Tag Archives: wisdom

Creating my vision board

I recently created a vision board, something to help me focus during my sabbatical year—travel I am planning, the things that bring me joy and goals I have set.

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Even the first step of writing down what is important to me was helpful in identifying what I do and don’t want to do.

Without a job to go to or my mom to care for, I have plenty of free time, and I want to focus that time on exploring the next chapter of my life.

I scoured magazines for pictures to illustrate my dreams, goals and vision; and in the process, I realized how people my age are often portrayed. We are the parents who have memory issues and need care (often shown as an elder with a fifty-something adult child sitting on a park bench). Or we are the empty nesters looking to downsize (which usually means moving to a planned community where everyone is our age).

Where are the pictures of people like my friend Betty, who for her eighty-eighth birthday went on a twenty-mile bike ride? Or my mother who lived in her own home until she died at ninety-five?

Where are the pictures of us hiking at a state park (as I did with some friends a few weeks ago)? Playing cards (our memories still intact enough to remember the rules)? And gardening, kayaking, walking, running and biking?

Where are the pictures of us in classrooms, learning new languages, skills and hobbies?

Or in classrooms teaching younger generations skills that will help them in life?

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I am not denying that with age comes decline. I cannot run like I did when I was forty, and I am usually asleep by 10:30 p.m., 11:00 at the latest. I no longer go to bars for nights of drinking (not that that was ever a good thing to do), and I am much more conscious of my calorie intake (I use fewer calories as I am aging).

I do, though, still look forward to the future. I am excited about the prospects of my next chapter and am still discerning where and how I can best use what I have learned in my life. I want to follow my mother’s example and live until I die, open to new ideas and learning new things. I want to keep discovering what brings me joy and where God is calling me to share what I have learned from life.

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Don’t judge

“Don’t judge, Aunt Madeline,” my teenaged niece said to me. Although I don’t remember what her mother and I had been talking about or my exact response to her, I can imagine I claimed—perhaps somewhat defensively—that I was not judging. I do recall that my niece rolled her eyes in that knowing ways teens can have.

I admit that I can be judgmental, and even as I defended myself with my niece, I knew she was probably right.

This encounter was at least ten years ago, and her admonition has stayed with me and helped me to be more aware of when I am being judgmental.

Recently, I have found my niece’s phrase, Don’t judge, coming to my mind on a regular basis.

I am trying to honor my mother’s wishes about how she wants to live and die, and I feel judged by those who think I am not doing right by my mom. Don’t judge, I want to say to these well-intentioned people.

“Everyone has an opinion,” I said to a friend after hearing from yet another person offering suggestions about my mother’s situation.

The truth is that I agree that my mother’s situation is precarious, but she is ninety-four years old and she is not a threat to anyone. She wants to live and die in her own home—something I think most people can understand. Who wants to live in a nursing home? or to die in a hospital?

But sending elderly people to congregate settings has become such an accepted practice in our country that the idea of someone staying at home or living with family is considered unusual or even abnormal.

Yesterday, a home health worker told me I need to put my foot down and make my mother leave her home. “Stop harassing my daughter,” my mother said. “I am fine.” She knows what she wants.

I know how difficult it can be to take care of someone at home—I cared for my friend Jim at home when he had brain cancer. Everyday was a lesson in accepting the reality of our situation and letting go of expectations.

I felt judged then, too, by people who had lots of ideas of where I should take Jim for treatment and what kind of food I should be preparing for him and on and on.

I believe that people die the way they have lived. My mother has always been fiercely independent, and she has also always been suspicious of doctors, medicine and congregate settings. My dad, too, avoided doctors and when he had a major stroke, my mother did not call 911. Rather, we called hospice and kept my dad comfortable at home until he died three months later.

I have known several other people who died at home, including my friend Ted, and my neighbors Domenic, Margaret and Mary. A hundred years ago, most people died at home.

I am doing the best I can, so please don’t judge me.

Looking ahead

We celebrated my mother’s 94th birthday last week. At a niece’s wedding last fall, people kept telling me that my mother is “amazing” and “awesome.” I got tired of hearing it, and I also smiled at the truth of it. My mother is amazing and awesome.

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At 94, she still does her own cooking, cleaning and laundry; and she is still trying out new recipes! As my mother has aged, she has, in some ways, become more open to change. Part of that, she would say, is that we, her children, have forced her to accept change because we don’t do things the way she once did them. But, after a little resistance, she goes along.

My grandmother lived 96 years, and most of my mom’s siblings lived well into their 80s. One uncle died just days short of his 98th birthday. We have longevity.

The thing about my mother and her family’s longevity is that it is a constant reminder to live as though I, too, have longevity. It is an invitation to see a vast future waiting for me to explore.

And, because I have had so many friends die young, I also know an early death is possible and that each day is precious.

Balancing those two realities reminds me of a large rock I once saw. One side of the rock had the quote, “Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die” etched into it, and the opposite side had a quote about planning for tomorrow. I was more of a “live for today” kind of person, so I don’t even remember what the other side said!

Having lived longer than a number of my friends (some did not even reach thirty) and considering my mother’s advanced age, I think more about the future now and ponder how I am being invited to live into that future. Intentionality is the word that comes to mind when I think of what is ahead—living intentionally.

For much of my early life, I moved around—a lot. I think in all that moving around, I was trying to run away from my past, searching for something external to bring me peace—only to find that wherever I went, I took my history with me. Eventually, I realized that everything I needed was inside me. I feel settled now and plan to stay put. I am unpacking and looking to a future built upon what I have learned.

Are you more of a “live for today” kind of person? Or are you someone who plans more for the future? Are you able to find a balance between the two?

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Caring for an aging parent

My mother likes to quote her mother. Almost every conversation includes at least one, “As my mother used to say…” followed by some pithy comment from my grandmother.

These comments are all in Polish, the language my grandmother spoke, and my mother quotes her mother in Polish and then translates them into English. She gets great joy from repeating her mother’s words.

My grandmother was a farmer and her sayings are usually quite earthy.

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Although my grandmother lived in two countries (Poland and the U.S.), in each place, her life was fairly limited. She lived in small, rural communities in both countries, and her life was ordered by the seasons. She seemed quite content with the boundaries of her life in northern Michigan.

I knew my grandmother, having spent time every summer with her on the farm. She was always kind to me, and I felt safe with her. I was fortunate to be present when she died at age ninety-six.

My mother is now ninety-three. I moved home six years ago, in large part, to be near her, and I check on her several times a week. She loves to play cards and we usually get in a few games every week.

My mother is fiercely independent. She also has unrealistic expectations of herself and her capabilities.

She still drives, even though her eye doctor, primary care physician and physical therapist have all told her to stop. She denies that her reflexes are diminished in any way—or her hearing or her eyesight. She becomes very defensive when someone suggests otherwise.

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On the one hand, my mother wants to be left alone, to do as she pleases. But when she has a health scare, she wants help…until she is better. Then she denies she ever needed help. She was fine and we should have just left her alone.

It is a vicious circle.

When my father had a major stroke, my mother did not call 911. My father had been very clear that he did not want to go to the hospital nor be resuscitated. “If you walk in and think I am dead,” he used to say, “go out for another hour and then come back.” He dreaded hospitals and the thought of being kept alive by machines.

I have come to realize the great strength it took my mother to honor my father’s wishes. I am not that strong. When my mother is in distress, disoriented, or displaying other signs of serious illness, I cannot leave her, even though I know that is what she says she wants.

My aunt made the health care decisions for my grandmother, so my mother was spared the responsibility and the guilt. My grandmother died in hospital connected to machines. It is not what my mother wants, nor do I want it for her.

As anyone caring for an aging parent can probably appreciate, it is difficult to walk the fine line between supporting independence and ensuring safety.

I pray for wisdom.

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My prayer

I start my mornings with an hour of quiet time—journaling, reading scripture, praying and writing. My missalette includes a Prayer for each day, written by saints or taken from a variety of Sacramentaries.

The diversity of sources intrigues me, and many are new to me. This month, I have been introduced to the Gelasian Sacramentary and Saint Makarios of Alexandria.

These prayers often spark a prayer of my own.

Recently, I have begun to ponder how I pray and what words I would use if I were writing my prayers down instead of just saying them.

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Knowing I spend time in prayer each day, people often ask me to pray for them and those they love. My friend Ted believed I have hot line to God because the things he asked me to pray for turned out the way he wanted. I was nine for nine when he asked me to pray for his friend Adele.

Instead of getting better, though, as Ted had wanted, Adele died. When Ted called me to tell me Adele had died, he said, “Your prayers didn’t work.”

Ted had never asked me about the specifics of my prayer, so I took this occasion to tell him that I had not prayed for Adele to get better. I had prayed that God give Adele the grace and strength to face her difficulties, that her faith remain strong and that God grant her peace.

“Why didn’t you ask God to cure her?” he wanted to know.

“That is not how my relationship with God works,” I answered.

When my friend Jim got brain cancer, many people prayed that he would be cured, and they were certain God was going to comply with their wishes. It would have been miraculous because there is no known cure for the type of cancer Jim had.

“What will those people do on the day you die?” I asked Jim.

My prayer for Jim was that he get right with God, that he have the strength to face what was happening to him and that he be at peace. It was my prayer for him whether he was to live or die.

I share Ted’s confidence that I have God’s ear, but my concern is more focused on acceptance.

If I were to write a prayer, it would go something like this:

God, give me the strength to endure whatever hardship comes my way with grace and peace. Help me to let go of my own expectations and accept the truth of what is. Give me the wisdom to remember that my vision is limited; help me to trust that you see the big picture. Help me to be grateful for all that has been and to say “yes” to what is yet to be.

This is my prayer for myself and also how I pray for those on my Prayer List. Not miraculous cures—although I thank God when they happen—but hope for wisdom, courage, strength and peace.

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My wild and precious life

We recently celebrated my mother’s ninety-third birthday. Her mother lived to be ninety-six and one of her brothers died a week shy of his ninety-eighth birthday. We have longevity in my family.

As I pondered my mother’s long life, Mary Oliver’s poem The Summer Day came to mind. It ends by asking,

Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

After college, when I went into nonprofit work instead of returning to the FBI, my mother was not happy. For eight years, she had been able to say, “My daughter is a secretary in the FBI,” and people understood what that meant. She had been looking forward to saying, “My daughter is an FBI agent,” but that did not happen.

Instead, I got a job recruiting advocates for people who have developmental disabilities. My mother had no idea what that meant. My work defied easy explanation, and she could not imagine how I spent my days. She was baffled.

“Where did you ever get the idea to go into that kind of work?” she asked.

I told her that she had given me the idea by the way she lived.

My mother always made room for one more. When my unmarried uncle got cancer, he moved in with us, and my mother took care of him. When my grandmother needed a place to live after my grandfather died, my mother welcomed her into our home.

She showed me how to greet new neighbors with a prepared meal and to comfort someone in pain by being present and listening. She always has extra food prepared because no one leaves her house empty-handed. “What can I give you?” she asked as I left her house on her birthday.

That is the thing about parenting—so much of it is in the doing rather than the telling. I learned by watching.

When a friend of mine was having twins one summer, I offered to come help harvest her garden. For three days, I picked beans and tomatoes and then canned—quarts upon quarts of veggies to get her family through the winter. Toward the end of my visit, she told me she had been resistant to my coming because others had come offering to help, but they just ended up being more work for her. “You have helped me so much,” she said with gratitude and also a note of incredulity in her voice.

“You don’t know my mother,” I responded, because my mother’s example and her voice in my head would not allow me to be a burden. If you can’t help, stay home, would be my mother’s advice.

When I imagine myself at ninety-three, I hope I can look back and see that I have lived my one wild and precious life with integrity and meaning, helping more than hindering, giving more than I have taken.

Every morning, I pray the Prayer of St. Francis. That is the life I want to live.

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Becoming courageous

“I want to be you,” a volunteer at my work recently said to me.

“Me?” I asked incredulously.

I admire your courage and kindness,” she said.

Over the years, I have told other women that I want to be them. These are women who embody the virtues I aspire to—patience, compassion, kindness, wisdom and self-acceptance. I want to embody those same virtues.

So when I heard these words being said to me, I was surprised.

I suppose most of us carry around images of ourselves that focus on our insecurities, where we see ourselves falling short and not living up to our own standards, let alone expectations others might have. I know I do.God-wisdom-courageI used to move a lot and hanging curtains was one of the first things I did to help me feel settled into my new place. I remember after one move, a woman at work asked how I was settling in and I told her I had my curtains up so I was in good shape. “Who hung them for you?” she asked, knowing that I was single. “I did them myself,” I replied with both a tinge of incredulity that she asked the question and also a sense of pride. She considered hanging curtains rods a challenge.

But, I have been in my current house for five years and only last week put up the last of my window treatments. I was nervous about drilling into the plaster wall. Drilling into wooden window frames is easy, but plaster?

I googled installing curtain rods in plaster walls and then I called my brother for further assurance. He concurred with the You Tube video.

So I charged my drill, mustered my courage, measured and began. I even used the level to make sure the rod was straight.

The finished product pleased me.God-wisdom-courageWhy had I been so resistant? So fearful?Even though others may see me as courageous, I know my inner fears. I know how I can be paralyzed by the smallest thing (like putting up curtain rods).

When this paralysis strikes, I wonder if it is a matter of accepting my limitations or being challenged to overcome a fear.In my early thirties, my therapist encouraged me to do things scared.

Act as if… my therapist advised me. We had been talking about my fears, and there were many. He suggested I act as if I had no fears, with the idea that acting as if would lead to a change in behavior, that my fears would disappear.

I was doubtful, but it actually worked, and each time I did something that frightened (or even terrified) me, I gain confidence.

From another therapist, I learned is to ask, What is the worst that can happen? In most circumstances, the worst is not so bad. (In the case of curtain rods, it would mean some repair work before reinstalling.)

Doing things scared and weighing possible outcomes have helped me become less fearful and more courageous.God-wisdom-courage

 

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Embrace Wisdom

After about a month of weekly visits to a woman in a mental institution, I realized how rare it is to spend that kind of quality time with someone. In the institution’s visiting room, there were no distractions—television or music or chores—as there might be anywhere else. It was just two people, talking for two hours once a week. We got to know one another very well in a short period of time.

I was reminded of that experience during the recent cancer caregiver training I attended. The four-day workshop consisted of three presentations each day—on topics like mindfulness, guided imagery, movement and breathing. We practiced what we were learning in the large group (about 100 people) and also met in small groups.

My small group was made up of eleven women of varying backgrounds and ages. It is unlikely we would have come together under any other circumstances, but there we were, meeting twice a day for two hours each time. That’s a lot of face time.

These “mind-body skills groups” were opportunities to practice the skills we had been taught during the presentations. We were led through breathing exercises, guided meditation and other mindfulness practices, all meant to cultivate greater awareness. We wrote, drew pictures and shared our insights.

One exercise was a guided imagery exercise to find our “wise guide.” Eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the floor, our group facilitator invited us to visit a place where we felt safe. I allowed images to float into my consciousness—the New Jersey shore, a friend’s cottage and my friend Ted (who died from esophageal cancer two years ago).

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New Jersey Shore

Images of being with Ted at my home in Pennsylvania, his home in Oregon and travelling around the world reminded me of how safe I always felt with him. Gratitude filled me—how blessed I was to have been so deeply known and loved. But Ted is no longer with me and so I began to allow other images to surface.

I saw myself on the Irish Sea coast, in a place I had gone for a week’s silent retreat a few months after my Jim died. Ireland is one of those places where I feel incredibly safe.

I imagined walking along the shore of the Irish Sea, and looking at the sun on the horizon.

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Irish Sea

The facilitator’s words brought focus to the question, “who will be my wise guide?”

As I looked across the Sea, the image of a white light emerged at the horizon. It was different from the yellow sun—not as defined and bright white. This light moved across the water and came near to me, and I saw that it was Wisdom. As Wisdom approached me, I became aware of my heart beating. Wisdom wanted to enter my heart, and I embraced her.

It is no mystery to me that I left this four-day training feeling like my heart had expanded and I was more open than I ever remember feeling.meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability

 

Choose love

I recently officiated at my nephew’s wedding, and he and his new wife gave me some thank-you gifts; among them was a journal and on the cover were the words Choose love.

Choose love

I read it as a command: Choose love.

Tears filled my eyes.

In that moment, I had to admit that I have been afraid to choose love. Choosing love means being vulnerable, taking risks, being open. It means letting go. Avoid love would be a more apt phrase for me. Avoid the possibility of hurt and pain and sorrow.

A few months ago, several people recommended I see a movie called “The War Room,” and I finally got around to watching it last weekend. It is the story of a wise, older woman who is a prayer warrior. It is also about committing oneself to Jesus completely.

The movie invited me to look at my own prayer life and my commitment to Jesus. It held up a mirror and in the reflection I could see how far I have moved away from a heart connection with Jesus. My fear of letting go, of being vulnerable, of choosing love has distanced me from Jesus, too.

Today is the feast of the Sacred Heart of Jesus. St. Mary Margaret Alacoque (1647-1690) was devoted to the Sacred Heart of Jesus. She wrote:

The sacred heart is an inexhaustible fountain and its sole desire is to pour itself out into the hearts of the humble so as to free them and prepare them to lead lives according to his good pleasure.

From this divine heart three streams flow endlessly. The first is the stream of mercy for sinners; it pours into their hearts sentiments of contrition and repentance. The second is the stream of charity which helps all in need and especially aids those seeking perfection in order to find the means of surmounting their difficulties. From the third stream flow love and light for the benefit of his friends who have attained perfection; these he wishes to unite to himself so that they may share his knowledge and commandments and, in their individual ways, devote themselves wholly to advancing his glory.

This divine heart is an abyss of all blessings, and into it the poor should submerge all their needs. It is an abyss of joy in which all of us can immerse our sorrows. It is an abyss of lowliness to counteract our foolishness, an abyss of mercy for the wretched, an abyss of love to meet our every need. 

As I reflected on the movie, I also thought of the abyss of love that is the heart of Jesus and the invitation Jesus extends to me to live in his love, to submerge myself and all my needs into his heart. By avoiding love, I know I have also been avoiding joy.

I want to choose love, to let go and move closer to Jesus, take a risk and be vulnerable. Jesus’ heart invites me to jump into the abyss.