gratitude

all the hard places

I’m writing aimlessly tonight. I just see that it’s been nearly a week since I’ve written, and so much is racing by in my own head. I’m writing, writing, writing all the time by observing and thinking. But they are mostly half thoughts lately and never leave my head to find paper or screen.

She is still here, but she is close to the other side, I think. Very close. I’ve stopped in everyday, and I see her slipping. These bodies are so strange. So real and close when you are in them, yet they seem almost marginal or paper thin as you near the end. Bodies might be the way we move through the world, but they are not even half of it, are they? Just a shell to get us where we’re going.

There are specifics I will not write about until months or years have passed. Events of my past week, things that still belong to her as part of her time here. But I will say that compassion is not soft or fluffy like we are led to believe. It is hard. It means looking suffering in the face, holding space there, carrying some of it for a while, and not running away in fear or fright. It means doing things that hurt.

Every single major religion tells its followers that compassion is the way to spiritual development, yet we leave it out when it’s uncomfortable. We change the channel or write the check and forget about it. We don’t even understand what it really is. It is never easy and always tough.

Sitting with a dying person will teach you how to live.

I spent time last week looking through some old family photos while she slept. Looking at some images I’d seen before and some I hadn’t, I was struck by how irreversible life is. You always have a choice, I suppose, of how you will react to something. But once the something is done, it is irrevocable. It’s just a big, long string that unravels and all you can do is chase it.

We can wonder what our lives would be like if something else had happened. We can wonder about the million ways it would be different, but those questions get us nowhere really. It sometimes feels like a hand pushing us through all our days with these events that propel us a certain direction, and you flail and stumble for a while until you figure it out. Then walk along as best you can until another wind blows.

I found a photo of my own dad that I’d never seen before. Driving a boat in something like 1978 without a care in the world. He had no idea that his irrevocable moment would happen when he was only 31. He didn’t know my own name or face on that sunny day, and it’s easy to look back and define it all by that moment that controlled the duration of our time together. But this week, I gazed and found myself wondering exactly what it was like in the June sunshine on that boat. What the breeze felt like. What someone said just before the camera clicked. What he was responding to when he smiled. What it was like to live in that second without knowing what was coming next.

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Photos are so good to remind us of that. Thank God there were moments when we didn’t know what was coming later.

My grandmother was so independent with her need of others. Her priority was always to give to someone else and make them feel loved and at home. I remember when dating my ex-husband, he joked that her house contained some kind of time warp because you’d walk in and insist you were staying a short while, and before you knew it, six hours and a full meal had taken place. It was true. Energy is a very real thing, isn’t it? When you love others and your true intention is to give, give, give without prioritizing your own needs, people gravitate to that.

I joked to my sister, as we tended to her a few days ago in the ways that you tend to a dying person, that I was so thankful she didn’t ever know this was the way it would go. It’s only been a month, and it pales so starkly in comparison to the things she has done for me for my entire life. But if she knew we would find ourselves in 2016 bathing her and brushing her hair and rubbing lotion on her bony arms and dripping water in her mouth from a tiny sponge, she would have laid awake every night of her life dreading the burden of it and neglecting to see the beauty.

There’s so much beauty in sacrifice. The thing about heartbreak is that it breaks your heart wide open for something else to take root. I get it now in ways I never have before, in ways that many people never do. And I am grateful for every minute that has taught me what I needed to learn.

 

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So many times in my life, I’ve heard people say they passed on the chance to see a dying loved one because “I didn’t want to remember her like that.”  That idea seems so sad and small to me now.

I will remember my grandmother so many ways. With a house full of food and company. Quiet conversations, just the two of us. Countless moments of small kindness and tiny graces that she delivered to others. A beauty that radiated in a way that only comes from joy and peace that surpasses all understanding. But I will remember these last days as well, in all their brutal reality. It’s cracked my heart wide open for whatever comes next.

Grace always lives in all the hard places.

 

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gratitude, travel

beach week

Back in April, I booked a week in a little beach condo for the kids and me. We traveled so much together in my former life – much more exotic locations and expensive trips. But I’ve had such an expensive spring, and my budget looks very different than it did a couple of years ago. So we settled on a little spot on the Florida panhandle that is a short drive from home.

I’ve felt a lot of unease about this trip in light of my grandmother’s health struggles as she is still in a hospital bed in Atlanta. But we transferred her to the university research hospital to get more answers and better treatment for her, so I’m trying my best to exhale a bit and enjoy my time with the kids in the meantime.

I loaded the car on Sunday morning,  and we were on the road by 10am. I bought them each a blank notepad and a fresh box of crayons for the ride down, and that got us 3 hours of entertainment in the car. The rest of the trip was full of I Spy and Letter Hunt, and we finally arrived to our tiny condo in the midday heat.

It’s a studio apartment of sorts with one room that features a bed, a couch, a television, and a tiny kitchen where you have to turn sideways to squeeze by the dishwasher and reach the oven. We unloaded the car and put our things away, and then I braved the grocery store with the kids and at least a million other vacationers. Empty shelves and long check out lines and chaos. We came back to the condo, and I made a quick dinner that we ate on paper plates. We threw on bathing suits and raced to the beach, and we were just on time for the magic hour.

 

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I am so worried about so many things right now – family health struggles and my own bank account and the thousand things I need to address in this season of my life, but the ocean always makes you exhale in a deeper way and realize things will eventually be okay, right? (Asking for reassurance here.) Hardship comes and goes, and in this past few years, it feels like I’ve had more than my fair share. But tiny moments of peace also come and go. I try and squeeze every last bit of comfort I can from them.

 

I’m reminded again of that Mary Oliver line I don’t know what a prayer is, but I know what it means to pay attention. I’m paying attention this week. To freckles and sandy eyelashes, splashes and giggles, sno-cones at sunset.

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Waves roll in and out, over and over. The world keeps turning. Nothing is better than the ocean at showing us that paradox of change and impermanence in the face of eternity. It’s a big, wide world. And struggle exists for every single one of us eventually.

 

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We have three more days here before we head back home. So far, it is a vacation in the truest sense. The kids sleep late while I am up with the sun, and I read with coffee (or write as I am now) while they snooze. They wake and we lounge around with breakfast until we go to the beach mid-morning. We drag our things there, they play for hours, and then we return for lunch and a break from the heat. Late afternoon finds us at the pool, and we’ll shower before dinner and go straight to pajamas most nights. Then we indulge in mugs of ice cream and a movie and sleep to do it all again the next day.

Leisure can feel weird when you are in a season of struggle. We feel like we should be paying our dues somehow. But I’m remembering another Mary Oliver line where she asserts, You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. We are loving what we love this week, without regret or reason. I’m taking these tiny moments, bottling them up as best I can to float me on.

Books, gratitude

written by the same hand

The week has plowed on somehow. My grandmother is still in ICU, and she is recovering so well in many ways. But as it always goes with things like this, it is two steps forward and one step back sometimes. The neurologist is astounded at her progress, but she also contracted pneumonia – a common occurrence for elderly in the hospital. So while her spirit is strong in many ways, her body is still weak and recovering but showing signs of strength and promise. We are still in the space of in between, unsure what the future holds.

The human spirit is an amazing thing, isn’t it? As is the human body. I’ve spent some time with her this past week, and my kids are away for the next 6 days, so I hope to see a lot more of her in this week ahead. It is hard though. All of it. I’m seeing why people turn away from suffering. It hurts to face the truth: that all of us have limited time here, that life is completely out of control, that pain happens and you can’t run from certain truths. It all shines a bright light on where you are gripping too tightly.

I know I wrote a bit in my last post about Richard Rohr, and another passage of his caught my eye this week and resonated in a big way. He tells us, “The first step of the journey is the admission of powerlessness. It is where no one wants to go and no one will go voluntarily. We have to be led there through our own failure and experience of death. In men’s work, we call it the Great Defeat. Franciscans call it poverty. The Carmelites call it nothingness. The Buddhists call it emptiness. The Jews call it the desert. Jesus calls it the sign of Jonah. The New Testament calls it the Way of the Cross. We’re all talking about the same necessary step.” Wisdom only comes from hardship, doesn’t it? Real transformation and understanding only come from a place of absolute nothingness and uncertainty. I wish there was an easier way to get there, but there isn’t.

I have such little tolerance for bullshit right now. I wish there was a kinder way to phrase that, but there it is. I’ve written at length before about how it felt to have my former life removed piece-by-piece and as Anne Lamott says, when we lose these pieces, it is “one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from death or decay. It’s gone.” I’ve grown in immeasurable ways from this continual process over the past year or two. It’s like dragonflies or cicadas who molt as they transition from one form to another. I see so clearly what I’ve shed and left behind, and this chapter in my family’s history – wherever it may lead in the immediate future – is the same for me again.

My grandmother is in and out of understanding right now, depending on how tired she is in that given moment. But her eyes are the same. And family has been in and out all week to see her. Each of us holding her hand and helping in any small way we can and speaking gently to her worn out body like a little baby. Every time I leave the hospital, I feel both sadness and joy, worry and peace, confusion and understanding, defeat and victory.

And I want to scream so loudly that none of it even matters, none of it.

The things that fill the minds of people all day long in their cars and at their jobs and in their homes at night. How much money is in your bank account. How shiny your car is. How large your home is. The list of professional accolades that follow your name. Whose name is stamped on a handbag or what you look like. None of it matters at all, and though I thought I saw that in these months that have passed in my own life, I am seeing it even more now. I’m losing tolerance for people who just don’t get it. So many of us walk around our whole lives avoiding the real truth and leaning on these tangible signs of worthiness and never truly seeing into the life of things.

I finally picked up The Alchemist as my first summer read, and I’ve blown through 142 pages in the past couple of days. Paulo Coelho’s main character is on a journey of his own, and he finally learns that “We are afraid of losing what we have, whether it is our life or our possessions or our property. But this fear evaporates when we understand that our life stories and the history of the world were written by the same hand.”  I’m feeling that hand with certainty in this chapter of my life, and I know that there is more written that I haven’t seen yet. In moments of stillness, it really feels like a tugging to something ahead and almost a tangible feeling that there’s a very specific path I’ll walk that is written by that hand. A whole new place I am not aware of yet.

Any time I feel fear or doubt, I can find so much comfort by looking at my life in the rearview. Every step and every turn and everything that appeared to be a coincidence at that time wasn’t a coincidence at all. Now I see how it molded and changed me and chiseled away the pieces to reveal something I never knew could take shape before. Why would I doubt that life is still revealing piece-by-piece what lies ahead? Coelho calls it “the mysterious chain that links one thing to another.” It’s the white fire of the great mystery that I wrote about before. Some things in life cannot be understood logically or explained, but they are somehow more real than all the other mess that guides our days.

I’ve known my grandparents were loved by their family and community, but this week, that is evident beyond what I ever expected. The messages and comments are overwhelming as people check in with us or send well wishes. It’s expanded beyond the usual sentiments you hear when someone is sick or suffering to reflect the central role she played in the lives of so many people and the incredibly rare person she is. One woman who is not her daughter but paid her a visit on Mother’s Day with a small gift for someone she explained “is like a mother to me.” Childhood friends of mine who call her Grandmother like l do. People who know her well and cite the countless ways she blessed their lives in the decades they have known her.

And it is simple really – when I see what she’s spent her life doing, the way she’s become so cherished to other people. She loved. The real way. Without attention to outside signs of worthiness. She has known that someone’s worth is inherent, that it cannot be bought or earned somehow. And though it is so painful to watch the hand of time and see it this closely and personally, it fills me up in the best way to see others returning the love she delivered to the rest of us for decades. That mysterious chain that links one thing to another just stretches on and on, doesn’t it? Forever and forever.