As I wrote in my last posting, I have been making some decisions regarding offering myself once again as a spiritual companion and grief counselor.
After my formal retirement as a Grief Counselor for Allina Hospice, I traveled with Leo for a year enjoying many new explorations, foods, people, and lands. Then in 2020, we entered covid land and I took on many projects in the home, ones that had been queuing up for years. These activities were refreshing and gave me a much needed break from the long accumulation of grief stories as well as time to look back to honor and celebrate the many years of my life through photos and the writing of my life stories.
During these past couple of years, I was asked to offer a grief education and retreat day for the students at Sacred Ground, a Spiritual Direction training center in St. Paul. This one was followed by another and then a private request came for some time with me as a Spiritual Companion. Through these offerings, I was reminded of my love of one to one work and group work that allows me to be of service to others as well as nourish my soul. When I began to wonder where I could give of myself in the community, the answer was to keep giving as I have over the past 30+ years.
I now feel I am ready to once again offer myself to others for support. I will be making myself available, one or two days per week, while honoring my needs for flexibility, travel, and creative endeavors. If you are curious you can click on my new page titled Spiritual Companion/Grief Counseling.
The words, “go with the flow” seem to best describe my desire to follow where I am being led. Change takes us where it will. We can fight it or we can flow with it. Like water in the river we will get buffeted at times, our very presence will change the landscape, we will have times when we feel as if we are floating on our backs in a summer afternoon, and at other times we fear we will never touch the bottom. The following quote by Bruce Lee brings us to this place of letting go. Of being one with. Of being the blessing.
Be Water, My Friend.
Empty your Mind.
Be Formless, shapeless, like water.
You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.
You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.
Over the thirty plus years I have supported individuals in loss, I have had moments of feeling filled to the brim with grief stories. In those moments, I fantasized about being of service in a different way, through things like selling flowers or opening a store focused on selling art and craft objects. Both fantasies involved a storefront, a product, a customer who was searching for beauty, who smiled when she/he found what they were looking for and would walk away feeling like they had removed themselves from whatever life was surrounding them, having enjoyed a few moments lost in scent, beauty, and inner peace. Instead of realizing that fantasy, I would take a few days off from work, refresh myself, attend to my own losses, and then re-enter feeling more able to be present to another’s grief.
After being retired for two years, I have been thinking of making myself available to individuals who need a place to sort through their spiritual and emotional experiences. How that would happen and when is a story for my next blog. Ironically, just as I made my final decision to put myself out there, my daughter needed help working her food truck, Icy Icy Shave Ice, at a four-day dog show up here in Cambridge. Two of our grandkids whom she employs were out of town on a vacation trip and that left only her 14-year-old son, plus training in a couple of his teen friends.
I was a bit apprehensive at first as I don’t handle heat and humidity well and we have had both in the extreme. It was a blast. Our daughter guided me and trained me in. At times I took orders and money, other times I ran the ice shaver, poured the syrups, and then the final topping with a napkin and a spoon before handing it all off to the customer with a smile, a thank you with a wish for a good day. At the end of the weekend, I was exhausted but would not trade it for anything. How many in their 7th decade get to work a food truck? I am thrilled I had the opportunity.
It has all brought me back to my 15–16-year-old self, shy, with a first job at Altenburg’s Dairy in Steven’s Point, Wisconsin. I worked the front counter while the ice cream was made in the back. I was self-conscious, afraid of making a mistake, and not getting the order to the customer fast enough. I remember the kindness of the customers as they watched me work. One gentleman gently encouraging me to slow down as no one was in a hurry. Helping me learn how to work with taking my time and paying attention.
Over these last four days of working in heat, humidity, and bouts of rain, I was keenly aware of peoples need for refreshment. At first, they would arrive, tentative when ordering, asking which flavor, the decision of ice cream added or not, and questions of which Is the best flavor. Then as they watched the process and were handed their Icy through the last window, there would be a smile, at first for the beauty and then for the taste. It all gave an enormous sense of satisfaction as over the days we began to recognize people as they returned, bringing friends, ordering for others, smiling in anticipation when they ordered as they knew what was coming, and disappointment when they arrived and we were closing.
During these days, I was once again reminded of a woman who served me multiple times in her cafe in Santiago, Spain. The image is imprinted on my soul as I was moved by how she served us from the preparation at the counter, walking around the counter, then stopping before our table with a bow, a gentle “Gracias”, and offering us our tea or coffee individually in cupped hands. While it came to be expected, it was a sweet moment of blessing that I will not forget. I witnessed her kindness, attention to detail, and presence that made all the difference in our daily returning to her not only for her food but for her sense of being. Her offering was above and beyond the food I was paying for.
Back here at the dog show event, Murry was the newest 14-year-old teen friend to be trained in and was stationed at the final window. I watched as Murry instinctively took the bowl from the one pouring the syrup, set it carefully on the counter on a napkin he had placed before him, gently topped it with coconut whip cream and a fruit garnish, added a spoon, then with cupped hands around the bowl, bowed to the window and the customer as he handed it all off with a smile and a final, “Thank you”.
I have no doubt that these little acts of blessing were being felt and carried away by the customer with their Icy on their lips. It is joy for me to see my daughter’s business being run with the same attention to kindness and care that so deeply moved me in Spain. Making the syrups fresh with her own hands, conscious of sustainability in her paper products, caring about what the client orders as well as their satisfaction, assembling all with attention, and sending the individual or family off with a final bow, a heartfelt smile and a final, “Thank you!”
In the end, it is what we really offer when someone comes for grief counseling or for a tasty treat. It is in our intention, our presence, our desire for their happiness, and a moment of connection.
In my part of the world, we have been operating in relentless heat, mid-July steaminess which has shown itself in early June. Purple Iris stood tall and opened all in one day. A week later pink Peonies, the ones with the soft yellow center, stood tightly budded and then unfurled themselves in a day as if they were emerging from a long Covid winter ready to party. The next day they were spent, exhausted, and drooped in their last breath.
A friend and I escaped by driving an hour and a half north to the shores of Lake Superior to celebrate our birthdays. It felt like stretching our long unused wings with walks along the shore, watching a freighter from New York enter the harbor to unload their wares, dining in restaurants, sitting on the balcony and listening to the waves, and visiting shops opening to customers ready to see a new shiny object, piece of art, a new frock.
With too much isolation, too much heat, a plethora of bad news, the greater world still amid this pandemic, and continuing to be cautious even with vaccine on board, we run outside to laugh, scream, hug, and let ourselves breathe fully.
I recently joined a four-hour workshop to get my artist gears oiled and ready to paint the world again. I had felt rusty and lacking in confidence as Covid time had swept me into house projects, writing projects, and generally out of my normal routine. My vision has now shifted once again and I am looking at the world wondering, how do I capture that green, the lighthouse in the harbor, the softness of the clouds? It is joy to my heart.
We do not know what lies ahead. Each generation has endured times when we rely on hope in our uncertainty, grit to move through what we must, and determination to make it to a more forgiving tomorrow. As in any grief story, we cannot stay too long in the depths of the story. We need to take moments of joy as they come, laugh in the face of what seems absurd, run around the block when we have sat too long, and bring kindness into a cynical world.
The pink peonies, named Bowl of Beauty, were pushed to burst forth in the moment they were offered. I thank them for their fleeting wonder, now a memory that I draw forth at will with color and perfume fully alive within me.
This morning, after the days of rain, I look out over the world of green. All has awakened and come alive with this moisture, this juice of life that calls all things forth in their innate beauty. Today that beauty is green.
How effortless it all seems. How every plant, tree, and shrub pop up, declare themselves, stand erect, and announce, “I am here”. None are shy, none are judging their neighbor while wondering why their leaves are bigger or shinier. None are fearful, angry, or holding resentment. All are simply being. Doing what they are here to do, offering shade, oxygen, digging roots deep into the earth to stabilize soil, flashing a spark of color, growing to be a table or a chair, each act an offering of self. An entire existence of giving.
Watering the earth with hose water barely keeps the green alive while rainwater brings life forth in a burst of growth, a spark of truth, a shout of joy, seeming to touch the very roots of existence. What brings me to this place of growth? What fills me enough so that I allow my own growth in seeming effortlessness? Is it watching a sunset, listening to music, or making music, drawing, or painting, being near water, looking in a lover’s eyes, writing a poem, digging in the garden, reading scripture, or sitting in silence and letting the inner voice speak? There are many ways to feel watered and nourished in life but what is the one true source for letting go of worry, judgement, and fear, while offering self to the world. The lesson appears so simple as I look at the green that surrounds me and yet, to embody this awareness requires something, a letting go. We want to ask, “How?”, and yet there is no “how” the trees tell us, it is simply, “is”.
Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves…and the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will also be in our troubled world.
These words are written on a card tucked up at eye level above my desk. I happened to glance at them this morning as I was pondering all that is painful in my heart and how to begin writing. Etty’s words are a welcome reminder that while I cannot directly alter what is happening around the world, particularly in India, Nepal, Fiji and other countries hit hard by Covid 19 and its variants, as well as the massive starvations in Yemen, the uptick in domestic violence, and more, I am able to sit in my heart space and allow and welcome an ocean of cleansing, peace, and nourishment to fill me. While I enjoy the privilege to do so, I also have a moral imperative to do so, to develop peace within so that I may live peace without. While it seems small and insignificant and hardly of use to those dying daily in a ravaged, lonely, and painful manner, building a foundation of peace is the bedrock of our presence in this world.
Entering this inner space, I am transported to my sitting rock on the North Shore. A massive boulder spreading out along the shoreline with an area that over eons has been molded to form a perch where I sit and watch the sunrise, the waves lapping the shore, a pair of Loons diving for food, the Mallard family braving the elements. I gaze about me and see within crevice’s formed from the shifts of time, dirt has gathered, a seed has landed, now a wildflower with a purple head, now a white one sweetly bending in the breeze.
Here lies hope, resilience, patience, the allowing of change, growth, and beauty in adverse conditions. The world is contained in one seed. This one seed that with air, water, sun, and a bit of soil, becomes all that it truly is. We become who we truly are as we nourish the seed within us. The sacred source. The One in all life. That which endures.
Knowing that grief is an experience shared by all humanity lets me see myself as just one wave on a great sea.
Consider the advantages of this rare human existence.
These two quotes stood out for me this week and as they seemed to want to be considered together the question arose, is grief considered an advantage? As I ponder these statements, I realize how our rare human existence is supported by seeing ourselves as one in the whole of life as well as understanding and accepting our experience of grief as one of the advantages.
Thinking about the advantages of my existence on this earth and making a mental list, I was not too surprised that the beauty of all we see and hear through these eyes and ears brings nature high up on the list. The heartful joy of a sunrise as we enter the day, the awe of a sunset that can at times take our breath, the joy of seeing a cardinal perching on the spruce in the midst of a cold white winter, the sound of the ocean that both soothes and calms, the amazement of seeing a moose standing at the lake shore.
Then we have all the people we encounter in this one life. The vast array of differences that astound us as we find those we call mates and those we name children. With this amazing brain and prefrontal cortex, we humans can engage in complex creation through music, art, and technology and profoundly change the world, for good or for ill. All that I have named are experiences that easily have the potential to open our hearts. And, within all of these and more we experience our grief, the losses before us that impact us in varying degrees. These also have the potential to further open our hearts.
All animals share in this beauty of nature as well as their relationships to both humans and other animal species expressing feelings of grief and other emotions and making choices. Humans, however, hold the unique experience in how we think about all of these. It is not enough for any of us to feel the beauty, the pain, the grief, or contentment, as we have the capacity to ponder the experience, to refer to it in the past, to retell the story, to fear for our future, and to hold all of this awareness while staying present in the moment. With our capacity to think about our experience we give each moment meaning. The meaning I give the sunset on Kuai becomes part of the story of my life. The narrative I create around the birth and death of my infant daughter becomes a marker in my life journey that holds meaning for me and continues to grow as I grow with it.
When we tell ourselves our stories, we then have the ability to make choices. Not everything I tell myself I can believe because thoughts also arise from past experiences and how I thought or felt then may or may not be true in this moment. I have the capacity to discern and then choose both how I think about this past in the present and how I want to move forward. Through my story telling, my choosing, my ability to advance my thinking through reading and learning, I see I am not alone in my most challenging experiences of life. I witness others pain and loss and can feel with them and offer myself to them in support and care.
In the midst of my grief, or a diagnosis, or fear and anxiety, I don’t necessarily go to how grateful I am that this is now happening but from my experience I know that these events can and do bring me to really see life and what I would miss if it is taken from me. I might have many more immediate concerns and thoughts but if I can take the time to ponder the wholeness of life, I might see that what has happened to me was not done to me but is all part of my life on this planet, in human form, at this time. As Thich Nhat Hanh so beautifully states in his poem, Please Call Me by My True Names,
…Please call me by my true names,so I can hear all my cries and laughter at once,so I can see that my joy and pain are one…
Wholeness is our life, we are interconnected, and in seeing and knowing this we marvel at this rare experience of life and our role in it. What am I bringing to this planet through this incarnation? In what way is my grief of value to my human existence? As we embrace the life we have been given as worthy of our respect and our reverence, we do so not only by the choices we or others make, but how we respond to those choices, events, and all the joys and the sorrows that hold the potential to awaken our hearts. We risk a heart broken open and whether we encounter a crack or a chasm the invitation is to enter and, in so doing, allow for the process of transformation.