Tag Archives: gratitude

grief-community-ritual

Healing and hope

Recently, I went to San Francisco for a workshop called Entering the Healing Ground: The Sacred Work of Grief. The workshop combined several things I love: poetry, writing, dancing and singing.

It also involved something I don’t particularly like: sharing my personal story with a group.

I am okay with talking about my public self, and I have gotten better at sharing some of my personal story, but there is a whole other layer buried deep inside that I rarely touch and even more rarely share. Dipping into my shadow, admitting my weaknesses and revealing my secrets—ugh.grief-community-ritualThis workshop invited me to dig deep and root around in the darkness where I hide my most private self. It invited me to touch my pain and to allow others to see the real me—not just the strong, independent me, but also the vulnerable me who has been hurt and experienced loss.grief-community-ritualThe facilitator talked about self-compassion, which was exactly the message I needed to hear. I know I need to be tender with my brokenness in order to coax my hidden self into the light.­­­­­

The workshop sessions began with drumming, dancing, singing and poetry. The facilitator talked about community, ritual and grief.

And then we wrote.

Each writing exercise began with a prompt. Over the course of three days, these prompts help me go deep within:

  • I remember
  • It is true
  • It hurt me
  • I survived
  • It is not okay with me
  • I miss

After each ten-minute writing session, we read what we had written to two other participants, and then we were given the opportunity to share with the larger group of twenty-four.grief-community-ritualI usually don’t speak in group settings; I listen and learn from others but rarely take the risk of speaking.

However, I am trying to move against my resistance.

At this workshop, I waited until the last opportunity on Saturday to share with the large group. Then I took a deep breath and read what I had just written prompted by I survived.

My writing was about something from my childhood, something I have only shared with a few close friends. I felt exposed and incredibly vulnerable—ugh.

That evening, I spent some time alone. I knitted, prayed and took a walk around the retreat center grounds. That is my pattern—to withdraw and isolate when I feel vulnerable.

There I was at a workshop focused on accepting our brokenness and grief, forming community, trusting—and when I most needed to be with others, I withdrew.

The next morning, I returned to the group a bit more self-aware, open and ready to dig a bit deeper. Writing on Sunday morning to the prompt I miss revealed an unhealed grief, and it was cathartic to release my sadness through tears.

grief-community-ritualThe weekend was a rare opportunity and I felt incredibly blessed to have participated. As we were leaving, another participant said, “A great gift brings great responsibility.”

What will I do with this great gift?

 

 

gratitude-thanksgiving

Gratitude

Recently, I facilitated a day of reflection for members of the cancer support center where I work. The theme was gratitude.

It may seem paradoxical to invite people to be grateful when they have cancer, because being grateful during difficult times can seem unimaginable; but I think that difficult times are when we need gratitude the most.

I shared this quote from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:

Yes, my primary mission has been to bring death out of the closet because everyone needs to view death as an opportunity. Death can show us the way to live. It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth—and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up—that we will begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.

Death is a natural part of life, most easily seen in nature at this time of year, but a diagnosis of cancer or some other serious illness can also shine a light on our mortality.

gratitude-thanksgiving

When I was the director of a lay mission program, I spent Thanksgiving one year at St. Philip’s Mission in Swaziland, Southern Africa. The Mission is on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere, as rural as can be. The AIDS epidemic was raging throughout the country, and the Mission’s orphanage reached capacity soon after opening.

One of our missioners told the story of visiting the hut of a dying woman. Her three young children were at her side and the eldest, a girl of six, used a syringe to give her mother sips of water.gratitude-thanksgiving

Soon after that visit, the woman died and her three children moved to the orphanage.

During that Thanksgiving visit, we gave each child a book.They reacted with surprise and delight. “For me?” they asked as they lovingly cradled their gifts. It was as if they had been handed a precious diamond.

Their joy and gratitude brought tears to my eyes as I thought about my reaction to gifts I had received. Was I ever this grateful? Did I ever allow myself to be so humble that I could delight in something so small?

It occurred to me that their deep awareness of death led them to a deep sense of gratitude. Knowing their mortality helped them live fully.

It is a dance, this movement from death to life, from sadness to joy.

Since I moved to Michigan a few years ago, I had many moments of sadness and deep grief. And then, I will spend a day with my family or have a random encounter with a cousin or reconnect with a place in Detroit that was significant in my childhood—and I am filled with joy and gratitude that I made the move.

Taking a day away helps me to see how blessed I am, to be grateful and to trust that the best is yet to come.

 

 

gratitude-thanksgiving

Giving thanks

For seven years, I was the director of an adult literacy program in suburban Philadelphia. Immigrants from many countries filled our English as a Second Language classes, but most of the students in our family literacy program were from South Korea.

As part of this program, we hosted an American Thanksgiving dinner each year. It was a way to introduce immigrants to this cultural holiday and teach them some of our customs, including the foods we traditionally eat on Thanksgiving. Our staff prepared most of the food, but students were given recipes for side dishes and invited to contribute if they wanted.

Invariably, a few of the students would bring dishes from their culture, and we would include the kimchi and rice in our Thanksgiving meal.

Our guests at the literacy council Thanksgiving dinners would gingerly try bites of turkey and cranberry sauce, and I loved watching them register the different tastes and textures. Food is an important part of any culture, and this dinner was a wonderful opportunity for people to try something new.

I wished my parents had attended such a class.

Growing up, we never had turkey for Thanksgiving; apparently turkeys were not available in Poland. We had ham or kielbasa or stuffed cabbage and a duck soup that I fear most Americans would not even try. Mashed potatoes were probably the only thing our Thanksgiving dinners had in common with the rest of America.

gratitude-thanksgivinggratitude-thanksgiving

My mother did not care when I came home from school excited about traditional Thanksgiving dinners; she had never cooked a turkey and did not see the need for it.

Being thankful was what the holiday was about to her, and I could see her point. But I always felt a bit odd when kids talked about turkey, stuffing and cranberry sauce—and I had nothing to contribute.

I have since come to understand that while we tend to think of one “traditional” American Thanksgiving dinner, the truth is that people in different regions of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds personalize Thanksgiving dinner. A simple Google search of “turkey stuffing” brings up hundreds of different recipes.

Merging cultures is part of the American tradition, and kimchi would have been as foreign to our Thanksgiving dinners growing up as the creamed onions I once had at a friend’s home in suburban Philadelphia or the Southern cornbread stuffing I was served in Virginia.

Recalling all those dinners this Thanksgiving made me think of the ways Americans can segregate ourselves into groups that reinforce our beliefs and allow us to stay in our comfort zones. We can tell ourselves that the Norman Rockwell portrait of a Thanksgiving dinner is the only true portrait, but that is just not true. Our country is made up of people from many different cultures and the blending of those cultures makes our country unique.

Honoring our heritage is important, but moving beyond our comfort zones makes life more interesting. Maybe it is time to try some kimchi.

Aging gracefully

When I was in my mid-forties, I became more aware of women who were aging gracefully. These were women in their fifties, sixties and seventies who were not embarrassed by their grey hair or shape-shifting bodies. They exercised for health but did not obsess over the effects of gravity. Peace and wisdom seemed to emanate from them, and just being in their presence calmed me.

aging-gracefully

These women were content with themselves and their lives. They lived in gratitude for all that had been and hope that the best was yet to come—even though they had endured hardship and suffering.

One woman had lost a son to suicide and another had a life-threatening disease. Another woman’s husband had been having an affair and after forty years of marriage, he asked for a divorce. My friend was devastated by his betrayal. Yet, even in her pain, she was able to pray for the grace to see her ex-husband and his new wife as God saw them.

What courage, I thought. I want to grow old with that much courage and grace.

I know that holding onto hurt and anger can make me bitter and cynical, and that is not how I want to live. I believe God calls me to live as my friend did—to forgive and let go, to be compassionate and merciful, to try to see as God sees and to love as God loves.

Last Friday, I turned sixty-five; I am a senior citizen by every definition. We have longevity in my family—my mother is ninety and her mother lived to ninety-six—but I know I have many fewer days ahead than have already passed. That awareness gives me a greater sense of urgency to appreciate each day.

aging-gracefully

The Native American story of the two wolves that live within me has been coming to mind recently: One wolf is good and does no harm. She lives in harmony with everyone around her and takes no offense when none was intended. She is joy, peace, serenity, hope, love, kindness and compassion.

aging-gracefully

The other wolf is full of anger. The littlest thing will set her off in a fit of rage. She fights anyone, any time, for no reason. She is full of envy, greed, anger, regret, self-pity, false pride and resentment.

The two wolves vie for my attention and energy; whichever one I feed will dominate.

I am paying more attention to the negativity within and around me and trying to counter it with positivity and hope.

I tend to think of my life in thirds—the first third was formative; the second third was restorative and this third I want to be generative.

Like those women I admire, I want to show compassion and mercy, to forgive and to encourage others to let go of anger and regret. I want to be content and grateful.

Life is short—no matter how many years we have, and I want to live each day to the fullest.

aging-gracefully

 

Lost and found

…this son of mine was…lost and has been found. (Luke 15:24)

I once had a job recruiting community members to be volunteer advocates for people who have disabilities. At monthly Board meetings, I would report on the people I had met who needed advocates.

Ellen was thirteen years old when I met her, and she lived in a group home

Her parents lived in the town where I worked, and I called her mother and told her I was going to recruit an advocate for Ellen. The mother told me how Ellen had become severely disabled as a young child; she agreed it would be good for Ellen to have someone in her life.

When Ellen’s name appeared in my monthly report, a board member asked if she was related to a family he knew with the same last name.

“Yes,” I said, “she is their daughter.”

“No,” he replied, and he named Ellen’s parents.

“Yes,” I repeated,” she is their daughter.”

“That’s not possible,” he declared and explained that he and his family knew this family very well. “They have two daughters,” he insisted.

“No,” I said, “they have three daughters.” In that moment, I realized that I had just exposed a family secret.

Ellen’s mother was quite upset with me after that. Prickly was how I described her. “I was just doing my job,” I declared defensively, but my heart broke for her as I imagined how I would feel if someone had inadvertently revealed something I had kept secret.

I started to avoid Ellen’s mother whenever I saw her, crossing the street or ducking into a shop.

A young woman named Geri became Ellen’s advocate and they formed a deep bond.

About ten years after I had left that job, I drove past Ellen’s condo one day and wondered if Geri was still involved.

Just days later, Ellen’s mother attended a fund-raiser for my current work. When I saw her walk in, I hid behind a pillar. What is she doing here? I silently shrieked, a knot forming in my stomach.

Fortunately, the venue and the crowd were large enough that I was able to avoid her.

When it was time for me to speak about my work, and as I was waiting for a final microphone check, the crowd seemed to part and Ellen’s mother walked straight toward me. Oh, God, no, I prayed. Not now. I had no place to hide.

I smiled, said hello and told her how I had recently driven past Ellen’s condo and wondered if Geri was still involved.

“Yes, she is,” Ellen’s mother said. She went on to explain that watching Geri with Ellen and seeing how Geri saw Ellen changed how she saw her daughter. She told me that Geri and Ellen had become an integral part of their family. “You gave me back my daughter,” she said, “and I want to thank you.”

Tears filled my eyes as she hugged me.

***

Have you ever been lost or found?

 

Deep waters

“I don’t have any place to put that,” I said to my friend Steve when he told me he had decided not to take treatment for bladder cancer. Even with treatment, he was only expected to live a few months; without it, he would die very soon.

This was just eight months after my friend Jim died. Steve had been meeting with me during those months, walking with me through my grief. And now he was telling me that he was going to die. Sadness overwhelmed me. I had no place for this news.

Steve died a week later. I was numb, walking around in a fog so dense I feared I would not find my way out.

fog

 

In the three years since Steve died, two more close friends have died from cancer.

I don’t have any place inside me to put more loss, more sadness. Cumulative grief threatens to cripple me.

“Put out into the deep water…” Jesus says (Luke 5:4). Deep water? If the water of my grief gets any deeper, I fear I will drown. I am already in over my head.

I remember a friend recounting the losses of a woman she knew—first her husband and then one by one, each of her children died from some hereditary condition. “I don’t know how she goes on,” my friend had said. At the time, I could not imagine it either. How did this woman keep getting out of bed every day after losing her husband and children within a few years? How could she keep putting one foot in front of the other?

Now I wonder if my friend recounts my losses with same sense of incredulity. Is she telling others of my litany of losses and saying of me, “I don’t know how she goes on”?

I re-read chapter 5 of Luke’s gospel and noticed that Jesus got into the boat and taught the people on the shore before instructing the fishermen to “put out into deep water and lower your nets for a catch.” Jesus was in the boat. That detail had escaped my attention before, and I re-imagined the scene—not the fisherman alone putting out into the deep water, but Jesus was with them.

I am not alone in my grief; Jesus is with me

Put out into the deep water and lower your nets for a catch.

What am I to catch? I ask Jesus.

Perhaps the catch of living in this deep place of loss and sadness and grief for the past six years is a greater capacity for understanding others’ grief, a profound empathy. Perhaps the catch is that each death, each loss, is deepening the space within me to accept my lack of control and my own vulnerability.

Perhaps the catch is that my capacity to live in gratitude for what has been and in hope for what is to come is getting deeper, that grief has shaped a space deep enough to hold it all.

hope-stone

 

Five simple rules to be happy

My friend Jim kept a small slip of paper taped to the shelf above his desk, with six typed lines:

Remember the five simple rules to be happy.

  1. Free your heart from hatred.
  2. Free your mind from worries.
  3. Live simply.
  4. Give more.
  5. Expect less.

I don’t know if he consciously read these rules every day, but that would probably be a good way to start the day.

I, though, would add a sixth rule: be grateful.

Gratitude is the path to contentment for me, and contentment is the foundation for happiness. When I focus on what I have and am grateful for it—no matter how meager it might be—my expectations are automatically lowered and I can see that I actually have quite a lot. When I pay more attention to what is rather than what isn’t, I see how abundantly God has blessed me.

Living in gratitude has been my prayer for as long as I can remember.

Before receiving communion at Mass, I pray, Lord, help me to be grateful. Being able to freely practice my faith and to receive nourishment from my church and the sacraments is a starting point for a litany of gratitude for all I have—and prayers for those who have less.

Many different factors have helped move me along the path to living in gratitude, especially the opportunities I have had to travel to communities where people have fewer material goods than I have.

One memory that stands out for me is from a trip to Swaziland, Southern Africa, when I was the director of a lay mission program. St. Phillip’s Mission has a medical clinic and on one of my visits, I was standing near the clinic when a man came walking out of the surrounding bush.

Swaziland bush

On his back, he was carrying his brother, a grown man so weak he could not walk. I had only once before seen someone so emaciated, and seeing these two men emerge from the bush brought back memories of my Uncle Steve just before he died from stomach cancer many years earlier.

I don’t know how far this man had walked through the bush with his brother on his back, but the nearest homestead was probably a mile away. His search for medicine for his dying brother painted a compelling picture. His love and dedication were obvious and poignant. In what seemed a hopeless situation, this man still held hope that someone could help his brother. Tears filled my eyes, and I prayed for these two men, even as I could see that the brother was near death.

Fortunately, the clinic was able to help the brother, and on my return visit a year later, I saw this man who had been emaciated almost to the point of death, now standing strong and healthy—and joyously grateful for the help he had received at the clinic.

How can I not thank God for this miracle and all my blessings!

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