This Rare Human Existence

Knowing that grief is an experience shared by all humanity lets me see myself as just one wave on a great sea.

Ram Dass

Consider the advantages of this rare human existence.

Jamgon Kongtrul

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.

Healing Waters in Turbulent Time

In ache of body and 
clouding of mind, with Moderna 
doing her work in me,
	I form an offering 
to self and community, abating 
the pain of future loss.

Lake Superior, the mother of 
Lake waters, rests in my heart as
I breathe in the sound of waves 
	Soothing my spirit,
Massaging the ache in bones
Like rocks skipping on water. 

This Siren beckons us to her, 
Flaunting her frilly foam skirts. 
With one toe touching her frigid being, 
	We run back in laugher.
We are drawn to her shore 
but today we dare go no further.

It is enough to hear her, to see her from
Solid footing, to allow her to caress and soothe
tired spirits too long hidden in square boxes, 
	Behind the ubiquitous mask.
She bestows pain and death when
We fail to be aware.

When we are swept away by waters 
of the mind that stay turbulent, 
unable to rest on calm safe shores, 
	Fear and hate rise.
We seek to lay blame on other
Rather than be aware of our complicities.

As we witness the beauty and danger 
Of these sacred waters, 
	We are reminded,
This magnificent world also holds unseen 
Assault whether virus or human and we 
Dare not ignore that ability to also take life.

Just as we say no to a virus and do what we 
Are able to diminish its grasp on our people,
	We must say no to hate 
For all our people on this land. 
Our mother earth, our mother waters, 
She holds us in her wisdom.

May she guide us on our way.

When I Grow Still

When I grow still,

Settling into the
Gentle flow of the moment,
I steady my gaze
Into this, not that—a picture Of a dream that is not yet formed,
Doubts resting in holy time,
Mental lists easing their demands.

I find my being in-between times,
when snow is met with rain, as
Pisces ruler of the oceans
Meets Neptune god of the seas, and the skies
thunder and tremble. I imagine
A new world that has grown beyond
Illusion into the truth of compassion, empathy,
And attuned to spirit.

It is time to learn to dance in her flow
and set roots so as not to be swept away.
Moving with the tides, respecting
Boundaries, watching, holding space
for this new vision arising.
An opening of the door to the heart,
To THAT—Simply,
You are. I am. THAT.

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.

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.