Be Present Now

The last week of that school year, I was standing in the grocery check-out, making my final purchase of health room supplies when I received a call from my younger sister.  Our almost ninety-year-old mother was in the Emergency Room of our hometown hospital, being admitted for an acute illness.   We’d never seen Mama so sick.  Over the next weeks, she gradually pulled through after that initial hospitalization followed by a transfer to the medical center at UNC hospital.

hospital-1636334_1920

By that point in mid-June, I was always exhausted from the school year and ready for our two-month summer break.  Instead of finally being at home, I was sitting by my mother’s bed at UNC, watching her sleep.  I’d stay all day then leave the hospital exhausted, saying to myself, “How can watching someone sleep be so tiring?”

I felt restless with having to be in the confinement of the hospital room when I was ready to be free for the summer, outside enjoying the June weather since I didn’t have to be in the tiny windowless box that was my school office.

In the midst of my frustration, it was as if the still small voice of God said, “Just be here right now.  You don’t need to be anywhere else.”  There is nothing more important than sitting by your mother’s bed, being that familiar face when she wakes from her confused sleep.

In prior situations when I was forced to be in a place I wanted to flee, I would use my familiar coping skill of daydreaming—zoning out.  I would go some other place in my head if I couldn’t in my body.  But somehow, this time I felt like I needed to be ‘here’ with not just my body, but also my mind.  Be totally present.

I found myself praying through my struggle with how to do that.  When my mind would start to slip away, I’d catch myself and bring my attention back into the room.  I’d be more observant of how Mama slept– did she favor sleeping on one side more than the other?  She often talked in her sleep and I tried to imagine who she was talking to in those medicated dreams, listening for her tone of voice, the mood she seemed to be in when she awoke.

IMG_0474

My son, Ross, visiting Grandma

Fortunately, Mama recovered from that long summer of illness.  I’ve often thought about God’s instruction to just be present—to bring my whole self to the person in front of me—no matter the situation.  It has occurred to me that sometimes, I want to escape because I feel responsible, especially as a nurse, for fixing the problem—whether it’s a physical illness or emotional upset.

And what if I can’t.  What if no matter what I do, the problem remains.

I come back to Mama’s hospital room.  My purpose being there wasn’t to fix the problem but to be with her through it; for her to know that she wasn’t alone.  I wasn’t going anywhere, in my body or my mind.  We were in it together.

Recently, I have felt that same tension of wanting to be with people who are dear, through their emotional pain, but also wanting to escape to a brighter place.  I hear God’s voice to “Be Present Now” and know that it’s not up to me to fix things.  What is up to me is to offer all of myself, at that moment, only choosing to be totally with them so they will realize they are not alone, that they have a familiar face to wake up to.

IMG_0637

Mama and Me, Thankful for her recovery

What about you?

Are there ways that you try to escape from being totally present with another person, especially in difficult situations?

How can you bring your total self to be present with that person?

Better than a Pen Pal

One of my favorite classes in elementary school was geography, especially in Miss Harrington’s fourth grade.  I loved how we learned about the lives of people in faraway places.  Back in that day, we would say they lived ‘overseas’ and that seemed like an insurmountable distance.  The only people in my family that had traveled that far were the men in the military.  For me, the closest thing to going there would be having a pen pal—something I read about in My Weekly Reader, our individual newspapers that we received on Fridays.

letters-1659715_1920

Back then, our class didn’t pursue a pen pal relationship with a classroom in another country—like the French students did at McDougle Middle School where I was the nurse.  While the idea fascinated me when I was a girl, my interest wasn’t keen enough to pursue that on my own.  The closest I came was making Christmas cookies with my Girl Scout Troop and sending them to soldiers serving in Vietnam.  Months later, I was so excited when we received thank you letters.  How special to see that envelope with the unusual stamp and my name in the soldier’s handwriting.

Today the world’s very different with how we’re surrounded by people of so many nationalities.  While they bring the world to us, there’s still something about having a friendship by correspondence with someone living far away.  Perhaps it’s that feeling from childhood, the sense of mystery in wondering what their community is like, how their daily routine is in that foreign place.

Last September, I spent a week at the Abbey in Iona, Scotland with forty-one people from around the world.  We all went there to learn from our leader, Alistair McIntosh, about The Pilgrimage of Life.  Because we came as fellow sojourners with the common need to explore our life journey, we quickly formed a bond.  Recently the email list was sent to all the participants.  There were folks that I’d enjoyed time with but had failed to get their address.  I sent them a message and now think of it as sending a letter to a pen pal that I never had as a girl.  With my electronic letters, I didn’t have to wait for weeks for a response.  Instead, I had notes back within forty-eight hours.

IMG_1249

Meeting room at the Abbey

One of my messages went to Jenny and John, a lovely couple from Australia.  How nice that Jenny responded with a newsy email about recent visits with family and friends and her work as a minister in the Presbytery.  It was as if we were sitting at one of the tables sipping tea and eating oatcakes, as our group did each night in the Refectory.  I could feel her warm presence and hear her lovely Aussie accent.

And then there was the message to Aldo in Holland.  He was the one who’d called my Southern accent “weird”  (See post, Southern Drawl, Oct. 11, ’17).  He had such a thirst for understanding and was so open to discovery through the process of that week.  It was refreshing to see an adult who had that kind of energy for faith– given how worn down we can be by the time we reach mid-life.  What a gracious response he had to my email and blog post.  How exciting to hear of his plans for a future journey.

The urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) defines a Pen Pal as, “A species of human made nearly extinct by the advent of electronic mail, penpals communicate via the ancient art of Penmanship.” Ouch! Makes me feel ancient!

Maybe I’ll create a hybrid form of pen pals by emailing Jenny and Aldo and asking them to write me back.  Then I can enjoy that ancient art of penmanship, excited by their unique handwriting on those envelopes with the foreign stamps waiting for me in my mailbox.

IMG_1209

Our group taking a pilgrimage across Iona to important landmarks

How About You?

Have you ever had a Pen Pal?

What was that experience like for you?

Are there people you connect with through email or social media from other countries?  How does that impact your life?  How do you think it impacts theirs?

 

Sedona: A Serendipitous Journey

Taking yearly pilgrimages started after my serendipitous journey to Sedona.  What made that such a pivotal point, was the juxtaposition of entrapment with freedom.  During the preceding eight months of cancer treatment, I’d been closely monitored; by the clinical trials research company I worked for to see if I was able to do my job; by my family and friends to see how I was physically and emotionally holding up.  While my employer was difficult and my family and friends well-meaning, both made me want to escape to a place where I was free to move about, unnoticed.

Between two business meetings out West, I took my trip to Sedona, Arizona.  If it had been up to me, I would have returned to North Carolina between those meetings, to see my husband and teenage sons so I wouldn’t be away for so long.  But the company business manager suggested I stay in the area and travel.  After considering her idea, I thought she was right.  My mother had visited a friend in Sedona and said it was one of the prettiest places she’d ever seen.  Since it was within two hours of my first meeting, the business manager and I agreed that it would work.

Cathedral_Rock_at_Red_Rock_Crossing

Unlike all the negative things that happened during my employment there, the support for me traveling to Sedona was serendipitous.  It was something good, beneficial that happened by accident at a time where I was seeing no other ‘happy accidents.’

Because it was not something I’d planned at length, like other things in my life, I was in a state of receptivity to what that new experience would offer.  I didn’t have a list of ‘must see’ places or companion travelers to work out the details of where to eat, or “What’s next?”  It was just me moving as I felt led, following that still small voice of God within me instead of a schedule.

How freeing for a mother of teenagers, used to balancing work and family.  What a wonderful change from going to the countless appointments of those intensive months of cancer treatment.

Instead, I drove around the red-rock-splendor and absorbed the beauty of each moment.  How nice it was to take a quiet hike at Oak Creek on a weekday, sitting in the grounding presence of the shadow of those rock formations.

I lit a candle in The Chapel of the Holy Cross and thanked God for my life and for the unexpected time in Sedona.  It wasn’t something that I’d asked for; It wasn’t something that I knew I needed.  My heart was full of gratitude for the abundance God had provided.

800px-Chapel_of_the_Holy_Cross_2C_Sedona

Throughout my toxic job and cancer ordeal, my go-to scripture was Psalm 40: 1-2 (NIV): “I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry.  He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand.”  Remembering that day when I drove into Sedona, I had a feeling that I had come home, like God my Rock was leaping off the page.  Of all the places I could go for that serendipitous trip, my ‘happy accident’ led me to a place of rocks– and later I would learn, of energy and healing.

Sedona opened my eyes to other ‘happy accidents.’  I see how good things have shown up in my path– things I haven’t asked for, things I didn’t know I needed.  Now, when I see images of that special place, it reminds me that God my Rock is still leaping off the page.

sedona-1420173_1920

How About You?

How have you experienced serendipitous events in your life?

What impact have they had on your journey?

True Nature

I spotted the girl from across the room.  She was the one, looking unabashedly into the camera, with eyes that are serious, like they’re gazing into your soul.  I was at the Art Cats Gallery in Petoskey, Michigan during my solo journey several summers ago.  The photograph had been applied to a fiber art collage piece created by Michigan artist, Karen Godfrey.

IMG_1678

I knew that I liked mixed media art, but wasn’t sure why that piece drew me.  Later, I realized that the girl reminded me of myself when I was a child.  The pieces of fabric were like those in Mama’s sewing trunk that I used to make doll clothes.  I could see Mama, with a pattern pinned to fabric and the sound of her pinking shears cutting through the layers of cloth and tissue paper.  I’d watch as she skillfully worked to make those pieces into a beautiful whole.

The hand-stitching around the girl’s picture reminded me of how my Aunt Polly taught me to embroider.  Once I got the hang of it, I worked late into the night, watching the Irish blessing kit that I’d bought at the 5 & Dime become my first piece of fiber art.  Unlike the dresses Mama made that were both artistic and functional, my creation was just decorative and brought me delight.

The words in the prayer, “May all beings awaken to their true nature,” reminded me of my love for words in their meaning as well as their form.  I thought of my diary and the plays I penned in sixth grade.

But altogether, the girl’s look and prayer make me ask myself, “Am I living my True Nature now?”

Years ago when visiting Savannah, Georgia, I stopped in the studio of artist Brian MacGregor.  We had an enjoyable conversation about how he used dream journals in his collage art.  I loved his evocative piece, “Lady of the River.”  Now I see that it reminded me of how I wished I’d been in my early twenties –more relaxed, less driven toward my goals and more able to float in a river of possibility.

fullsizeoutput_6f8

I ask myself, “What is my true nature?” and at this latter phase of my life, am I living into that nature.  I think of how who we are emerges over our lifetime.  It shows up in our daydreams and in our night dreams.  Looking back over my sixty-two years, I see themes in the hopes and dreams I’ve recorded in my journals.  All of them are pieces of the collage that is me.

This past New Year’s Eve, my blog post, “Things You Leave Behind” (Dec. 31,’17) focused on letting go of what keeps us from being all we were created to be.  The burden I threw into the Iona Sound was my fear of not being good enough.  My desire was to be less self-conscious and to step out as I felt led– without worrying about making mistakes.

Now, I think that in order to continue on the path of living into my True Nature, that letting go of fear is a necessary step.  To continue to allow my unfolding, even at this point in my life, I need to be able to relax in that freedom that I can have in my sixties that I couldn’t access in my earlier years.

It’s as if that girl is looking into herself as an older woman and saying, “I’m glad you’re finally awakening to the person you’re supposed to be.”

fullsizeoutput_6f5

My collection of collage books

Artists’ websites:

http://www.karengodfrey.net

https://brianmacgregor.net

How about you?

What art form has special relevance for you?

How are you progressing toward realizing more of your True Nature?

 

 

 

 

 

 

Manna

I thanked my friend for the “Thinking of You” card she’d sent, the one in my mailbox on top of the stack of bills.  “Oh, that ole thing?  I’m sorry it wasn’t a better one but it was what I had.”  I knew why she’d said that; the card was a bit faded and the fold was partially torn, like the paper had become brittle over time, reminding me of one of the cards stored in my Grandma’s drawer for future use.  But my friend didn’t know that it was more than a card to me.  It was manna.

mailbox-595854_1920

I’d received it the day before my chemo.  When I was rushing out of the house to get to my appointment, I put the card in the book that I’d read to help me through the three-hour infusion.  I read for a while, then took out the card and studied the design and reread her handwritten note.  Over my eight months of treatment, I would do the same thing with cards from others.  Afterwards, I stored them in a satchel.  If I ever doubted that others’ cared about me, I’d take the satchel down from my closet shelf and marvel at the numbers of colorful cards with thoughtful notes of encouragement.  Those cards had nourished me through my ‘wilderness journey.’

One night in December, before I was diagnosed with breast cancer the following June, I was up in the early morning hours, having a hard time sleeping.  I was at my mother’s and got out of bed to sit in her family room.  Next to the recliner, there was a bookshelf with Mama’s Bible.  I thumbed through it with no particular scripture in mind and stopped at Exodus Chapter 16.  I read the story of the traveling Israelites receiving “bread from heaven” in the form of manna—a white substance, like coriander seed, that covered the ground like frost in the early morning, providing just enough for one day’s sustenance.  With Christmas approaching, it would have felt more appropriate to be reading about the journey of Mary and Joseph.  It’s odd to land on this chapter, I thought.  But later that year when I was going through cancer, that sleepless night when I’d read about manna came back to me.

bread-cereals-bake-baked-162440

I remembered my takeaway from that chapter –that God supplied their needs, one day at a time.  When I went through treatment, there were so many times that I felt that same provision.  Not only from cards but meals, presents, and phone calls at just the right moment.  Like manna, it was an efficient economy of just what I needed for that moment on that day.  Like the Israelites, I couldn’t look to the next day, but instead needed to just rely on God for that “daily bread.”

Now, I know the importance of just an ‘ole card.’  I’ve made a point of telling my sons, who’ve grown up in the age of emails and text messages, that sometimes you need tangible evidence of someone’s care, something you can hold in your hands.  It really takes so little time and effort to be the manna for someone.  And if it’s time you’re worried about, you can always buy those cards in bulk and store them away.

Because when it all comes down to it, it’s the thought that counts.

tulip-2664547_1280

How about You?

When have you received manna in your life?

In what ways have you provided manna for others?

The Rhythm of the Day

I arrived at the two-week writer’s residency in central Kentucky, expecting to have to juggle my time between farm chores, shared kitchen duties with fellow artists, providing a community educational program, and writing.  But when I got there, nothing was as I expected.  The herd of cows had been sold, there was no garden, and there were no residents but me.  I had the run of the small two-story house.  What else is going to be different from what I was led to believe, I wondered.  Maybe it was a mistake to come here.

I’d put a lot of energy into the lengthy application for the residency.   I started not to apply because I’d felt intimidated by the accomplishments of previous artists.  I was such a humble writer with only small publications to my credit and wondered if I’d feel ‘less than’ the others artists that would be with me.

IMG_1680

My walking path while at the writer’s residency

No problem with that, I thought to myself as I put my suitcase in my upstairs bedroom then unpacked my food in the kitchen, my kitchen now.  There was no one to be compared to, or talk to or cook meals with.  Just me, in this house in rural Kentucky for two weeks.  How am I going to do it?

I sat for a while at the kitchen table, eating my dinner in the quiet.  After a while, I could hear a car in the distance, coming up the lane that ran by the house.  An owl hooted from the woods out back.  The stillness reminded me of staying with my Grandma Smith on her farm when I was a girl.  I remembered how restless I felt at first after Mama and Daddy left, knowing I had to manage in that house for a week.  I loved being with Grandma, but it was so quiet there and sometimes boring.

The first day at her house was really slow and I kept thinking about what I’d do if I were at home.  But eventually, I gave in to the rhythm of Grandma’s.  When she worked outside in her garden, I helped her until we came in for lunch.  We’d eat, wash the dishes, do some simple household chores, then rest until the sun was low in the sky and we’d go back outside.

IMG_1684

My two-week home

Nothing felt rushed, just steady work that followed the natural rhythm of the day.

When it rained, we had more time to rest, and if I was smart and had brought a book, I had extra time to read.  By the middle of the week, the day felt familiar, and by the end of the week and time for my parents to pick me up, I felt sad that I would be leaving.

A similar pattern emerged in Kentucky.  When  I met the director, he assured me all I needed to do was write.  Never had I been given permission to just write for two weeks.  Since there was no longer a farm operation and no groups had requested a summer writing workshop, I didn’t need to juggle my time.  The quiet house had no television and no internet connection so I wouldn’t have the distractions of home.  I’d limit my consumption of social media by having to drive to the town library to use their wifi.

My days of writing, mostly at that kitchen table, were balanced with long walks across the hilly countryside in the cool of the early morning and at dusk.  I took breaks from my solitude to visit horse farms and a racetrack in Lexington.  Never had I been able to work with such concentration.  I came to see it as truly a gift, one I wouldn’t have received if I’d insisted on feeling ‘less than’ and had not taken the risk of applying.

When I arrived, nothing appeared as it had seemed.  When I departed, everything felt like it was as it was supposed to be.

IMG_1626

What about you?

What situation have you encountered that was nothing like what you expected?

How were you able to deal with that change?

How did things turn out?

 

 

Not Like Me

I watched that ‘hunk of burnin’ love’ from across the crowd.  It had been a fun day, riding my bike around Mackinac Island in northern Michigan and then happening upon the outside summer concert.  I wasn’t content to just watch ‘Elvis,’ I wanted to get up close to him.  As soon as he finished his show, I made my way across the plaza to where he exited the stage.  Motioning to him, I got his attention and asked, “Could I have a picture?”  That’s not like me.

Usually, I would observe at a distance and watch other women do what I was now doing.  But since I was by myself, on my solo journey to Michigan, I had none of those well-perfected signals from my husband that reigned in my spontaneous behavior, or from my sons, since they weren’t there to hold me back with their embarrassment or “Oh, Mom!” exasperation.

Elvis gave me a sideways hug as we posed for the camera.  In that exciting nostalgic moment, I was in ninth grade, catching a dizzying whiff of English Leather and feeling my heart pound when my teenage crush asked me to dance and the newly released,“Suspicious Minds” played.   fullsizeoutput_a

Now when I look at the picture, it always makes me feel more lighthearted and glad that I wasn’t held back from what I wanted to do.  It reminds me of another time when I’d surprised myself with my uninhibited behavior.

It was back when I was just out of cancer treatment and finally able to travel.  I attended a research conference in San Francisco along with my coworker from The Research Company.  There were over 300 attendees in the hotel ballroom where the opening session was held.  Of all the speakers that could kick off that meeting, they had a breast cancer survivor who’d benefitted from clinical trials.  She was there to thank and inspire the crowd before the scientists had their turns.  Sitting in the middle of the large room, I felt like I was on that stage when she told about pulling out gobs of hair after she started chemotherapy.  Her hair was short and wavy like my new, post-cancer hair.  While it was hard to listen, it felt like she was the one person I could identify with.

fullsizeoutput_6dc

Another participant shakes hands with the speaker

When she finished, I made my way across the room to the line of people waiting to speak with her.  I’d never done that before.  I was usually content to be just one in the crowd– but not that day.  When it was my turn, I told her how I’d just finished chemo and was getting used to my new hair, too.

“And you’re a research professional?  That’s wonderful,” she said, and we chatted for a while.

I noticed a man that was standing very close to us and appeared to be eavesdropping.  After we finished and I started to walk away, he stopped me.  He apologized for listening in and said he was a reporter with the San Francisco Chronicle.  He asked if I’d mind telling him more about my experience as a cancer survivor who was also a research professional.  When we finished our conversation, he said the article would be in the next day’s paper.

And there it was.  The article pictured above had my quote at the end.  Me, in San Francisco, having the final word.  How did that happen, I thought and laughed to myself.

Now I look at both situations and think that the combination of wanting to connect with the fellow cancer survivor and with Elvis, and not being held back by being afraid I would embarrass myself or someone else, had pushed me to be a bolder person.

Someone Not Like Me.

IMG_1086

View of Lake Huron at Sunset the night I saw ‘Elvis’

How about you?

In what situations have you stepped out of yourself and been bolder than you imagined?

What conditions needed to be present for you to do that?