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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.

 

Emergency or Emergence-y?

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.

The Sweet G-Spot of Gratitude

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.

To Gratefulness Leaves and Life as It Is

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I live far away from my blood kin, so we  created a new extended family right where we are. The same eight adults and eight children have celebrated Thanksgiving and other holidays for over twenty years together. We’re larger now that most of the kids have partners and some have babies. We’re pretty much like any other blood kin of aunts, uncles, cousins and great-grandparents, complete with both beloved and annoying traits. On a holiday these are often one and the same. Read More>>

My Economic Meltup

“Economic melt down.” The words have been reverberating for more than a month now.  When it all began, I went right back to the amusement park in my mind, but I ended up taking the Roller Coaster from Hell. Come to find out, I wasn’t alone there.

“The mind is a place unto itself. It can make a hell of a heaven or a heaven of a hell,”  John Milton said. The news of the last week, as well as the month before, has placed a whole lot of folks in the latter, direct from the thrill ride of the election ups and downs, regardless of which candidate they favored.

As in any crisis, my first response was to think of myself. Shameless ego. First question: So what does this mean to my life?  I noticed the  second thing I did was to envision my family and loved ones with nothing. Very uplifting.  Whole lives in the gutter. Pain and helplessness. This image soon dissolved, fading into photos of soup lines in the Depression. Grapes of Wrath. Superimposed with the faces of everyone I know and love and millions I don’t know but might love. In a new technicolor release. Twenty-first century hell. Read More>>

2015 Visualization

Ever since Election Day, I’ve noticed my mind’s been a carnival or an amusement park. There’s the roller coaster, with emotional highs (mostly) and lows (some), based on my beliefs about whether the best candidate won or whether the ballot measure is just. Then there’s the spinner,  which mixes the news up with my opinions about it, twirls it around and around until my brain is dizzy. And then there’s the House of Fear, which replays scenes from past elections and leaders, re-playing all the scariest images of political assassinations from my youth.

Yesterday a friend forwarded me a soothing email suggestion. It puts my mind at ease and helps me find a seat on the bench, watching all the amusements from a peaceful distance.  I have no idea who the author is, but I’m grateful, and it’s simply too good not to share with you.

The year is 2015.  You glance at the television one morning and see Obama having another of his many press conferences.  He has now been in office for almost 8 years. Read More>>

Letting Go of Encumbrances

Fall has long been my favorite season. Once I came across these words (by F. Scott Fitzgerald), and they seemed to encapsulate everything I love about the season.

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall. The fall season allows us to see our lives reflected in the beauty of the land all around us: the rolling hills, the harvested fields. The sturdy trees and the thrill of their colors, the harvest moon, the intoxicating chill in the morning air, the farm animals as they seek shelter from the cold. As the trees let go of their leaves so we too must let go of our encumbrances. And as we let go of all that is superfluous and unnecessary in our lives, we receive the gift of inner peace. Ultimately, this is autumn’s greatest gift to us.

Today I canvassed door to door to remind voters of tomorrow’s election. As I crunched through the fallen leaves,  I noticed my mind racing with fear and anxiety about the outcome.   I could see the purpose of trying to get out the vote, but how was my  obsessive thinking helping my candidate get elected? I decided to see my fearful thoughts as encumbrances that were falling with the leaves. Within a couple of blocks,  I noticed my mind grew a little calmer. It didn’t slow me down in my efforts to get my candidate elected, but it was a much more peaceful walk.

What encumbrances of thinking would you like to release this fall? If you’re in the mood, take a walk and watch them fall around you, along with the autumn leaves. See what you notice. The ones that don’t want to let go, the ones that are ready and surrender easily. They’re all there to help you on your way.

A Celtic Beginning

November 1st. The Halloween ghosts and goblins have gone home to divvy up their treats and  harvest festivals are upon us. Today (which actually began last night at dusk) is  Sawhain, the beginning of the Celtic New Year. The word “bonfire” comes from the fires that were lit everywhere for safety from wandering spirits. The bones that were left after the New Year’s feasting were cast on the fire to burn.

I love all the pieces of ancient folklore I picked up in the twenty years I taught mythology. Every year at this time I celebrate coming indoors. In the shelter and protection from the rain and cold, I am grateful.

The first month of the new year was called Samonios, meaning “seed fall,” a reminder that from the seeds of darkness, new life will spring. Today I wonder what seeds are being nurtured within me.  It’s too soon to tell but I notice the mystery lives in that not knowing.

It’s in that spirit that I’m writing my first official Oasis blog. So instead of a post-sugar hangover this year, or in spite of it, I light a morning candle wondering and waiting, committing to the patience and curious to see what will come of this new beginning.

The Big Zero and My Aging Brain

What’s the big deal about approaching another decade?  Six-Oh. Six-Oh. Six-Oh. A few months away now, but increasingly the numbers echo in my brain.  Why does the simple zero at the end of a number give it so much power, especially when it’s applied to age? In fifth grade, I learned that a zero was a nothing, just a place holder. It can’t be multiplied or divided and it doesn’t count when you add or subtract.

But put it at the beginning of a new decade, like what was long ago ‘the big four-o” or more recently “the big five-o,” and it rises to a whole new level of significance. Greeting cards focus on these marker years. Their already lame jokes get less funny the higher you can count and the closer you personally come to the next big O. Read More>>

Who Would We Be Without Our Stories? (or How I Found Inquiry)

I love stories. I was an English teacher for twenty-five years; I taught mythology, where my first lecture always defined human as meaning-making animals. How did they make meaning? Through the stories they told each other about themselves and their world. Throughout my career I encouraged teens to read stories to each other, to themselves and to younger children. We told our own stories and then wrote them down and dived into the oral tradition by telling myths as they were meant to be told, in a circle with the lights off.  I created classes where kids could share from their deepest being the stories that they had lived, crying together and then creating new, healing stories.

Up close and personal, my own drama-filled story continued to teach me about something deep, archetypal, powerful.  I told my stories again and again wrote them down, and groped my way into meaning in the process. The stories I created about my stories had deeply changed my own life. And I knew the human bond of love that forms when people share their stories together.

So what attracted me to a process that asked the question, on bumper stickers yet, Who Would You be Without Your Story? I don’t know, except that when I first heard the question a gong rang deep inside.  Who would I be without my story?  The question was a silent opening beckoning me inside a new relationship with inner life. Read More>>

Navigating the Twilight Zone of Caring

It’s 4 A.M. The phone rings.  Your mind jumps into hyperspeed. Do you know where your child is? Your ailing parent? Your spouse or best friend?  Although you get to the phone before the answering machine picks up at ring five, the trip seems like slow-mo underwater ballet. You receive the dreaded news. This is bad. Real bad. Maybe you go to the room at the hospital with the puffy couches before they tell you how bad. But at some point soon it’s clear that someone will need to be fully available to manage the emergency for the foreseeable future.

You have just entered the Twilight Zone of Caring (TZC) that most of us will visit in our lives more often than we like to believe. Your world suddenly has nothing in common with the mild-mannered life you had been navigating only the day before.  All you know is that, for a time, you will need your best wits about you, perhaps served up with a little divine intervention, to be able to do truly help someone you love.

I’ve been to this netherworld more than once in my life. In fact, I’ve found myself there way more than you want to know. And in the process I’ve discovered amazing pools of reserves, a deep and calm wisdom, and a lot of good news in the middle of crises. The last time I made the trip was just this year, when my single twenty-something son was badly burned and lost everything in an apartment fire. When I first talked to the doctor at the Burn Center, he said we were about to begin a marathon. A marathon? I thought. Don’t people usually train for those? Read More>>