Random Acts

April 18, 2010

I keep an altar to Jenny in our living room.  For the first year or so following her death, the whole house was a shrine.  I had pictures of my daughter in every room, at every age, in every mood.  Gradually, the images coalesced into a single framed 8×10 black & white photo of the two of us sitting on a boulder beside a lake where I had just officiated a mountaintop wedding.  Her arm is draped over my shoulder and my head is resting against hers.  I seem to recall that when I first saw it I didn’t like my hair or my teeth or some other body part.  Now I cherish that picture with all my might.

The photograph rests on a hand-hewn wooden table beneath a window that opens out to a horse pasture.  Two small pewter vases in the shape of a heart, which I keep filled with fresh flowers, flank the photograph.  A tall glass seven-day candle, usually blue, is always burning there.  I take comfort in maintaining this token of my love.  I arrange the flowers carefully each week.  I light the candle with a prayer.

A few days ago, I was in the checkout line at the grocery store with a couple of bunches of fresh flowers for the altar.  “You know,” the checker told me, “we have a 3 bunches for $12 deal, which is better than 2 for $10.  You can go ahead and get another one if you want.”  Seeing that there was no one waiting behind me in line, I thanked the checker and ran over to the flower aisle to grab a bunch of bright pink carnations.  On my way back, one of my students stopped me.  He wanted me to meet his mother, who had just returned from 3 weeks in China.  I said I’d love to, that I was only buying flowers, and to please wait for me.

By the time I returned to my lane, maybe 60 seconds later, a woman was loading her groceries onto the belt.  I couldn’t fit past her.  Clearly exasperated, she sighed loudly and made a small gesture to move her cart.  “That’s OK,” I said, “I’ll go around.”  But there was no clear passage through the aisles on either side, so I returned, apologized for the inconvenience, and asked if I could please squeeze through.  (I’m not quite 5’ tall and weigh around 100 lbs, so it’s not as if I take up a lot of space.)  The woman was fuming.  She jerked her cart out of my way without a word.  Mortified, I apologized again, but she refused to look at me or acknowledge me in any way.

When I had paid for my flowers, I spontaneously turned to hand the carnations to my angry neighbor.  She refused.  “Please,” I insisted, “for the trouble I caused you.”  “I don’t want your flowers,” she said.  I insisted, thrusting them at her with the most sincere smile I could manage.  She had no choice.  She took them.  And I hurried away.

As I stood chatting with my student and his mother a moment later outside the store, the checker and bagger from my grocery line appeared before me with a big bouquet of flowers.  Without a word, they handed me this gift, smiled, and disappeared back inside.

The woman who was so put-out by my slowing her down at the grocery store had no way of knowing the nature of my task there.  Maybe if she had known that I was buying flowers for my dead daughter’s altar, she would have been a little more understanding.  Or maybe not.  The thought didn’t even cross my mind.  It was simply a spontaneous response to her pain, a natural urge to alleviate it.  But the fact is,  I carry the sorrow of losing a child every day of my life.  The other fact is, that day, two anonymous minimum wage workers who had no way of knowing about my loss, instantaneously alleviated my pain in an equally impulsive gesture of kindness.  The Universe is a good place.

Sanctuary at Omega

April 10, 2010

Dear friends,

I would like to invite you to deeply consider  joining me at the gorgeous and sacred Omega Institute next month in upstate New York for our next Beautiful Wound retreat: May 23-29.

This is an opportunity for those of you who are grappling with life-changing loss, and those who tend the hearts of others who have been broken open by grief, to explore the transformational power of love and longing in a safe, nurturing, and spectacularly beautiful environment.  This is YOUR time, a time-out from the stream of life, to speak and listen, sit in silence and walk in beauty, hear the teachings of the mystics, explore the landscape of your heart in writing, weep together, and yes… even laugh with other broken-open grievers who glimpse the grace behind the sorrow.

You can register at http://eomega.org/omega/workshops

Here’s the info:

The Beautiful Wound: Grief & Transformation

The 16th-century Spanish saint Teresa of Avila spoke of “the beautiful wound” of longing for God, describing this depth of suffering as a doorway to union with the divine.

Similarly, others through the ages have seen loss and grief as a spiritual blessing rather than a problem requiring a solution. In this workshop, guided by acclaimed translator and certified grief counselor, Mirabai Starr, we learn to see our own grief as fruitful fodder for transformation and spiritual growth.

Through contemplative reading, writing exercises, and guided meditation, we cultivate the tenderness and courage required to explore the places where our loss invites us into deeper aliveness and radiant joy.

This workshop is for those who have experienced life-changing loss, as well as mental health professionals and clergy who wish to “bear witness” to others on their journey of loss and grief.

Recommended reading: Starr (trans.), Dark Night of the Soul by John of the Cross; The Interior Castle and The Book of My Life by Teresa of Avila.Mirabai Starr, MA, is an adjunct professor of philosophy and world religions at the University of New Mexico. In addition to her acclaimed translations, Starr is also the editor of the Sounds True Saints Series, Devotions, Prayers & Living Wisdom, and contributor to a new Sounds True book, Living Fully, Dying Well. mirabaistarr.com

Forgiving Ourselves

April 9, 2010

Carole Crews is another one of my heroes, a mother who, in the face of the unexpected death of her beloved daughter, radiates courage, compassion, and breathtaking honesty.  She has granted me permission to post some of her recent reflections below, which she wrote following a Vipassana meditation retreat.  Carole’s 18-year-old daughter Iris, a gifted artist and poet, died in January.

I have to comment on your beautiful blog post I just read about your visit with Kate, etc.  I so much agree with you that after death the veil is lifted for a time and we can see beyond our ordinary lives into the vast realm that contains time, souls and the universal consciousness. I’ve been reading a lot about near death experiences and feel like I’ve had one. (In the sense of having someone near me die, I have).

The experience you had with Jenny coming to you in Mexico was so beautiful, and I have felt Iris a few times in a similar way. At the meditation, of course it was impossible to empty my mind during the entire period and I chose to think over a lot of what was going on in it. I was torturing myself for things I felt I should perhaps have done differently, and Iris came with this enveloping pressure mainly around my head and said, “Make peace with this now, Mom, It’s not your fault.” It’s taken me a lot of work and time to do this, and her writing has helped so very much, but I have also thought through every other possible scenario and realize the end result could still have been the same, but our relationship might not have stayed as loving and intact. One evening I wrote down a lot of my disappointments in myself and deliberately forgave myself and threw the papers in the fire.

Right after Iris died, I felt so strongly that grace you spoke of that comes immediately and is like a mind-expanding drug. The memory of that feeling still helps me cope. Synchronicities remind me of the bigger picture as well, and I’ve had so very many of them! We have a choice in how we’re going to think and respond, certainly well taught by Dr. Goenka, through video presentations at the meditation retreat. He had a great lecture on death and said to consider it a promotion. It’s our attachment to what is “mine” that makes it so hard. I managed a full week of meditation, but decided to leave on the 8th day so I could get to Chattanooga for the weekend to do the ceremony with her friends. I felt strongly during the meditation that this is what I needed to do, and the timing and the weather were perfect.

“Feel, deal, heal”

April 4, 2010

Nancy Slonim-Aronie is an outstanding workshop leader and the author of Writing From the Heart: Tapping the Power of Your Inner Voice.  I met her last summer when we were both teaching at Omega Institute, and I instantly loved her.  Since then, Nancy’s son Dan died, following a long and transformational dance with MS.  I asked Nancy’s permission to share with you a recent report from the trenches of her flaming heart to her friends and family.  I am deeply honored that she said yes.

Dan was a brilliant example of letting go of needs. His needs came down to bare-bone essence. As he got distilled he became more refined. Gerry called him a raisin, that the sicker he got the sweeter he got, that the smaller his body got the bigger his spirit became.

How to make my spirit bigger? Well I had the best teacher for how to let go. First, as you all know, he railed against god, called him a peckerhead (uncle al’s influence), screamed and yelled “Why?” and only over time (a lot of time) he started to give it up. And what a pleasure he became to hang out with.

One day I walked in the room and said, “Dan, I don’t know how you are doing this. You lost your ability to walk. You can’t hold a fork. You can’t use your Dragonspeak (the voice activated computer program) anymore so you have no privacy on the net, can’t even email on your own anymore, lost even more independence, you lie there in one position until we roll you over into another uncomfortable one, you’re in diapers, you have people poking and prodding and…” I went on and on and ended with “Why you, Dan?”

And he looked at me for a bit and his answer has become one of my favorite mantras. He said, “why NOT me?”

I remember grabbing the phone and calling Joel and yelling into the phone “ok your son has become a Zen master” and repeated our whole exchange. All three of us were laughing.  A major breakthrough, a leap, a new way of being in the world for all three of us.  So did he become a Zen Master or has everyone projected onto to him what they needed him to be and is that what a Zen Master is, anyway?

I don’t know. Won’t ever know but what I do know is we have had three Sundays without Dan.

The first one was cold and bright and Joel and I played tennis outdoors with a white-gold sun warming us, a flock of geese in V formation flying over and inviting us to stop and look and bear witness to Dan–as nature maybe? And then we rode up to gay head with one of our favorite CDs blaring and us belting out in harmony the Hebrew lyrics. Something unspoken but later corroborated was in the back of our mutual minds. We have to be somewhere so we better start down there. And then one or the other would remember no, we’re actually not expected anywhere. We’re not late for anything. We’re free. We were euphoric. We went home, climbed into the hot tub and that night watched 60 Minutes from our own house for the first time in 14 years!

As many of you probably know, Sundays were shower days for Dan. Ger would come in on the 4:30 and we would all go out to dinner when Dan could still go out, or I’d cook when I felt like cooking, or order in when Dan convinced us that the red dye in spare ribs from that weird place in vineyard haven was actually a way to build our immune systems and that in the end, it was a health food.  And then Joel slept there. Every Sunday night Joel slept at Dan’s. Except for the last six.

So how does it feel without Dan? Mostly fine, sometimes terrific and often verrry sad.

By mistake the other night when accessing my cellphone messages, somehow an old message from Dan popped into my ear. “Mah-ahm” is all I heard and it did me in. I wasn’t ready to hear his voice, although I knew I had saved some of his phone messages.

But since he wasn’t able to talk the last three months of his life, I had no desire to hear his voice. Especially by mistake.

The pictures and the cards that you all are sending are gifts that bring tears and memories and then stories and then laughs, that end in tears again.

All in all, remember we’ve had thirty-eight years to process this and even though it’s hard, it’s also perfect.

That’s what I wrote after three Sundays.  And I have been flat on my back with icepacks ever since: sciatica.

Dan’s got my back is the diagnosis. Sit down Nancy and grieve. I have a chapter in my book called Feel Deal and Heal. I always start the workshops telling people that we’re alchemists; we turn shit into gold. We take the pain of what happened in our lives and we dance it we sculpt it we paint it we write it. But the most important part I always emphasize from my lofty position as Teacher is that we have to FEEEEEEEEEEEEL it first!! That we cannot skip the SORROW.

So now I’m taking my own workshop. Starting with Sobbing 101.  I wouldn’t have done it if my back hadn’t gone south. This is the only way I would accept that I had to cancel workshops, lie down, and deal. And that’s what I’m doing. This is much harder than I ever dreamed. I thought the transition from form to formless would be a piece of cake. After all, I read Deepak and Eckert. It turns out theory is much different from practice. I thought I would just carry over the sadness to the next phase. But it’s a different kind of sadness. It’s missing the miracle I always used to expect, and all I have is a broken heart. After I grieve, my back will get better. I know this. I don’t know how long it will take but it will take as long it takes.  Of course Joel, who really is the Zen man, is even, balanced and putting one foot in front of the other without a glimmer of back pain.

Dan always used to say to me “slow down, turbo”. So I’m on the floor on the yoga mat with icepacks at my hips and three skinny books to hold my head in the Alexander Technique position known as Constructive Rest, constructively resting, sobbing and slowing down turbo.

Nancy Slonim-Aronie, March 2010