A Shrine of Love Stories

Over the years, I have developed a nurturing healing habit of creating, somewhere in my home, a shrine or an altar for a deceased loved one. I allow instinct, intuition, and the flow of life in that moment to guide me and the objects I choose. 

            The first shrine I created was in the summer of 1981. It was a spontaneous outgrowth of love for our baby Beth who died a week after her birth. It began with the yellow roses from her burial day and the little hat with a red ribbon the NICU nurses made for her. Then I added the sympathy cards, a candle, the program from her funeral, a photo of her in the arms of her dad and me. The little pink and white rubber teddy bear our Brian and Laura had chosen for her. A small yellow and white flowered blanket that held the smell of her. Pictures our children and the neighbor kids colored. All the items that reminded us of her short life and the comfort and love of family and friends. It stayed on our dining room buffet for months or a year until the day came when I realized I could remove it slowly. 

In 2003, I made a small shrine for my dad. Again, a photo, a candle, the program from the funeral Mass, the eulogy I had offered, his three books written about his life including his army years and Soo Line Railroad life and work. Little mementos like a miniature Soo Line train, a cross, his childhood French Canadian prayer books, cribbage board, and a pipe and matches.

In 2006, the shrine was for my mother. The red etched glass candle holder that was in constant flame for the week of her dying, a photo of her hand cupped with my hand and my granddaughter’s hand. The CD of chants we played on loop. Her rosary, the program of her funeral, my written eulogy. The red blanket we wrapped her in after washing her body following her death, and flower petals. I can still smell her shrine as it left a lasting scent of roses within me.

Last September 2020, my shrine was for my youngest sister, Mary Beth. Living her life with Down Syndrome and then adding Alzheimer’s to the mix made for an array of objects for this 57-year-old woman. A stuffed animal, a beaded necklace, her photo with her boyfriend, the eulogy I wrote, flowers, one of her paintings, her ashes, sympathy cards, a photo of our parents, and a photo of all of us siblings. Surrounding it all in the dining room was everything she owned. All her bits of papers she folded and saved, all the jewelry that she would adorn herself with but became lost to her memory as Alzheimer’s settled in. All her stuffed animals, her guitar, paintings, clothes, and trinkets. All expressing both the simplicity of her life as well as the challenges she lived with, in her day to day. 

Now in 2021, the shrine is for my mother-in-law, Winnie, my bonus mother. All the objects that have come to symbolize her life for me and her son, Leo. A pair of scissors, a purple yoyo, a bounty of flowers, a memorial candle, her Benedictine Oblate book, a photo of her, a wooden Benedictine cross, butterfly cards, bells, and butterfly towels, always butterflies. This altar started on the kitchen peninsula where we eat breakfast and it keeps growing to be the full peninsula, as we add a necklace, a pair of earrings, a butterfly pin, more cards, her favorite quilt. This one is still fresh and new and will be with us for some time. We will know the day it is right to begin the dismantle.

There have been other altars over the years, for a friend, an aunt, an uncle, and always an ongoing altar in my meditation space. Other shrines or altars might be for a beloved pet, a job loss, a physical shift with a move or in health. And there are altars for joy, new life, new relationships, all the little ones that spontaneously form from the bits we collect on a dresser top or bedside table. In many ways, in our humanness, we are natural collectors and many objects that are chosen are from nature. Each of my altars/shrines for these loved ones display the small objects of physical existance that help me ground in the reality of this particular life. They are the tactile bits of a personality, a spirit, a soul, that help me to connect for some time to the loved one’s energy, smell, and feel, anchoring me in my body and into the earth.

The secret sauce to any altar/shrine space that we create is in the intention, the choosing of the objects, and the awareness of what meaning they have within us. The symbols we imbue with the loved one’s memory help us to understand and value the life they have lived. As can be seen from these five shrines above, the items are random, some fun and frivolous with others more heart centered in faith, but they all speak of a love story that was lived out with the one who is missing from this physical world. I see myself in what I have chosen, as the items speak to our relationship and are reflections of my own inner life. They represent the story of one who has impacted my walk on this earth, be they in loving or in challenging ways, and brought meaning and enhanced the world within which I live. I stand before each altar gazing at what is displayed, feeling sadness in my loss, allowing my tears when they come forth, and trusting the inner smile that might arise at the memory. This space also offers me a place to feel my anger, resentment or any other troubling emotion that needs and asks for expression. It becomes the sacred container for all of it.

When it comes to the day when all the items are put away, there might be an inner sigh, a smile, a recognition that this life has meaning, has consequence, has touched my heart and soul in ways that are now integrated into my being. My soul is larger for the effort. My being expands in the awareness and compassion for the life lived. The relationship expands as the symbols create a narrative that is imbued with meaning.

            Conversely, I might find that when I remove the shrine, I feel deep within me that there is more to come. The objects go away, or narrow down, but I still have more understanding that needs time to be realized. I draw comfort in knowing that I have a lifetime to be in relationship with the memory of the loved one and healing may come in a totally different way, on a totally different day. There is no timeline in grief only a spiral that moves and flows and allows, as I journey forth. As long as I lean into the grief as it arises, I can trust that it will work with me; it will have its way with me until that story, my story, feels complete. 

A Sun Salutation: The First of March

Gazing up in sun salutation,
With 'Canon in D' streaming
Into this inner sanctuary, the
Sun in its March morning salutation,
through the window before me—releases—
Drip, drip, drip,
The rhythm of Pachelbel announcing,
Beat by beat,
Note by note.
Yes!


Snow melt and moisture
Earth opening to thaw.
Soil teeming with worm and insect,
Veins of connections in their hatchings.
We will soon throw open windows,
Invite in through the once shuttered door,
And receive the breath of a new
Season in her glory. Her resplendent self in
The yellows, peaches, and pinks of Daffodils and Jonquils,
Welcoming birth in all the furry and feathered ones.


It is all our spirits have longed for
And our creative selves seek.
The release of the lion and the promise
Of the lamb, this month named for Mars,
god of War, with our only wish being for peace.
Too many have left us in this fight with
Nature, her anger rising with our ignorance.
Our lack of faith in the covenant to care
And sustain her. The gift we were entrusted
In our birth.

I know Father Sun you are just teasing me today.
Flirting with my desires, but
We are weary with
The depths of death and decay.
As they become a memory,
We will do what, as humans, we must.
We will rise to greet the dawn,
The promise of a new day, a new season.
A new moment.
A new covenant.

May it be so.

The Stranger, The Stocking Cap, The Mittens

One cold and snowy winter night in the late 60’s, a Hare Krishna devotee arrived at Winnie’s door. This story came forward from the memory of my bonus brother, Greg, and I share it with you.

On this cold winter night, Winnie and Herb answered a knock at the front porch door and saw a man with a shaved head, no boots, no hat and no gloves and was looking for donations for his cause. Winnie and Herb did not have any extra money to give but Winnie instinctively saw his need and went to the back porch and found a stocking cap and mittens that she gave him to keep him warm as he continued on with his work.

Such a simple story that at the time we chuckled at, marveling at this young man for being out in the cold without proper clothing and trying to sell his beliefs to Winnie and Herb who would of course not budge from their rock-solid faith. Today, with more perspective, we enter this story from the actions of Winnie. She did not have the cynicism of today’s culture. She did not just say no and shut the door or make fun of him in any way. She acted as the mother who saw the need of a man at her door and answered that need from her no-nonsense practical life disciplines along with her faith disciplines, which were one and the same. She was not going to allow him to leave without meeting his need. Knowing this woman, we know she did not second guess her action or her thought, she did not stop to ponder it all, she simply acted. 

I think of this young man who met the face of love and care as he knocked on a stranger’s door wanting to offer her his faith in Lord Krishna, the Hindu God of love and compassion, while she showed him her Christian love in her Lord Jesus through her compassionate act of offering. Eye to eye, face to face, these two met.

Her Life Was Her Message

My bonus mother, Winnie, left her mortal body on February 19, 2021, after two days of being unresponsive. At age 97, she left behind 71 descendants and countless others who dearly loved her and felt joy in her presence.

I first met Winnie when I was 18 and she was 45. She had birthed 9 children and grieved 4 miscarriages. When I met her, she and husband Herb were in the midst of raising these 9 and life was a whirlwind of activity. What most impressed me and intimidated me were her life disciplines and her spiritual disciplines, but mainly her life disciplines. Those I witnessed as a particular way to do laundry, dishes, set a table, iron clothes, grow plants, chop vegetables. She did it all with care, intention, and dedication. It all mattered. She was a hard worker from very young. She never shied away from any job no matter how hard, whether it was plowing a field with a horse and plow, washing clothes for 7 by hand with no running water, or baking ten or more loaves of bread each week. I was a young woman who did not much enjoy housework so had not given it much thought or attention, I just did what had to be done. Winnie raised and taught her gang of 9 with these disciplines including the admonition to carry a hanky, wear clean underwear, say the Memorare, and show gratitude, always gratitude. 

Winnie’s spiritual disciplines at that time included attending Mass, praying the rosary, morning and nighttime prayers, mealtime prayers, and countless other ways of prayer in the yearly cycle. Her spiritual disciplines included treating everyone they met or who came to the door, relative or stranger, as if they were important, as if they mattered, and were expected. This was a large and growing family who lived for a number of years on meager income, got their Christmas tree free late Christmas Eve when all the stock would be gotten rid of, received the undesirable cuts of meat from the butcher for free or at low cost. My husband Leo remembers Karo syrup sandwiches for lunch. The family grew almost all their food and when someone would show up at the door and it was mealtime another place or 10 places were set, and jars of canned food would be brought up from the cellar to supplement the meal and no one would be the wiser that this was not planned ahead of time.

In later years, Winnie’s spirituality and hospitality would bend with the changing times; children did not stay in the Catholic fold, divorces happened, and disappointments were felt. She never bent in her personal disciplines of prayer but allowed for another’s choices in their own path of life; we were never out of her love, her gaze never faltered. As life slowed for Winnie, living a path of love deepened within her; she exuded love. When Leo and I would bring her to Mass or any other event in the community, it was an occasion for all who knew her, each individual approaching her wheelchair or walker with delight and receiving her hug, the holding of a hand, and a ray of love. Even if she could not remember your name, you were her one and only for your time with her. 

Each of her 71 descendants and their spouses received the same. When you were with her you received her blessing through her touch, hugs, radiance of love and you felt like you were loved the most. Every summer the whole family has a three-day campout. One year we were all sitting around the campfire and it was time for Winnie to be brought back to her apartment. Without a word or a plan, all 50+ who were there at the time stood and formed a column to the waiting car, a path she walked down, turning to each one individually and giving her love, her final touch, her gaze of love, her giggles. I have only witnessed this with my guru, Amma, who people flock to for her gaze and her touch.

When I first met Leo and the family and we decided to marry, I knew then that I was not only marrying Leo; I was marrying this family. They were also my choice. He did not come without them. We have made our own life, our own unique way, but, and also, the family, particularly, Winnie, are never far from our mind and heart. Winnie was the bonus I did not always see fully or appreciate for her teachings. Later, I was 22 and full of my own life and drama and Leo was mine sweeping in Hai Phung Harbor during the Vietnam War. I was back here in Minnesota, worried, fearful for his safety and as mail was sometimes slow, I had not heard from him in some time. I went to Winnie with my pain and fears wanting some comfort from this mother, a cry on the shoulder, a pat on the head, “oh, so sad dear”. She looked at me with an attempt at patience with the words akin to, “Why do you worry about something you have no control over, that is beyond your scope of view, and has not happened. Life is right here before you, that is what you need to focus your attention on.” This woman who was still raising 5 teens in the house, working at St. Ben’s, and involved in countless community projects, then put me to work peeling potatoes or some other much needed task. Well, I was not too pleased with this response. I wanted her to massage my pain, wallow with me in this story created in my mind. It was only later that I could see her wisdom. This moment is what matters. It is the only one we have. Why create suffering when there is work that needs to be done and laughter to be felt – now.

I have many profound teachers who have brought me along in my spiritual life. I consider Winnie one of those teachers. Winnie was very human. She could make my head swirl with her hundreds of clippings, all that caught her eye and spoke both to her spirit and to her inner historian. She wanted us to read each and every one. These were how she shared her inner life with us as she did not have the words. She could also get lost in old pain, places that were hard for her to let go of and could still bring her to tears. But mostly I see her spiritual life. She was an oblate of the Benedictine Sisters in St. Joseph and I feel privileged to have her Benedictine prayer book that is full of her notes and highlights, marking what is most important to her. The name of the book is Work of God. It is a fitting title for this woman who embraced her life, always, as work of God. Who countless times offered up her day to God. I define God not as an out there being but as love, an all embracing, penetrating energy that imbues and connects all life into One. Winnie’s life was a work of love. Winnie became a vessel of love. It is hard to find all the words of gratitude for this dear woman, the ‘Queen Mum’ of our family. I hear her giggle and say, “It’s all good. It’s all gratitudes, gratitudes, gratitudes.”

Walk Slow/Breathe Deep

“Walk slow and walk like you’ll never be back again."
Loni Bergqvist, as stated by an elder on El Camino
Day 3: El Camino de Santiago

I do not personally know Loni, but I felt her fellow pilgrim spirit as she shared her story recently. She walked the Camino in 2013 and I walked in 2017. As do many, she was walking at a fast clip toward her destination, Santiago, and her feet were “rotting away, filling with blisters, cuts, and deep pain.” She sat on the side of the road and wept. Along came an elder gentleman walking with a cane. As he stopped to inquire on her state of being, he stated that he has walked the Camino 6 times. His sage advice was, “Walk slow and walk like you’ll never be back again.” She did and she healed.

            This story brought forth the memory of a visitation from my dad seven days after his death on December 2, 2003 and recorded in my journal. 

I am driving a car and dad is in the passenger seat. I am maneuvering through a winding, precarious maze. I look over at Dad as he looks deep into my eyes. He says gently, “You can slow down, take your time.” I smile and feel comforted. I awake and sit bolt upright. The dream was a visitation. Dad is a wisdom guide. I can go slowly. I have always felt a need to rush through my life like I am being chased. Thank you, Dad.

In these days, which have been termed a polycrisis, we are reminded to slow down, to assess where we are in our own individual life, and how we are connected to this web of all life. To gaze deep into our own eyes and say, “Walk slow and walk like you’ll never be back again.” While we are steeped deeply in a grieving world, now is precious time for all of us to assess, take advantage of this imposed slowing down on a global level, and be fully in this time, a time that may not be here in the same way again.

What do we want in our individual life of relationships, work, creativity, and our penetrating connection to the plant and animal world within which we live? Are we allowing that which is outdated within us to die off while giving ourselves space and support for opening to new ideas and new ways of being? We won’t know what the outcome will be in any of our inner or outer work and that is the treasure, allowing growth from these seeds we plant today as we attend, bring attention to, and create conscious intention in the process.

Follow the arrows of the heart;
they know the way.

Life in Sameness

Welcome back to my Riverspiritwalks.blog site. I have refurbished this site and will be using it going forward rather than blogging on my fine arts site. My art site will be reserved for art related posts only and I offer a link in my menu here to navigate you to my art over there. In this site, I hope to continue on in my desire of offering reflections on our embodied existence. Blessings on your journey! Jan

Seeking Connection

8×10 Acrylic


Janis Dehler

“One has to be in the same place every day, watch the dawn from the same house, hear the same birds awake each morning, to realize how inexhaustibly rich and different is sameness.”                                                                                                                 Taoist Philosopher Chuang TZU

            A sage reminder and words of hope in the midst of a global pandemic. As I contemplate these verses, I reflect on my morning routine of waking and climbing the ladder to our cupola for a few yoga stretches, journal writing and meditation. The ladder is called a monk’s ladder as it is created in the style of each step, left and right, being at a different level. The cupola sits at the top of our geodesic dome home and in this way, I am sitting on the roof of our house in an enclosed space with windows in all directions. This daily journey to the top brings me comfort in its sameness and grounds me in this new day. 

            Through this circle of windows, I look east across the ravine out our front door to the rising sun. I look south to the stately elder birch tree and to the road winding out to eventually meet Hwy 65. I look west to the last remaining oak tree clumps holding a squirrel nest, then let my gaze move beyond our neighbors’ home and back yard to the bank of trees on the other side of the Rum River and to where the setting sun will appear later in the day. Finally, I move to the north with a meandering look following the banks of the river while watching for the eagles who like to fly down to our house and either circle our home or continue on down the river. 

            The windows, the sunrise, the sunset, and the river are present every day when I arrive with each day totally new in its sameness; the sunrise and then sunset show themselves in their daily dependability but different in their reds, yellows, oranges and maybe a hint of lavender or a simple greyness; the air is moving or calm or whipping and whistling; the earth is green or brown or white with snow or covered in deer tracks or filled with dandelions, lilacs, and hydrangeas; the river is full and flowing fast or shallow and slow with the contours shifting just a bit with the level of the water. My pen moves on paper and new words arise each day with varying emotions, thoughts, reflections and gratitude’s. In meditation the breath I rely on  might feel slow or rapid as I settle in and my thoughts might act like monkeys flying from limb to limb or resting like a floating lily pad. 

I look out of the same window and can tell the time of year by the slant of the sun and how it reflects on the trees beyond the river. I can see how the wind will alter this day and what it might do to the temperature. I can see what damage the deer have wreaked in the garden and reflect on the changes this brings to all the work we have put forth. I observe the cardinal pairs with ever surprising awe as they show in their jaunty coats, striking against the new snow on the hardy spruce.

            We did not realize a year ago that sameness is what that year and this new year would bring to us, day after day, and that this experience of sameness could bring us such riches. The day to day ordinary is not always what we want to live in as some days bring forth so much struggle within us to stay grounded and aware that we would rather be able to jump in the car and make a run for it. It is a comfort to know that this experience of my world is available to me if I make myself available to it. If I pause and look. If I breathe and open my eyes. 

Challenging doesn’t come close to describing the pain of these times for so many in our communities and in our world, testing us to the depths of our resilience. I and many have the luxury of staying home and waiting in place but that has its own struggles as well as it challenges our emotions, our psychological reserves, our social needs. Rather than being bored by the smallness of our lives while sheltering in our homes far longer than ever imagined, we can begin to explore our environment like reading a favorite book for the second or third time, different with each reading, finding something I had not understood or felt in the same way, allowing it to surprise me, challenge me, and open me to what I need to see or to learn. We might then, within our own story, find a new way of seeing something as if for the first time. A new perception, awareness, or insight into this one life I am living. This is my life. It looks different and it feels different and it has taken quiet and slow living to see it, but I am alive and breathing and filled with the richness of this moment. All so familiar, abundant and alive.