My mother has one-and-a-half feet in another world now. I’m meeting her on the other half-foot, when she’s here, and joining her in the dreaming world when I can. In between times I’m moving through the layers of her life, thing by thing. I see a photo of my grandmother in a familiar dress, holding me as a baby. Did I remember that far back? Just as I’m about to take credit for an astounding memory, I realize I’ve seen it recently. In a quilt made by that very same grandmother in the 1950’s, now residing in my closet awaiting guests.
This is how it’s been. These last few months I’ve traveled sixty years back and forth in random order, time shifting. Time sifting, as I pick up each piece of her past. And what has emerged is a pattern far more subtle than the one that I’ve been holding together in my mind all these years.
I can practically name the day, or at least the evening in 1970 when the “click” went off in my head and I began to see the oppression behind the traditional role of women. I giggled almost hysterically when I realized I had become a “Women’s Libber,” a somewhat derogatory label assigned to early feminists by the culture at large. Ever since that epiphany, I’ve held a specific belief about women raised in the rural Midwest in the early half of the last century.
I’ve run their stories through my filter about their oppression, including the ways they wasted their time on unappreciated “womanly” domestic arts. After all, my credentials as a judge of them are impeccable. My mother was the president of FHA, Future Homemakers of America. “All I ever wanted,” she told me many times, “was to be a wife and mother.” For years it has been abundantly clear to me that the size of this role was way too tight, and way too under-appreciated for my own future liberated self.
The proof of her conditioning by the culture early on was all around me as I stood knee-deep in her apartment. Starting with the bib with her detailed embroidery for the birth of her only sibling, a brother. She had been nine years old. Then an “autograph book” she assembled when she was twelve, filled with other girls’ cards and jingles about getting a husband. Then there are the yearbook and scrapbooks from high school singing the praises of her beauty and kindness (with tips for keeping that man). All of these keepsakes were especially repugnant when I was a young feminist, tainted as they were by male privilege and patriarchy.
After all, everything led to the pinnacle: her carefully planned wedding at 18, and a not-so-planned baby (me) when she wasn’t yet 19. But I had much more proof of her oppression, based on my life as a little girl and helpmate. There was her ordinary grueling life, in the rural Missouri 1950’s. The life where she raised us and canned tomatoes all day in 120 (F) degree heat. The life where she washed the laundry (on Mondays, as the tea embroidered tea towel said), in a wringer washer and then hung it in the cold attic to dry while three of us under five years old vied for attention.
Then there were her duties as the wife of the school principal, not even 25 years old yet. A few years later, there’s the announcement in the tiny town newspaper about her return to college, with a quick reassurance that she would only be taking classes when her kids were in school. That degree never got finished because making another baby was just too hard to resist. This has always been the punch-line in my story of her demise.
But, as I’ve looked again these past weeks, there’s something else. I see the ways she (and many of the women of her generation) stitched together the social fabric through a myriad of little gifts of time and attention. My mother, and many others before her, planned and pulled off weekly Sunday fried chicken dinners on the farm for a large extended family. This in itself looked easier from a child’s view than it turned out to be in my reality as a young mother, when even a potluck was over my head.
And then there were the less routine but deeply significant duties. She delivered pies and casseroles when tragedy struck, which it did often.
A friend’s son, a teen who fell from the water tower, trying to mark it for the class of ‘54.
A father who fell from his tractor right in the way of the combine.
A carload of liquored up kids, six dead, from a head-on crash.
My dad, their coach, left to tell the parents.
What may have come from basic social duty transformed her life into something larger. She, and many women like her, held the network of community together as they actively comforted, appreciated, and showed up for all of life, day to day, in big and little ways. They stitched together lives of meaning, piece by piece, like the patchwork quilts they left behind.
Last week I uncovered bundles and bundles of letters she wrote to lifelong friends in longhand, just because. The thoughtful gift, the thank you notes and cards. Many were left behind, written in her shaky hand, still waiting to be sent, as well as boxes (and boxes) that will never see that signature. I couldn’t even give them away to family members because, apparently, sending cards or letters through snail mail is a dying art.
But something of that history remains in my world. Although most of my correspondence is digital, I still keep a ragtag file of cards for such occasions. Sometimes I even write them, stamp them, address them. And I relish each one I receive nowadays, from friends and neighbors, placing it on my altar and lighting a candle to complete the circle.
There is such subtle tenderness and grace in a life of weaving and re-weaving the connections that bind us together. Now, more than ever, in an anxious and uncertain world, I’m embracing this part of my heritage. It supports me in remembering what’s important.
Life. To the fabric we weave from its beginning to its end. To the cards and letters and gifts of ourselves that spread and hold the love. To the holiness of this calling.
I’ve long been a fan of adrenaline. I’ve thrived on it. Months and years of my life have been spent in one emergency or another, guaranteeing an adequate flow of juice. I’ve been wondering whether the human animal just needs this shot in the arm to move from complacency to Awakeness and do what needs to be done.
But lately my inbox has been filled with the word “emergency,” and I’m beginning to recognize the signs of overwhelm. I take a random buckshot approach for a while, but the next stage for me is adrenal fatigue. It’s not that I lack commitment to acting on my principles. But I’ve learned a few things, and I’m interested now in a more sustainable, long-range approach.
Last weekend I returned to my Oregon home from my mother’s bedside just in time to take a walk with 100,000 of “my best friends,” as my husband George described them. During the last couple of months there have apparently been “emergency” altercations in Portland, when the police have used the tools of their trade for crowd control. Having just returned, I didn’t know this. What I experienced instead was a sense of Emergence-y.
Throughout the walk, insights kept showing up from my family emergency of the last weeks. My mother had a serious stroke a month ago. The first three weeks of the year we’ve focused on her post-stroke recovery. While I was with her, the focus gradually shifted to her quality of life. When dealing with the primal reality of birth and death, and birth into death, everything has always seemed crucial. Urgent. An emergency.
But this time I waited. And Life always presented the next step. The miracle of ordinary life (and death) just kept flowing. Each action had a simplicity. The faith that accumulated as I turned “my way” over to something greater just kept building. This culminated with the exact right chaplain showing up during my last visit with my mother. The one who hailed from her German/Lutheran childhood home spoke her Lutheran language. He offered the most beautiful prayer for her journey and mine just as I was stretching “my schedule” and heading to the airport. My mother, who has frequently been lost in Stroke-land, emerged enough to nod and say “amen.”
The Women’s March was a lot like that. A step or two. Waiting. A few more steps. As we merged, something was also emerging. All over the world. We don’t know exactly what it is. Many of us (no matter where we fall on the political spectrum) are birthing something. It’s coming. We’re striving to be awake for the death of something that has passed and the birth of whatever is emerging. Both require labor. But without the Emergency state, when we allow things to Emerge, we’re more likely to take just the right and unique action for us, one at a time.
As many of the protest signs said, we’re awake now. Let us stay awake in ordinary life and do the next thing, and the next. The thing that must be done for the new to emerge. Let us discover whether it’s possible to take action without emergency by making the deepest commitment to attend this Emergence. Day by day.
Kindness. Peace. Love. And committed action on behalf of these principles. This is what is left. I have a renewed trust that this is the Way of things. Steady. Slow. Like water on rock. These are the principles that are Emerging. May we keep drawing, again and again, from that deep well. And may it sustain us for the times ahead.
In the time before Thanksgiving I was drawn to take a deep inner dive into “grateful seeing,” declaring a practice of slowing down for the micro-miracles of daily life. There’s been ample nutrition for the soul in this deepening practice, as I peeked beneath the clichés about gratitude to find my own deeper experience.
Honestly, Universe (or God, or whatever you call it), it’s been really fun. And in my humble opinion I didn’t really need more of a challenge.
However, as it turns out, my opinion about these things seems to be just that. My. Opinion. Reality never fails to show me my real job, whether I approve or not. Reality brought a stroke to my brother first about six weeks ago and then my mother just before Christmas. All of us (and another brother) have A-Fib, which makes strokes more likely. Since I was scheduled in Texas for proactive surgery for the problem, I was unable to cancel and fly to manage the crisis.
So we all puttered arrhythmically along, in and out of surgeries and hospitals and emergency rooms. My brother with the recent stroke somehow kept up with my mother’s crisis and his stroke rehab, while I texted and called and did everything I could to not wring my hands into ribbons of worry. The multitude of Care Givers and angels all along the way earned a place in my gratitude pantheon. And yet the reality and the stress of it all has been there all along, lurking in the background. I just returned back to my home for a few days of rest and rebooting before I climb on another plane and head “back East” to my mother’s nursing facility.
So I just today returned to my grateful seeing project for 2017. It’s one thing to make a commitment to living into a “year of gratitude,” imagining quiet moments in nature with birdflight and windsounds. But it’s quite another to welcome all of it, the “full catastrophe,” as Zorba called it, and find the Gratitude Spot somewhere below the apparent disasters.
The small savings account I’ve built up through the practice of micro-moments of gratitude have carried me a long way. But then has come the big challenge of knowing that those you love are struggling without you. That your mother, already confused, has lost her ability to speak. That hospice has been advised.
During the last two months I’ve also been more deeply committed to questioning a myriad of upsetting thoughts and beliefs about everything, including the future of the world. This radical discipline, one that I have been practicing for about ten years, has delivered me again and again to humility and peace. While I’ve learned to question my mind’s assumptions, I’ve also been preparing me to be with my mother, to help make decisions about her future. Without the discipline of pausing and questioning my mind, I’m not much help to anyone.
But with a little pause comes the realization that I really have no idea what will happen next. The relief and acceptance that follows this recognition brings me the deepest acceptance. And from this calm and open mind comes guidance. Again and again. The next thing. For this I am eternally gratefully.
This is the Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude.