Posts Categorized: Remembering

Stitching a Quilt that Holds

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.

The Long View: Give Your Love Away

“In the long view, the best you can do is give your love away.” 
These song lyrics have been echoing in my being ever since last weekend. That’s when my local community celebrated the work of my dear friend, master musician and songwriter Neal Gladstone. There’s not enough space or time to describe his music or his being and its impact on everyone in the vicinity. He’s no longer able to perform because of advancing Parkinson’s, but his work lives on and on in our Ordinary Lives.
His lyrics span a dizzying array of ages, stages, moods, and topics. But in this particular time of life, the long view looms large. As I looked around the bulging auditorium at the audience, I saw people I have known since we were in our late twenties. I see in layers nowadays, remembering each face as it was ten years ago, twenty, thirty, and more. I see our youthful exuberance and our randomly failing bodies. Life has become three-dimensional, or, zooming out, multi-dimensional.
“Meanwhile, the world keeps turning around,” as the lyrics continue. Lately I’ve been experiencing the same multi-layered vision as I’ve supported the recent movements of sanity and kindness. Zoom in: a face, a particular face, one that I have seen before in other rallies and marches through the decades. Savor these close-ups by my good friend David Bayles. Zoom out, and we’ve always done this, always moved together with a sense of unity and gentle strength. From a deep love that says No to destruction in its many forms and Yes to life.
May each of us remember the long view as our paths intersect in the world. As we make the calls, write the letters, argue for sanity (no matter our political alliances), may we not forget our purpose.
Love. Give it all away.

Holy Micro-Moments for Sanity

Now that the Thanksgiving leftovers are gone and all the toasts and blessings have been offered, I’m left with a familiar feeling of letdown. Although I savored the time with family and friends, the Holiday of Gratitude doesn’t find much of a footing in my heart, especially during the challenging time of division and fear that has followed the election here in my country.

Regardless of the external circumstances, I’ve never been a big fan of generic gratitude lists. My mind just doesn’t seem to settle on vague concepts. The kindness of people seems way different than the very specific memory of watching a hurried person slow down and hold the door at the gym patiently for someone struggling to get his walker out of the rain.

To save my sanity this month, I launched my own personal Holy Micro-Moments project. I’ve been stalking the little magical details hiding in plain site as I take daily walks or run errands. A certain slant of light, the children at the bus stop, the cashier at the grocery store. Early on it was the mushrooms in a neighbor’s yard.

Mushrooms

What I’ve noticed, without a big investment of time, is that nature seems to conspire to get our attention.  As does human kindness, when we see it, when we let it in.

Even in the midst of all the hubbub in the world right now, holiday or otherwise, there’s that moment of perspective, a deepening of breath.

Join me in exploring the art (and the relief) of finding holy moments in ordinary time.

Take two or three minutes each day to stop, breathe, and savor a moment. If you can, take a photo or jot a few lines in your journal to remind yourself. Share it with the world on Facebook or tuck it away for just you. I’ll do the same.

Gratefully,

Susan Grace

From the Sweet Spot

When I was a preteen, I loved visiting all four of my grandparents the rural town of Sweet Springs, MO.  An active farming community, there was room enough to test my wings and my understanding of how a simpler world worked. My favorite place was a teenage hang-out called the Sweet Shop, a genuine fifties-style jitterbug place, still alive in the early sixties. Yesterday I drove through the town, and all the edifices are crumbling around the ghosts of my past, but the memories are still alive. During these “wonder” years I had enough time to create memories and enough brain space to give them permanent residency.

I also celebrated my fiftieth high school reunion last weekend at my real home town of Columbia. A large group of 200 or more showed up. We had a few memories in common, but mostly, we were all the same age, even though a neutral observer who was forced to guess might assume a twenty year range. Words from Ann Patchett’s book Commonwealth cycled through my mind: He was as old as the rest of them, but age arrived at different rates of speed, in different ways.

My friend Vicki shared her Sweet Spot theory, wise and worth sharing here. “There are three basic components of life: time, money, and health. When you’re young, you have lots of time and health but no money. During adulthood, as you create your life, there’s money (assuming you find a good job/career) and you’re healthy, but you have no time. Then, if you’ve planned ahead and have good fortune, there are some years where you have time, money and health. This is the sweet spot. (These are the years of early “retirement.”)

I’m fortunate enough to be able to see the truth in her words. And I want to be aware enough to remember the elusive sweetness of this moment in time, in my life. Most of my disturbing thoughts and memories have been put to rest. I’ve discovered, as Patchett says, “There’s a pleasure in a long life, the way some things work themselves out.”

And what is left can only be described as sweet.

Image by Chinese World Hotel, Beijing, used under CC-BY-SA-3.0

Remedy for Lost Souls (Labor Day, 2016)

What if you couldn’t lose your soul?
What if your soul just sometimes lost you?
What if it just couldn’t compete
With the list of what must be done,
Couldn’t be heard
Over the light speed whizzing of freeways,
The invisible waves of information,
Of entertainment and stimulation
Couldn’t find you, caught as you were
In the death squeeze of entrainment.
What if it’s looking for you right now,
Your soul that is. How would it catch your attention?
Could be a TV commercial or Google Ad would work.
It would have to catch you in the right place, at the right time.

How about making it easier on your poor soul?
Just. Stop.
Spend a day, an afternoon, an hour under  a tree. Any tree.
Take nothing but a blanket.
Gaze at the limbs, the teasing blue in the space between branches.
Move in or out of the shade, as needed.
Sigh once. Sigh twice.
Stare at a leaf.
Watch for chipmunks stuffing their cheeks.
Like a bird watcher, quietly wait for a sign.
Silvering light on an aspen leaf will do,
Purple clover or hairy yellow bumblebee.
A patchwork of green and light on the ground around you.
Hear the soft murmuring in the trembling leaves.

Now listen for the sound of your breath fully released,
Catching in the throat at your own shuddering surrender
Remnant of a sob.
The elusive soul’s welcome home.

Seeking the Jewel of Memory

My mind is unfathomable, and becoming more so as I age. Not just when it comes to the words or names that I used to be able to access instantly. This is happening to all my friends. We have learned to continue with the conversation and wait for the words to pop up. This works. More or less.

Seldom have I applied this principle to objects. Until last month.

When I returned from vacation, my very favorite jewelry (two pair of pearl earrings, a beloved bracelet, a hand crafted necklace) went missing. I didn’t notice for a long time, since I hung out with the flu for a while. With no occasion to dress up, and severe flu-related memory gaps, it was nearly a month before I started missing them.

But once I did, I became a creature obsessed…going over and over the moment I last saw them, searching and re-searching my drawers and my bags, my hidey places. Not just once. Again and again. I imagined the splendor of my pretty pretties. I felt very sad.

I decided this was a problem I could solve if I just tried harder. I started imagining every possible place they could be hiding. On and on. The more fruitless the search, the harder I tried. I have no idea how many times I repeated the superstitious and hopeful pattern. After a few days of ongoing hyper-focus, I surrendered.  I went to local shops and shopped Etsy, for the first time, hopeful again. But nothing compared to the memory of my faves. At this point, the only reasonable choice was to surrender to the loss, if only to make peace in my mind.

Then I went away for a short trip. While I was there, gazing at the enormous mountain outside my window, meditating on the glories of nature, surrendering to the power of the scene, up popped a clear picture of a traveling jewelry bag. I recognized it as my own, one I had seldom used. First thing when I arrived home, I tried one more time searching in my new suitcase. A hidden compartment!  My treasured items!  Waiting for me safely all along.

Along with missing words, now even my treasured things are playing hide and seek. Apparently good focused attention and determination don’t work like they did, with objects as well as words. I’m just now starting to love it. Just as I’m discovering I can’t always count on the verbal skills I’ve taken for granted in my life, I’m now offered the opportunity to surrender even more deeply to simply not knowing. I’m discovering some other mysterious part of the mind that I can count on. To be able to trust the reliability of my own intuition and guidance to find what is mine what is mine to find in life: this is my pearl of the very highest value.

Worry Beads, Worry Dolls, Worry Worry

What comes to you when you see this guy? A denial based on ignorance? A cultural symbol for the naïve? For stupidity?

An excuse for burying your head during an election year?

I’ve been wondering: Why is it that “worry” is such a universal?

I’m not against taking life and the big decisions seriously. Trust me. But sometimes Worry seems to be a force unto itself. Without noticing, in a nanosecond, a fearful thought becomes a clench in the jaw, a knotting of the brow. A tightening of the gut, of the world.

Sometimes it’s called Anxiety (or panic). Even without a real reason, the mind can become totally crazy when it has the playground of an imagined future to worry about, especially when it’s got proof from the past that bad things will happen.

At that point thoughts begin to cluster. The YouTube of the past offers movies, either real or imagined. Catastrophe. Once there, all the thoughts that scare you come out to have their way with you. This is what I call worry.

Some situations just bring it on. Accidents or illness can set off a worry cycle.  Today I’m reflecting on my time with my son at the Burn Center when the entire staff was surprised he survived. And on and on through the litany of family crises.

The last couple of years we’ve had more than our share of auto accidents, and the physical injuries seemed to land me right back into my worry-go-round.

Now I’m remembering those ubiquitous worry beads called kolikoi that I noticed every man fingering while backpacking through rural Greece forty years ago. They originated with monks, much like the mala beads of yoga.  I’ve discovered a half-mala is just about what it takes to manage the inner worry wart when I’m meditating. Why not some kolikoi to jazz things up?

Mala beads also bring to mind my daughter. She’s a yoga teacher and chant leader. After being hit head-on last December, she’s still struggling with post-concussive symptoms. She’s an adult and doesn’t live with me, but she’s needed a check point as she goes about her normal life, as well as her musical career, these last few months. This keeps me busy enough that I’m not so likely to worry.

Sometimes to keep from worrying about worry, I look at it with a magnifying glass to discover its true nature. And my initial theory gets confirmed again and again. Worry seems to be an act of imagination. In a perfectly lovely present, my mind races forward to the future and imagines a frightening outcome. If I don’t believe everything I think, I’Worry dollsm way ahead of the game.

But just in case, I have some little helpers. Did I mention Worry Dolls from Guatemala? These tiny figures listen to our worries, take them off our hands, and go under a pillow to work their magic and dissolve those worries while we sleep. There’s nothing like tucking my worries away like they’re ultimately that little. They usually are in the greater scheme of things.

Two Kinds of Wordlessness

For many years now I’ve thought a button that could switch off thinking would be a most excellent idea. Often I meditate with the hidden goal of slowly letting go of the thoughts that cascade through my mind. With the attendant hope of dropping into the peace below, into wordlessness.

And then along came the month of March, which took me and turned me upside down and shook me until my pockets were empty of words and most thought. During the last two weeks of the month I unwillingly discovered a new route to silence. This body put on quite a show: coughing, shivering, fevering its way back to health. It was my first flu in years. I had forgotten how stupid the mind can get when the body’s resources are needed for another battle. Becoming wordless was the least of my worries, and it was happening without doing anything, or at least anything my body could control.

The first half of the month, before the flu, I had sought and found a more desirable kind of silence when I was on vacation in Maui. I spent vast stretches of time staring at the ocean from my perch on the hill above. Gradually the mind slowed down, stunned into silence by beauty. With mind confronted by the beauty of clouds and rainbows and whale-spume fountains, words seemed less and less important. This was the wordlessness of awe, the stuff of poetry:

 

Tropical Awakening

Wanting a profound reflection to speak from the tropical sea,

I search for a Venus of meaning

emerging from the froth,

the dark deep source of watery mystery

And what is here is

Just this:

White dove calling, Minahs preening.

Goats bleating and chickens strutting.

Beneath the ecstatic shiver of palm fronds.

Eyes shift for the long view,

And there’s the proof that a line once went for a walk

And etched a silhouette: a perfect island just across the bay.

The sun slowly exposes her reclining form

Lanai shelters my head and calls my soul.

Then the rose gold slowly fades

As the day picks itself up from the chaise lounge,

Stretches, yawns,

And moves into itself.

 

Now, here in the world of apparently ordinary reality, as body heals, I’m still steeping in the quiet hangover of peace, finding once again that it is available any time, any time I remember.

From the Chaos of Love to the Practice of Remembering

The past month has been a blur of reacting, creating, learning, reacting again. And those words don’t even begin to describe the chaotic, warm loving mess of the Holidays.  A quick glance back at the circumstances helps me give myself kindness and credit. About two weeks before the holiday, my daughter was hit by someone making an illegal left turn. Her safe car and its airbags saved her, but she’s been spending time with us to heal, with the help of the amazing body workers I call my friends. Just before that, one of my best friends died of a brain tumor that had haunted her (and her loving family) for years. On New Year’s I flew to LA to be inspired by Byron Katie’s World Summit. Then back to daughter and client support. Lots of intensity on both counts.

And then last night, a dream. I’ll spare you the details, but in summary I was lost and searching for my dorm room, at a writing conference, of all things. Once I got that figured out, I discovered some lost earrings on the floor of the hallway: very specific earrings I that I had treasured fifteen years ago, with a rose-colored flower and a crystal. I had found the Place of Lost Special Tiny Things that I Love.

Seldom has a dream seemed more obvious, and so I sit myself down and write it this morning. And what comes up for me is how deeply powerful it is to Remember when I’ve been caught in the trance of life’s circumstances. And then I remember that the very act of Remembrance is the source of many rituals from the world’s religions, from Christian Eucharist to Sufi Zikar. And that the contemplatives in most traditions, Eastern and Western, excel in preparing the mind so that the voice of Remembering can be heard. So that what’s truly important CAN be remembered.

Every year but this year, I’ve reserved a day in the first week of January, as close to January 6th as possible, to celebrate my private version of Epiphany. It’s a time after the holiday hubbub when I choose to focus on this process of clearing. And remembering.  And deep listening.

This year I gave myself a Sabbath to return to Winter’s quiet, and the magical right-brain work of dreaming showed me the way. Instead of moving headlong into my day, I grope my way from the dreaming to the lighting of candles and the writing of it. I get very quiet.

And here I am again, where I was a year ago, and a year before that, in an Epiphany of the mind, and I remember what I had forgotten for a while. I collect the tiny jewels I sometimes forget and spread them in the light of Remembering. And there it is, my hidden jewel of a soul is revealed.

And I remember. I can allow. Let go of the strain of trying to control the uncontrollable. Trust the beauty of the process that seems to come without pressure.  Come to be.  I breathe a deep sigh and my mind settles in. I write these words as a part of the sacred and time-honored process of Remembering.  Life can be trusted. Gentle. Kind. It shows the way.  And my own private ritual of listening, of writing this right now, helps me remember .

Resting in the Grace of the World

It’s been an unsettling time. A time when unpredictable acts of violence make it hard to make any sense of things. The mind can’t comprehend, and I notice myself caught up in the detailed accounts, trying to figure it all out. Trying to find the kindness in the Universe that I have come to trust. There are times that Grace seems like a highly abstract concept. I turn to words of wisdom and poetry during times like this.

Today I came across one of my favorites, a poem by Wendell Berry that has always given me deep comfort when I was ready to settle into it, like a warm bath. And then these words emerged, like very irritating instructions: “Rest in the Grace of the World.” What? Impossible. Where’s this so-called Grace right now? My mind raged.

And then. Then. The day-blind stars reveal what I’ve been missing all along. Peace has once again become possible. From within, from that place where all wild things reside: inside. From the place that holds this poem.

The Peace of Wild Things

by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.