi’s grandson, Aunt Pat’s nephew and godson…but you’ll also always be simply Alex, with your own interests apart from those as a couple. The Alex who never loses himself, yet becomes better because of his partner in life. That’s so important.

There are some rules in fair fighting, and one of the biggest is to let the past rest in the past. Once you have resolved something, don’t keep bringing it up to re-hash it. That’s not fair. Once it’s done, it’s done. End of story. While we’re on rules for fair fighting, here are some more suggestions: no name calling; don’t let the sun go down on your anger; no physical fighting or hitting – ever; no mind-reading; what you say at home stays at home.

Remember, too: don’t keep score; marriage is not a competition. It’s a partnership of equals. And don’t be afraid to ask for your own space…everyone needs to breathe, some times more than others. Also remember that your happiness is not your spouse’s responsibility – you are responsible for your own happiness. As for drama – well, keep that to a minimum. And don’t let friends or in-laws interfere – period.

I wish you happiness and joy, contentment and peace. But most of all, I wish you love. Always love…

____________________________________________________

The Wedding Song

He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts
Rest assured this troubador is acting on His part.
The union of your spirits, here, has caused Him to remain
For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name
There is love, there is love.

A man shall leave his mother and a woman leave her home
And they shall travel on to where the two shall be as one.
As it was in the beginning is now and til the end
Woman draws her life from man and gives it back again.
And there is love, there is love.

Well then what’s to be the reason for becoming man and wife?
Is it love that brings you here or love that brings you life?
And if loving is the answer, then who’s the giving for?
Do you believe in something that you’ve never seen before?
Oh there’s love, there is love.

Oh the marriage of your spirits here has caused Him to remain

For whenever two or more of you are gathered in His name
There is love, there is love.
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Thursday Re-View – My Pilgrimage to ????

[originally posted August 12, 2013]

Assisi, Italy photo: Sacred Destinations

Assisi, Italy
photo: Sacred Destinations

Right now, I should be jet-lagged from Saturday’s return flight from Italy. Unpacking, doing laundry, going through stacks of mail, picking up my cat, Freddie, from my son’s gracious cat-sitting ordeal, watering the flowers, reliving my time on Pilgrimage in Assisi… [see: “My Journey with St. Francis, the Jesuits and Pope Francis – Part I“]

But I’m not…

In a post almost 6 months ago, I wrote of my hopes for this journey, a retreat for health care professionals that promised ‘renewal, respite and reflection’ in Assisi, Italy. St. Francis’ birthplace. Up close and personal to my daily prayer of “Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace…”

My pilgrimage that would take me to the same cobblestone streets where St. Francis walked, prayed and healed. Where I could best offer my gratitude for all blessings received (and they are many) in this life, and where I could best humbly ask for guidance, strength and wisdom in providing compassionate presence to those most in need.

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” ― Allen Saunders & John Lennon

My pilgrimage turned into a different journey, to a different place, perhaps even more sacred. A pilgrimage of the ordinary times in a marriage – the unexpected trials – the uncertain, dark and lonely times.

A pilgrimage is a journey or search of moral or spiritual significance. Typically, it is a journey to a shrine or other location of importance to a person’s beliefs and faith, although sometimes it can be a metaphysical journey into someone’s own beliefs. ~ Wikipedia

There are significant benefits to a second marriage when you are older – no time to waste on falseness; you already know what you need in a partnership, and you don’t bother looking for what isn’t healthy or what doesn’t exist. When you get married young, in the thralls of romance and knights in shining armor and dreams through rose-colored glasses, most of us don’t think of the “…in sickness and in health from this day forward until death do us part” portion of the vow. But when you form that union middle-aged, you are clearly aware that those times will undoubtedly be coming sooner rather than later.

And so they did…

I’ve had my share of hospital stays and “GOK” Disease (named by one of my doctors: “God Only Knows” Disease), surgeries and too-quick recoveries in my adult life, but my husband was one of the few who had made it this far in life without a hospital stay.

No longer.

Ten days before we were to depart for our rest and renewal workshop, he became ill – seriously ill – and landed in the hospital.

My pilgrimage.

Pilgrimage: a journey to a place that is connected with someone of something that you admire or respect. ~ Oxford Advanced Dictionary

My journey where I so eloquently hoped to “humbly ask for guidance, strength and wisdom in providing compassionate presence to those most in need.” Little did I know that when I had those hopes – indeed, had that certainty – for my pilgrimage, it would be directed toward my husband rather than a patient, client, student, stranger, or friend in need.

This time, it was much closer to home.

Pilgrimage: any long journey, especially one undertaken as a quest or for a votive purpose, as to pay homage; a journey, especially a long one, made to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion. ~ dictionary.com

Certainly this act of devotion, of care-taking, was assumed automatically. The decision to cancel our trip in light of the circumstances was easy. Yes, it was a missed opportunity that I had so looked forward to; yes, it would be inconvenient to have to reschedule the visit (hopefully) sometime in the future. But mostly, there was the disappointment that I was so sure that I would be shown some priceless wisdom while on this retreat. After all, I would be walking and praying where St. Francis walked and prayed. A lightning bolt would strike directly in front of me and all would be revealed.

How could I not be gifted with Divine Wisdom in so sacred a place?

Pilgrimage: the course of life on earth; journey undertaken to gain divine aid, as an act of thanksgiving or to demonstrate devotion. ~ Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Albrecht Durer

Albrecht Durer

My prayers were answered – the Divine Wisdom was there – just not as I expected it (which is usually the case with me). The sacred places were the emergency and waiting rooms, the doctor’s offices that we are still visiting, the computer screen that listed the test results, the iPhone with family texts and conversations, the empty house at night… Not the cobblestone streets of Assisi, but rather the hospital corridors and parking lots and driveways that all leave their indelible mileage on your heart.

My husband is on his way to recovery; his energy level is improving a little day by day; his stubbornness is showing signs of resurfacing (that’s not such a good thing, but in light of the past month, I’ll take it); our conversations are becoming more regular and actually concern something other than mortality and bone marrow and fevers of unknown origin and Family Medical Leave.

Scared ground. All of this – the tears, the despair, the anxiety, the complete disruption of normalcy – is sacred ground.

A pilgrimage of sorts.

About marriage, love and partnership, fear and uncertainty, anger and decisions, devotion and things said or unsaid.

And hope. Always hope.

Hope that things that were once taken for granted and perhaps annoying would actually return (who knew?); that normalcy would once again be a part of our lives. Those ordinary things.

Ordinary, every day, ‘boring’ things that were, and are, in actuality, extraordinary.

This pilgrim is grateful. And humbled. Yet again, caught by surprise at how little I have control over things. Reminded that all will be well, regardless of my attempts to influence, ascertain, direct, determine, assure, limit, organize, out-maneuver whatever the future has in store.

Did I say that I was middle-aged? Chronologically perhaps, but naive none-the-less. Still learning. Still struggling. A work in progress.

A pilgrim on sacred ground.

It’s any place any one of us reaches out in love. It’s everywhere. It’s right beside us. Inside us. And it’s all about love.

“Lord, make me an instrument of Your peace.
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon,
Where there is doubt, faith,
Where there is despair, hope,
Where there is darkness, light, and
where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled, as to console;
To be understood, as to understand;
To be loved, as to love;
For it is in giving that we receive –
It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”

I walked with St. Francis on my pilgrimage. The wings that carried me weren’t part of an airplane…yet my feet never even touched the ground.

wings

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Thursday Re-View – An Adolescent’s Christmas

christmas tree
Working with college students is great.

Before anyone gets into that type of work, however, it would be wise to warn you about the college student brain. Studies have shown that “late adolescence” may actually extend until 25 years old. The scientist in me wants to explain that until then, the neural networks that regulate behavior don’t reach full maturity, making the person subject to sensation-seeking and increased risk-taking, as well as more vulnerable to impulses, emotions, and the effects of alcohol and other drugs.

Still want to work with college students??? (You should. It’s energizing!)

When I explain that to the students themselves, in trying to help them understand the developmental changes during their college years, their reactions – after the shock – divide into two different camps. The first group sits up straighter, usually with an affronted look on their face – “Hey, just one minute! We’re adults, not adolescents!” The other group slouches a bit, eyes glazed, wheels turning, and you can hear them thinking, “Sweet! When I get drunk tomorrow night, I’ll have a great excuse. I couldn’t help it; my brain made me do it…”

My point being that it’s hard to transition from high school to college, and a common problem is the “emotional disconnect” that so many young people seem to have with their parents. Communication is not their strong point (one only has to look at the texts and twitter feeds to see that; while I’m on that topic – Rule #1: Never break up by texting or on Facebook! Man-up or woman-up and do it in person.).

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Which brings me to Kristy… Together, she and I worked through a nasty break-up with her boyfriend, a charge of plagiarism by a professor, changing her major, feeling left out as a commuter, drinking too much on weekends, and the struggle with going to college and working a part-time job at the same time. All in an average day in the life of an adolescent. (One good thing – students who commute are spared the drama of roommate issues that flare up with alarming frequency).

But – and there’s always a but – no matter how hard she tried, no matter how much role-playing we did together, Kristy could not seem to reach an uneasy peace – or even a truce – with her mother. There was no father in the picture; only Kristy and her Mom. Finances were, of course, a huge issue, and Kristy’s only ticket to a better life was to keep her grades up in order to keep her scholarships and find some middle ground with her mother. Most times, they didn’t even speak to/with each other.

One day right before Christmas break, Kristy came in with shoulders slumped, looking dejected. (Uh oh – probably another incident with Mom.) I asked her what was wrong. Kristy grabbed a tissue (uh oh, uh oh – Kristy never cries) and started to explain what happened the night before.

She and her Mom were in a particularly tight spot with money, and were behind on rent and other bills. It was bleak enough that they couldn’t even afford to put up a Christmas tree. Last week, we had already discussed that not having money for a gift for her Mom didn’t matter; we Moms love a hug or a hand-made card – nothing else needed. But Kristy felt strongly that if she could only get her Mom something wonderful, their relationship, in this season of joy, would suddenly be terrific – wonderful – like everyone else’s (if Kristy only knew…). So what happened, with a child wanting nothing more than to please her hard-working, single mother?

Kristy had noticed in the past that her Mom cherished a statue she kept all alone on a coffee table in their apartment. Kristy wasn’t supposed to touch it, in case it broke. Sometimes, after coming home from her 2nd job, Kristy would see her Mom take off her sneakers, put her feet up and just stare at the statue, lost in thought.

“That has to be so very special to your Mom; what/who is the statue?”

Kristy struggled with this. “Well, it’s a small boy – looks kind of weird with something like a crown on his head, and his hand is held up like he’s agreeing with Mom – stay away.” She sighed. “Oh, and sometimes she dresses it up in clothes that she made herself, when she still had her sewing machine; you know, kind of like I used to do with my Barbie.”

Okay. The picture in my head is taking shape.

infant-prague-statue-8-inches-2007991

“The statue – was there something like a globe in the little boy’s left hand?”

“Yeah – how did you know?”

“My Mom had the same statue. But what happened?”

Kristy explained that the 2 things her Mom loved most were costume jewelry and this statue. So, thinking of surprising her Mom with something even better than an expensive Christmas tree, Kristy got some of Mom’s favorite, chunky jewelry out of her bedroom and draped the statue with it, Mardi-Gras style. “Lots of bling, you know?” When the statue looked blinged out enough, Kristy draped a string of lights around the statue, too, so it blinked in color and blinged at the same time. “I thought it looked good.”

Now I am trying to keep my “listening intently” look, and not show my concern about where this might lead. “What did your Mom do when she saw it?”

Kristy looked down for a long moment. “She didn’t say a word. She just kept looking at the statue, then at me, then the statue…and she started to cry. So I just went up to my room. Why didn’t she like it?”

Okay. So – how to explain. “Well, I know you meant well, and I’m proud of you for wanting to make your Mom happy with her 2 special things, but that statue… that’s the Infant of Prague – the Child Jesus – and the hand He holds up, like He wants you to stay away so you won’t break Him – that’s the Child Jesus blessing you.”

Kristy’s eyes had that “deer in the headlight” look, horrified and scared at the same time.

“Some might think what you did was sacri – (no – skip that word) disrespectful.”

Her eyes got even bigger. But then she got a twinkle in her eye and covered her mouth with her hands. Remember the high emotion and mood swings in the adolescent make-up? We were there. For only the second time in my work as a therapist, I lost it (for the only other time, see my post “The Welcome Angel.”).

Kristy started to laugh, then I started to laugh. She choked out, “I put bling on Jesus? And Christmas lights???” She alternated between being horrified at what she had done and being proud of herself for rendering her Mom speechless. I laughed right along with her, as I pictured the Infant of Prague decked out for the 21st century.

I tried to explain when I quieted. “You know how you don’t know how to feel right now – upset, but a bit of you thinks it’s funny? That’s probably what happened with your Mom; she was upset with having something other than “proper” clothing on the statue, but happy that you tried so very hard to give her something that would mean so much to her, and maybe even put a smile on her face. It’s okay, Kristy; it will all be okay. Your heart was in the right place.”

What do you think? Was the new appearance appropriate? It sure was! Was the Child Jesus angry with Kristy? Absolutely not. In fact, I think He must have smiled while He watched her face, so intent on dressing Him in something special for her Mom; so intent on pleasing her, so intent on trying to show her that deep down, there was love.

Kristy’s intention was pure; her adolescent love – fickle but piercing in its strength – was on display, her heart vulnerable. And what better time than at Christmas, with the birth of Jesus and a Mother’s love. Who knew that something so innocent could be so wondrous?

You did good, Kristy. You saw with the eyes of your heart, and Jesus smiled with love and understanding; He offered His blessings to you and your Mom.

Indeed – you are a blessing to me as well.

There’s a lot to be said for that adolescent brain, isn’t there?

And the heart – don’t forget the heart.

heart III

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Thursday Re-View – Dear Theresa…

grades

Dear Theresa – 7th grade:

Hang in there, young lady. It’s not about you; it’s about him.

No it’s not fair, but you’ll learn as you get older that life isn’t fair, but you make the best of it. Who knows why your teacher is doing what he’s doing. It makes absolutely no sense to take away points from your test and paper grades and give them to the other students.

“They need the points more than you do.”

Absurd. You should be recognized for all of the hard work you put into studying. Each afternoon, you come home from school and study until dinner. Then you dry the dishes (someday, you’ll have something called a dishwasher that does all that for you), help your Mom and Dad downstairs in their factory, then study some more until bed time.

And your teacher has the audacity to take away points from your hard-earned As and 100s. No wonder you’re coughing and having trouble sleeping. You can’t figure out why he would do something so unfair. There will come a time when you’re a lot older that his behavior will have a name – bullying – and it will be in the newspapers weekly, in an effort to stop its terrible consequences. It plays with a person’s head, and that’s not right.

But for now, hang in there, young lady.

You’ll learn what good teachers are during all your years of education. (In fact, do you know that you will actually go through almost 12 years of schooling after you graduate from high school? I know, I know – hard to believe, but you’ll always need to be learning something new, or you’ll get bored…) And you’ll realize that not all men are threatened by women of a certain intelligence. In fact, someday you’ll not only marry a man who is challenged by them, you’ll raise a son who respects them as well.

But back to your teachers…

Like Mr. Altemose in 10th grade, who’ll teach you to always look at both sides of a story, and to search for the reasons why people act the way they do.

And Mr. DeHaven in your Senior year, who will tell you that it won’t be easy to get all As once you’re in college, but to always do your best, and that will be good enough.

Or Dr. Markowicz, your English professor in undergrad. He’ll be the toughest prof in the department, and you’ll respect him so much that you’ll welcome all his criticisms in order to become a better writer. You’ll like him so much, that after a year of English Composition, you’ll take him for Latin for two more semesters. The other students will tell you that you’re crazy, but you’ll listen to your Self, and learn more from him than anyone else in college. Pretty strange, since you’ll be a Biology major/Chem minor. He’ll even come to your Open House when you start your optometry practice (what – you didn’t know that you’ll be a Doctor someday???), in order to wish you well.

And Dr. Deglin, the retinal specialist? You’ll follow him like a puppy in order to soak up his knowledge, and he’ll never put you down or disrespect you. In fact, he’ll be glad for someone so eager to learn, and he’ll show you enough retinal diseases that you’ll know them like the back of your hand.

There’s Dr. Ciarrocchi, too, in grad school. You’ll beg him to allow you into a Ph.D. class while you’re in the Master’s Program. When he finally relents, its Cognitive Behavioral Therapy slant will become the foundation of your clinical practice as a psychotherapist. Thoughts matter. They become actions that display your character.

Which brings us back to your (nameless) 7th grade teacher.

Don’t worry about him. He’s a small man, doing small things to you. For whatever reason, and there are no doubt many, all having to do with his insecurities, he has chosen you to pick on. He is abusing his position of authority, and debasing the sacred vocation of teaching. Although it doesn’t feel like it now, he will not be able to stop you from succeeding. You will storm through whatever he tries to do to you and will rise above his actions with your own perseverance.

And you’ll be the better for it.

When there’s an obstacle in your way, go through it or around it or over it or under it. Don’t let it stop you from your dreams.

You are a child of the universe.
No less than the trees and the stars,
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

With my blessings and love,

Theresa, Middle-aged

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Thursday Re-View – And the Pilgrims Came…

This was written while on retreat in Assisi, Italy.
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And the Pilgrims Came…

One by one, they came.
Walking, shuffling, crawling, running.
To you, St. Francis…to you.

Faces wreathed in wonder at your tomb, prayerful, reverential, respectful.
The young girl’s smile widened, the older woman’s face smoothed, the man’s countenance glowed.

To that Holy Place, that Sacred Ground, that Place of Silent Wonder.
A communion of souls, a self-made gentling of our armor, a slowing of our racing lives.

One by one, they came.
Walking, shuffling, crawling, running.
To you, St. Francis…to you.

The hiss of lighted candles, the crack of knees bent in homage, the murmurs of prayer.
A gathering, a fellowship, a commonality of simplicity.

The Prayer of St. Francis. Canticle of the Creatures.
Brother Sun, Sister Moon and the stars. Lady Poverty.

One by one, they came.
Walking, shuffling, crawling, running.
To you, St. Francis…to you.

One small man, bleeding the wounds of Christ, staunching our bruised souls with your love.
One small voice, deep in the wooded forest, ringing across the world to humanity.

A patched, threadbare tunic, a hair shirt, leg coverings for your stigmata,
worn sandals that flapped against the ground, mapping your mission for all to hear.

One by one, they came.
Walking, shuffling, crawling, running.
To you, St. Francis…to you.

The bells, calling us to prayer, to weep, to rejoice, to reflect.
Their echoes tolling for the souls of the lost, and for those who are found.

And the Pilgrims came…

Assisi

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Thursday Re-View — Remembrance II (2012)

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June 29, 2012: Remembrance of Dad

I held your hand in the driveway, right where you fell.

The same hand that had once changed my diapers, given me a bottle, taught me how to ride a bike and drive a car, that fed me my first (and last) piece of liver, that cut my hair into a pixie, that held onto me when I crossed a road, that gave me away in marriage, that slipped me money at the beginning of every month, that signed the checks for oh-so-many years of education, that taught me the importance of giving…

I held your hand in the driveway, right where you fell. In disbelief.

That Friday morning, ready to leave for work, the phone rang. Dad probably couldn’t wait until my Bluetooth call while I was on my way to work; he must have had something important to tell me that happened on this date, from the calendar he kept with all family events (big and little) catalogued.

Something very important. My sister’s voice – hysterical, sobbing – “Dad’s dead.”

I calmly called Michael, who told me to wait until he got home from the office; he didn’t trust me to drive. On our way there – on our way “home” – I knew it would take at least an hour – I prayed that you would still be there when I got to the house.

How could I have prayed for what I saw when I arrived? The State Trooper was just leaving as I flew out of the passenger seat and ran across the lawn – the same lawn that you mowed on your John Deere, a special handle screwed into its casing so you could drive your grandsons around with you 30 years ago – to the figure half-hidden by the hedge, covered with a thin white blanket.

I heard someone wail in anguish and didn’t know it was me – your baby of 58 years.

Where was the dignity in this? Dad – my father – a World War II veteran – lying in his driveway, in the sunshine. (Thank goodness for your being covered; lupus doesn’t like sunshine, remember?)

I held your hand in the driveway.

It was right where I had seen Mom standing at your side, oh-so-many years ago after she died, as Steve, Alex and I pulled out of your driveway; by the flowering tree Mom loved that nestled the bird feeders you kept filled for the songbirds and squirrels.

The diamonds in Mom’s ring sparkled in the sunshine as my fingers entwined with yours, your strong hands, nails neatly trimmed, relaxed…at peace. My tears fell onto our hands, a baptism, a cleansing of our relationship, joined with Mom in a bond not unlike diamonds that would only strengthen with the weight of time passed.

There was a dignity in this, of a sort…a communion, a joining, rather than a separation… A quietness…a birth…an arrival upon the heels of a departure.

You were already being greeted by the God whom you so loved, along with Grammie and Grandpop, who sang the words of Matthew 3:17: “This is My Son, in Whom I am well pleased.”

A trembling voice echoed off the walls of my broken heart: “This is my Father, in Whom I am well pleased.”

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Related Post: Remembrance

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Thursday Re-View — The Tree of Life

The Tree of Life

When working with students, many times on their first visit to my office, they remark about how relaxing it seems. The colorful prints, inspirational wall words, plaques with favorite sayings, bubbling fountain and the hint of aromatherapy are a calculated effort on my part to not only relax the students, but myself. I also use some of these items as therapy aids when appropriate.

One of my favorite pieces is a unique wire sculpture that I found years ago at a flower show. It is a windblown tree made of twisted wire in a sienna brown finish. Its solid roots are thick and gnarled, leading into a sturdy trunk, filled with branches that are leaning in one direction, as if buffeted by a strong wind.

by Rob Hagarty

treescompany.org

To me, that sculpture is indeed the “tree of life” we hear so much about in philosophical readings. The image represents the triumph of the human spirit that I see so often when working with clients in the often difficult therapeutic process.

The roots are our foundation – our family background, our experiences, our heritage – the basis of who we are and where we come from.

The trunk is our self, determined, always reaching up toward the light as we continue to grow, to heal, to seek.

The branches are our life journey, each twist and turn a major decision, whether good or not-so-good, that takes us off in another direction. Some branches are shorter than others, some more twisted, some joining or grafting together to lend strength, others growing in a convoluted route that seems impossible to follow, without a clear beginning or defined end.

It sounds like life, doesn’t it?

Whenever I offer my interpretation of its symbolism, people usually groan when I mention the branches being a map of their decisions. They’re probably remembering the ones that still loom as regrets; the ones, in hindsight, they wish they’d never made at all. But without those questionable decisions, our tree wouldn’t be as full, as beautiful or as complete.

That fullness affords us with hard-earned wisdom that we can pass on to others in need. That fullness gives us the power and stamina needed to withstand what ever life hands us – the gale force winds, the torrential rains, the searing sunshine and drought, the changing of the seasons. Yet that same fullness is flexible enough to lean with the forces of nature, yet not be uprooted.

Each season brings its own joy. Spring, with its beautiful blossoms that burst forth from tiny buds. Summer, with its sunshine and warmth. Autumn, with its colorful palette of bronze and gold, orange and scarlet. Winter, with the gentle touch of drifting snowflakes and a veneer of ice that glimmers like diamonds when brushed by the sun, its starkness a beautiful simplicity.

At any one time, the same tree might provide beauty, shade, food, heat, light, exercise, furniture.

A nesting place, a perch, a house, a climb, a landmark, a place to lean on or hide.

A groundedness, a permanence, a sense of time passing and history.

A quiet purpose, a meaning, a truth.

We can count on the tree, just like we can count on ourselves.

We are the tree, still standing, still growing, still providing, still seeking.

We are beautiful, we are natural, we are a gift.

A Tree of Life.

Angel Oak John Island, SC

Angel Oak
John Island, SC

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Thursday Re-View — My Vacation Within

Royal Clipper
The itinerary of the 7-day cruise says I visited Barbados, St. Lucia, Dominica, Antigua, St. Kitts, Iles des Saintes and Martinique.

I say I visited the bow netting on the clipper ship, the empty deck at night and the inside of myself. My own brand of vacation in the beautiful islands of the Caribbean. Into the islands of my Self.

This trip was not to sight see or interact with lots of people. This was to rejuvenate.

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The quarter moon barely lights the sky as the midnight hour approaches.
The stars, bearers of sparkling light, are thrown across the velvet blanket above.
The waves, dark as the darkest night, pound against the steel hull,
crashing in caps of white froth over and over again.

I sit alone, wind whipping hair across my face as the spray moistens my skin.
A baptism, of sorts, in this, my communion with the sea.

The ship pounds into the swells, up and down, then side to side
as the canvas sails slap and the rigging creaks and moans.
The ocean’s power reminds me of my insignificance as we surge across the wine-dark dark sea.
The ship upon the waves is but a small thing, and I am smaller still.

I sit alone, wind whipping hair across my face as the spray moistens my skin.
A baptism, of sorts, in this, my communion with the sea.

I am not thinking, only feeling.
Total peace and contentment, all alone in the night.
Nothing else exists in these elemental moments;
’tis but woman and the sea.

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In the busyness of those ordinary days, I close my eyes and imagine my Self back on deck.

I sit alone, wind whipping hair across my face as the spray moistens my skin.

The ordinary is now extraordinary. I am at peace. I am free.

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Thursday Re-View — Kaleidoscope

colors

You of magnificent beauty.

You soar, you leap, you create.

You allow molten tears to scald my heart,
to carve deep channels of pain and loss.

Yet those random channels follow a course as old as time…
No — older — pulled in a direction already known.

And so the tears flow, scarring my heart.
They sear into my soul,
then collect into a reservoir
carpeted in the velvet of midnight.

No movement. Into the abyss of despair.

Then a glimmer…faint.

No — silence; all is still.

Then, a swirl — a spiral —
of blues and turquoise, of teal and purple —
spearing the darkness with light.
Dancing, sparkling, shooting upward.

You glimmer and spark and shimmer
as you bounce across the heavens.
Moving toward the darkest of broken places,
leaving brilliant cascades of shimmering light
in Your wake.

Until each of those bursts of shimmering light
coalescence into a kaleidoscope of magnificent beauty.

I am struck. I gasp. I kneel, only to collapse.

My tears immerse me in baptism
until my heart explodes in a whirlwind of color,
and the love pours over me, through me.

Its wings envelop me,
and I soar toward that which is
almost painful to gaze upon.

I cannot look, but I must see.

Racing, longing, streaming toward the place of my creation —
of all creation — of oneness. Whole.

I left, only to return.

I wept, only to gasp.

I burned, only to temper.

The vibration. The fire.

I dissolve. I merge. I end.

I begin. I am home.

I am. Yours.

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Thursday Re-View — Heart Song

If I were a song…

If I were a song, what would I sound like?

At birth, luminous angels must trumpet the Hallelujah Chorus for each and every soul in celebration of their birth, their innocence, their precious light.

As an infant, I must have sounded like wind chimes…softly stirring, different refrains, yet always in harmony. Tripping like water over pebbles in a winding brook, exploring different paths, yet always pulled forward.

But there were deeper tones – starts and stops, hesitation, background noise – too quiet – almost imagined.

Then – regimented, in step with military precision (what happened to the wind chimes? the babbling brook?), with a cadence never out of step.

Oh, no – never out of step.

Ominous darkness with undertones of rhythmic despair; on and on, building to a crescendo. A cacophony of discordant sound – keening wails, shrieks, cries, moans… Until cymbals crash and everything stops.

Then silence…echoes of silence…

But wait –

There it was –

Faint at first –

The wind chimes, the sparkling notes of laughter and joy, of innocence and love, of life and hope and play… Bright colored, shimmering golds and purples, a glittering rainbow of dance…

Free style dance.

Theresa’s dance.

It sang with spirit and direction and confidence in itself, this song. This heart song…

It never stopped, never left.

Eternal.

It was always there, lighting my way, dancing in the darkness, spilling its notes through the channels of my heart carved by tears.

My heart song.

Always there in celebration, always my own; song of Your heart, song of my own.

Thursday Re-View — Echoes of Memory

He lumbered.

He was tall, rangy, with huge hands, a well-tended beard, piercing blue eyes, with lips that could smirk on a moment’s notice. And he lumbered from side to side when he walked, dropping his feet purposely with each step. His white habit and black wool scapular, tied with a leather cincture, swayed back and forth like a pendulum released.

Trappist

He was a monk. A Trappist monk. He was Brother Steven. And I miss him, even though he’s still alive.

I met him long ago while on retreat in Virginia, a time of emotional upheaval as I went through my divorce. The first divorce in my family. It was a true retreat from the world, and a time of respite for mind, body and spirit. Each day was silent, a time of prayer, reflection, discernment, and attending their hours of Divine Office. Meals were provided, attended to in silence, but help was encouraged in the clean up after each night’s dinner.

Each monk’s day was spent in Divine Office, private prayer, manual labor, and study or reading, with idle talk strongly discouraged.

So of course, each night when I helped with the dishes, Brother Steven didn’t stop talking, and whenever I could jump in, neither did I.

He was a maverick of sorts, and chose to live in the retreat house as Guest Master because he didn’t always get along with the other monks in their residence. He believed in the importance of hospitality to travelers, and reveled in his position.

Trappists I

I heard so many stories…

Like the younger Brother Steven, who when he first arrived at the farm that became the monastery, would climb all the way up the side of the grain silo each morning to sit and wait for the sunrise above the Shenandoah River.

Like the middle-aged Brother Steven, who when they buried one of their brothers in a linen shroud, stopped the burial so that he might take the man’s polished leather shoes. After all, he could put them to good use.

Practical. A maverick of sorts…

A man who fit the stereotype of the older woman who lived alone with 30 cats, Brother Steven only had about ten of them. Much to the chagrin of his brothers, he allowed them to live in the closed entryway at the front of the retreat house, for all who crossed the threshold to meet, allergies or no.

This same man with the acerbic wit and leveling gaze told me once of his favorite elderly cat, Mabel, and how he weaned her from a little kitten, watched her grow up and catch mice and become a good mother, all the while living off kitchen scraps lovingly placed outside each night, regardless of the weather. And how she slowed down and stayed away more often and ate less and less, until one day, Brother Steven knew. When she slowly came up to him to be held one last time, then slowly walked across the field and into the trees that lined the near-by river, he knew that she had come to say good-bye to her faithful keeper. With tears in his eyes, he told me he never saw Mabel again.

And I knew a part of him died with Mabel.

And when he heard about my divorce and saw my own tears, he held me in his arms and let me cry, the scratchy wool a comfort as it softened with my tears. His sarcasm gone, this giant of a man was gentle as a father would be with his daughter. When at last I was spent, he squeezed my arms and let me go, never to speak of it again.

Sacred ground. One soul reaching out to another with compassion and understanding.

Through the years, whenever I returned on retreat, I would know I was home as soon as I saw Brother Steven, and we would catch up on my problems, along with the world’s, each night when we did clean up. Until one year, I saw that he was different. He was often preoccupied, searching for words, more confused. He no longer read to us at dinner time, and when we cleaned up, he concentrated on his work, rather than talking.

That’s when I knew I was losing my friend, and that this time would likely be the real good-bye.

And it was. When I returned, there was a new Guest Master, and a lay person doing the clean up. Brother Steven was in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s.

Now the young man who climbed a silo each morning to watch the sunrise sat tied in a wheelchair, looking out a window at a landscape that only he could see. He failed to recognize anyone, his body frail. The strong shoulders that I had leaned on so very long ago were now stooped with age. I looked at his worn shoes and smiled, wondering if they were the ones he so conveniently “borrowed” from his brother who no longer needed them. Brother Steven’s hand rested on the house cat curled comfortably in his lap, and I hoped he was thinking of Mabel and their love for each other.

wheelchair I

I choked back tears as I leaned down to give him a hug, then a kiss on the top of his head. The head whose brain possessed a wit unmatched when in its prime, now atrophied and unrecognizable. Brother Steven was gone, buried some place deep within, with another Brother Steven in his place.

Then he looked up at me, and just for a moment – a very brief moment – I thought I saw a spark of recognition flare in his eyes, and we were back at the monastery, both of us younger, both of us friends. Then it disappeared. And I was reminded that the soul never fades away, that it lives within, a shining light that no one, or no thing, can extinguish.

Be well, Brother Steven. I will remember for you. God bless you. And thank you for the treasure that is you…

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Thursday Re-View — Let’s Hear It For First Responders

Let’s hear it for first responders in the United States of America.

Whether you’re being airlifted from rising flood waters, getting rescued from a burning building, being rushed to the hospital with excruciating chest pain, slowly being extricated from your mangled car with the Jaws of Life, being rushed to safety from a hostage situation, shielded from a shooter – you are relieved and grateful to hear the welcome police sirens, fire truck horns, helicopter blades or racing footsteps.

Thank goodness – they’re here – everything will be all right – I’m safe.

These are the selfless individuals who go toward danger rather than away from it, who save lives while risking their own.

We’ve come to expect them to arrive in force, like the Calvary – in the nick of time, never afraid or tired or sick or hung over; never preoccupied or moving slow or sleeping in or ignoring the call.

Indeed, some disasters can be identified simply by an iconic photo of first responders:

We expect them to be there and to work tirelessly until the job is done, whether one hour, one day, one month or one year. In wildfires, firefighters might work to save our homes while theirs might be burning down. After a tornado, they might be searching for survivors through the debris while their own home has been demolished. We get back to our own broken lives while they work until their duty is finished.

When they finally have time to breathe, and to return to their families for hugs, food and sleep, that’s when the crushingly difficult part begins. Their sympathetic nervous system, having been hypervigilent for so long, is overly stressed, unable to relax.

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder is not only suffered by victims of traumatic events. Feelings of guilt or failure, insomnia, intrusive images, recurrent nightmares, irritability, hyperarousal, stomach-aches, headaches, difficulty concentrating, emotional withdrawal, flashbacks – all these, and more, could plague the first responders for months or even years.

What was it like for the police, EMTs and fire department personnel to view the carnage upon entering the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT? Or for the physicians and related health care personnel at the hospital to wait for the injured children who never came? Or for the coroner to perform autopsies on 20 innocent first graders?

You can replace Newtown with Oklahoma City, Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, Aurora, Virginia Tech, Sandy, 9/11 (WTC, the Pentagon, Shanksville), any war, the Boston Marathon…

Their souls must be bruised.

Perhaps haunted by these experiences, these images, they will run into the chaos and destruction anyway. For you, for me, for anyone in need.

They give tirelessly of themselves, day in, day out, with little recognition, because “they’re only doing their jobs.” Those jobs are demanding, draining, debilitating. But they do them, regardless.

So who cares for the caregivers?

In honoring them here, by recognizing their tremendous worth, I hope to do my part in helping each soul to heal. Perhaps you might find your own way to do the same.

Light in the midst of darkness. Hope in the midst of despair. Love in the midst of hate.

My blessings. My respect. My gratitude.

Once again – Holiness – Sacred Ground – Circles of Compassionate Grace.

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