Posts Categorized: Family Stress

After the Fire: The Kindness of Truth

Spring Cleaning this year has a vengeance all its own in my home. We decided to go for it, and to (get this) remove everything from our under-the-house crawl space/basement. Did I mention that we’re digging out the floor so we can stand erect? Did I mention that the ceiling is fiberglass poking out of sagging chicken wire? Did I mention that it contains the overflow of 40-plus years of living? That we’ve raised two kids, helping move their stuff in and out with regularity through various ages and stages? That this includes their twenties?

When we consulted with a company about replacing the ceiling, a very concerned contractor pointed out a fire-blackened suitcase, worried that we had an undetected fire down below. We opened it and found it stuffed with the singed and charred remains of a life. The life my son lived before his apartment hit flash point in a fire about twelve years ago. Living alone, he defied medical logic, waking up instead of falling prey to oxygen deprivation.  He got himself out alive, and his place hit flash point a minute after he walked out the door, wrapped in a neighbor’s blanket. This qualifies as Number 1 on my personal list of inexplicable and miraculous life experiences.

Opening the suitcase, crouched in the basement, we discover a curious collection of items: old tech manuals, a social security card, a few priceless mementos: post cards, birthday cards from family and friends. These are all that’s left from the period we now refer to as “before the fire.” When I called him in his “after the fire” life to share my find, he said he remembered where he had kept these: in his file cabinet. Apparently, the thin metal frame was an over-achiever at its job and functioned much like a strong box, keeping a tiny bit of his past away from the flames.  

I salute its loyalty as I stand here now, holding a birthday card blackened around the edges. It’s an old Far Side cartoon card with a caption on the front that reads What really happened in Mrs. O’Leary’s barn on the night of the Great Chicago Fire. There’s a cartoon drawing of a goat, a pig, and a cow. The goat, holding a match just behind the pink pig’s butt, says to the cow, who is looking on, Ha! That was a real flame thrower.  Now it’s your turn to light one up!

Get it?

On the inside the card says Hope that your birthday’s a real blow out. The card was signed Johanna, and she gave it to him six months before the fire. Inside she had written, “on second thought, I feel I may need to clarify that. I do not mean it literally. Please.” This was followed by her birthday promise, the offer to make curtains for his entire apartment. She doesn’t remember how or why she chose that particular card or wrote those lines. And the curtains were never made.

I don’t know how this kind of thing happens. But it’s not the first time I’ve been humbled by the unexplainable way of things. As I look at the card today, posted right here on my bulletin board, I’m left with no logical answers. Mind is stumped, as it is every single time I come face to face with events that defy logic and yet have the audacity to still exist, rocking my world a little off its certain center.

The big miracle, of course, is his survival. And then after that is a trail of little ones, always shyly hiding at life’s edges, the reminder of an unseen world that I often don’t notice.  But when I do remember to trace the thread of Mystery, I discover a truth that is stranger (and kinder) than the fiction we create from past memories. But I am grateful for all of it.

Unstuffing My Double Stuffed Life

Oreos may be my favorite cookie, and cookies are my biggest weakness. That’s why I’ve banned them from my life, my home, my conscious awareness for the last twenty years. But nowadays I’m figuring out how to live beyond harsh restrictions and trust my relationship with any food. And so I’ve become slightly more open to questioning my assumptions.  Oreos pose a slippery slope of temptation that I haven’t honestly been able to trust myself to climb until now.

I was surprised the other night when a comedy spoof about Double-stuffed Oreos caught my attention. I was never the kind of kid who opened them up and slowly licked off the gooey white center. My strategy was to pop half of one in my mouth and chew them up quick while nobody was watching. So this new sticky, lard-like development in food technology called “double stuffing” was no big challenge of will power for me.

But the image of being double stuffed has caught my fancy. I see the evidence of overstuffed lives all around me. This is clearly a big deal in this hyper-stimulating world, and I’m hardly immune. Even though it’s been on ongoing practice for me to de-clutter possessions and clothing, I sometimes feel like I’m holding back an avalanche. And then there’s my schedule. It’s carefully curated and controlled so that I can keep all my commitments to everybody else and still include myself.  My tendency when overwhelmed is to just try harder and do more, and I become the best CEO of my own life possible. All in an attempt to hold all the stuffing.  After that, I revert back to my Type E woman self, a hangover from my thirties not completely resolved by a wonderful self-help book of that time. The subtitle is Everything to Everybody, and I don’t think I’m alone in this unconscious pattern.

My life becomes dedicated to a complex net of support and care-taking, community, relationship, family, spiritual practice, exercise. And then there are the “hobbies” like singing, reading, and writing. Not to mention the work that I love, supporting and challenging my clients as they grow and thrive.  Sometimes this life feels triple-stuffed. And, it’s no coincidence that my body feels the same.  Because when my life is too stuffed, I use my “got-to” of eating for comfort or to get some instant energy or to fog out the feelings of overwhelm.

All these warning signs tell me it’s time to unstuff my life ASAP. I’ve learned that the best course of action at this point is non-action. I double down on meditation, longing for a permanent retreat from it all. But by the time my stuffed life is at this stage of overflow, long silent retreats aren’t the immediate resolution I need. Short-term solutions are my best response as I move through this ordinary life. This might be as simple as locking the bathroom door and breathing deeply for a few minutes. Or sitting down each morning to meditate for ten minutes or to fumblingly write my way to the light of clarity, a practice which goes by the wayside when I’m so busy with Everything and Everybody Else.

Ironically I’m finding a Rescue Remedy in the very technology that creates the overstimulation. I’ve become a podcast junkie in the last few years, and I’ve had to learn to curate my list to avoid over-stuffed ears. A couple of these which have made the cut because they’ve been a balm to the nervous system are Nocturne and Nothing Much Happens Here. The last one is my newest love, offering Sleep Stories that are such a refuge and antidote for the too-muchness that is sometimes my life.

I’ve also been trying out a couple of apps to refine my meditation practice and to drop into sleep more easily: Calm and Waking Up. Both of these are beautifully designed and both involve a monthly subscription fee, so they aren’t necessarily a long-term solution for everybody, including me. Starting today I’m participating in a two-month “online retreat” with Adyashanti, a teacher for whom I have great respect, to refine and reinforce my commitment to unstuffing my overfull brain. My clear declaration of  intention, as God (and you) are my witnesses: To Unstuff my Overstuffed Life.

Photo by Flickr user “theimpulsivebuy,” CC BY-SA 2.0 license, cropped

 

Barely Grateful

The branches of the oak trees surrounding this Oasis are nearly bare now.

And so am I. Stripped of assumptions and suppositions about how the world works. The gratitude notebook I launched with such fervor last year has become largely forgotten. It’s been that kind of year. For for many of us.

But there’s good news on the horizon (At last!)
We actually have a holiday dedicated to celebrating gratitude! (Hooray!)
At a table loaded with rich foods! (Oh boy!)
With people who sometimes have different ideas than ours! (Groan!)
For all these things I’m barely grateful.

There’s a probability that Thanksgiving didn’t go so well for you last year, at least in the Family Peace and Politics Department. In addition, this year many of us have been closely touched by things that seem to be happening way too fast: Hurricanes. Earthquakes. Wildfire. Shootings. So unless we’re very careful or prayerful (or both), we’ll be bringing some stress to the table.

The magic of any yearly ritual, like Thanksgiving, is in the way it just keeps regularly rotating in, year after year. When we stop and gather, often with people unlike ourselves, there is a comfort and a perspective to this yearly rhythm. Despite everything, the seasons keep turning.

A year ago I committed myself to “grateful seeing,” as a spiritual practice. This means that, as I remember, I shift my lens and find gratitude in the current moment. This re-focusing accompanied me through the decline and death of my mother, the shootings in Las Vegas, and a wildfire evacuation. The practice of writing has anchored it all.

My blogposts of the last months are reflections on miracles and disasters and the life that holds it all. They are a gift of gratitude.

I gratefully raise a glass to Life…and to each of you.

To Life As It is!

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.

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.

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 .

Catcher in the Smoke

There’s another woman inside me, I’m discovering. Or, to be more accurate, other women. They tend to take over my dreams, ready to show me what I’m not seeing in my waking life, if I look into their depths. And lately they’ve been showing up in my writing. I’ve decided to share them here because each one seems to come with a gift. And they seem ready to be exposed to light.

And that’s what I invite you to do. Hold them up to light. See what each might bring to your inner self, those parts of you that don’t often get noticed. What other selves are living in your dream life or imagination? The offering is free, and if you feel like sharing your thoughts or reactions, well, that’s good too. 

I wrote this  piece a week ago. Last weekend, four days later, at a meditation retreat, I met a woman who had been evacuated from her home a week before. She lost everything. In retrospect, the similarity is shocking. Who knows where “she” might show up?

She was hot. She was smoky hot. Yes. Smoke was in her eyes. But more. They burned, but there were no tears. The tears hid in a secret recess of her too-large heart. Even though her heart was stitched to her sleeve most days, the tears stayed hidden.

She desperately wanted to cry. The forest fires that raged nearby, the sheer force of the burning, the helplessness as the distant hills were swallowed by the haze. All of it. It brought back each loss of the last years.

They paraded through her mind, one after another, each loss. She ticked them off.  Death. Check. Betrayal. Check. Money. Check.

And yet. No checks by loss of partner, loss of child, loss of faith.

Her faith was in the world that she could not see. It was in the Force that had showed up again and again. It was that Force that had been there every time she had taken a leap into the unknown.

Her faith was in that. Yes.

Mostly, she thought, it was faith in that which always seemed to catch her when she got to the edge of what she had thought she could bear.

Call it The Catcher, like the Catcher in the Rye, she thought.

The Catcher in the Smoke.

That’s what it was. Just when she had given up on believing anything, just when she thought she would always suffer in a drought of the soul, her heart ticked a little extra beat. It took a leap.

What it felt like was surrender.

She thanked the smoke for the tears that slowly wandered down her cheeks.  And for the veil that cloaked her as she allowed herself to be taken by the depth of her grief, trusting the Catcher to hold her sorrow as she dissolved into it.

There’s another word for the Catcher, she thought. I think I’ll call it Grace.

Back to the Sea

Mother, carry me,
Child I will always be,
Mother, carry me
Back to the sea

My sister and daughter and I wind our voices together in a song new yet ancient, returning from the Oregon coast. It would be the last trip I would take with my sister. My daughter, at eleven, was a skinny sprite who invited her aunt again and again to come back with her sand castles and stick-writing and cartwheels.

Is Your Ex REALLY a Narcissist?

Guest blog by my friend Linda Carroll, Marriage Therapist and author of Love Cycles, a book I highly recommend to clients

“My boyfriend is a narcissist. That’s why we broke up,” says Amy, case closed.

“My ex-wife has a borderline personality. That’s why we aren’t together,” says Jake, and no one asks if he had any part in the demise of the marriage.

“My brother is a sociopath,” says Todd. “That’s why our joint business venture was doomed.” End of discussion.

A Burn Center and a Kind Universe

Einstein famously said that the most important decision we can make as humans is whether or not the universe is kind. As I’ve practiced Positive Paranoia in my life, I’ve looked for evidence of a kind universe for the last forty years. Based on lots of evidence, my own jury has pretty much already decided. But my mind is still open to new proof.

A few years ago my son awakened in the night with his bed on fire. He got out alive, even though the Burn Center doctor said he shouldn’t have awakened because of lack of oxygen to the brain.