Thursday, December 20, 2012


To One In Sorrow
Let me come in where you are weeping, friend,
And let me take your hand.
I, who have known a sorrow such as yours, can understand.
Let me come in -- I would be very still beside you in your grief;
I would not bid you cease your weeping, friend,
Tears bring relief. Let me come in -- and hold your hand,
For I have known a sorrow such as yours,
And understand.

-Grace Noll Crowell

Like most of you, I’ve been shattered to my very core by the events that took place last Friday in Newtown, CT. There are no words any of us can offer that will help heal the deep wounds in the souls of the citizens of that poor town. 20 first graders and 6 people who work with children were killed in what should have been a safe place. A week later it’s hard to reconcile what transpired that tragic morning. 

I, of course, see this through the lens of a bereaved parent. My heart started to break open as the news unfolded and the crack has grown larger as each day has passed by. There’s a part of me that wishes I could be there to help comfort those poor parents. I want to let them know that there are so many of us out here holding them close. I want to share some of the things I’ve learned on my 26-month journey. Not because I am any sort of expert, but because I know the pain can be so intense in those early days that you really wonder if you can physically make it through. I guess I want to reassure them from one bereaved parent to another that they will survive this.

As hard as it is to imagine, I want to reassure them that they will find their way through, even though right now it feels like they are lost. Their lives will have meaning again, though it's hard to imagine it right now. They will live on to honor their child's memory, for that’s what they would want.

But right now they are in those dark, early days of mourning. I want to remind them to be gentle with themselves during these bleak days.   I remember how in those early days I would sometimes wake up in the morning and find there was this split second between sleep and consciousness before I realized that my world had completely changed. I had a love/hate relationship with that split second. I loved the all-too-brief feeling I had when first waking when I felt that all was right with the world, only to have it knocked down by our family’s new reality.

I want to tell them that everyone grieves differently, and not to be afraid of that.  I actually found this helpful. I know that in the first year my husband and I were sometimes not in the same place, but we knew that it was natural and gave each other the space we both so clearly needed. There’s also no timeline for grief, and don’t let anyone say that there is.

I want to tell them that sometimes people will say things that may sound callous or off the mark. Or, even worse, they won’t say anything at all. It’s hard to know what to say to a grieving parent. I want to tell them that they may be surprised by who comes around and who doesn't. Losing a child is every parent’s deepest fear and some people can't handle being around you. I had to learn not to take it too personally. Because what I did discover is that there are many people who will drop everything and be there just when you most need them. Sometimes it’s surprising who they are. They will drop a meal off or offer to pick something up at the store for you or take a walk or just sit with you. Sometimes all you want is someone to sit with you.

Some people say that time heals. I don't know about that. I'm only a little more than two years into this journey, so perhaps it's too early to tell. But what I can tell the parents of Newtown is that the jagged edges of grief that are cutting so deeply into your souls will round out and will be less sharp. The pain won't always be as acute. I want to tell them they will eventually be able to get through a day without crying.

Finally I want to reassure the parents that their children made a difference in the world in the short time they were here. They mattered and will continue to matter.  We need to tell our children’s stories and remember their laughter and their smiles. We need others to remember them too. If there’s anything I’d want to share with all the citizens of Newtown is to continue to talk about these amazing 20 children and 6 staff of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Say their names. Tell their stories. Look at their pictures. Memories are all we have now, and it’s important to keep them alive.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Candle Lighting across the World

It is better to light the candle than curse the darkness.  Eleanor Roosevelt

I've been thinking about the significance of candle lighting, and how it is a part of so many different cultures. In Judaism alone, every week we light Shabbat candles to usher in the Sabbath on Friday evening, and light a braided Havdalah candle at its conclusion on Saturday night. After a loved one has died, we light a special Yahrtzeit candle that stays lit for a week and we light a memorial candle every year on the anniversary of our loved one's death. The glow from a candle can help shed a little light onto our darkest moments. Its flame is thought to represent the human soul and reminds us of both the fragility and beauty of life. Like us, some candles last a long time while others are short lived; but all eventually fade away.

This Sunday, December 9th, as we gather to celebrate the second night of Chanukah, my family will also be lighting a remembrance candle for Matthew. For this Sunday, bereaved families across the world  will be lighting candles in a Worldwide Candle Lighting Ceremony to commemorate our children who have passed too early. I had never heard of this until the first December after Matthew died in 2010, and I think it's a lovely way to honor our children.

This is the 16th anniversary of the Worldwide Candle Lighting started by Compassionate Friends to remember and honor those children who have died. Held on the 2nd Sunday of December, it offers a chance for parents to stop and reflect upon their children's lives prior to entering into what can be a terribly difficult period for families-the holiday season.

Lighting commences at 7:00 pm local time and continues for an hour. It starts in New Zealand and circles the globe one time zone after another creating a virtual 24-hour wave of light. This is believed to be the largest mass candle lighting on earth. Bereaved parents all over the world will be lighting candles  to remember their beloved children. Some will do it in the quiet of their homes; others will come together in candle lighting ceremonies. If you are interested in finding out where the closest ceremony to you is, here's a link to the Compassionate Friends page.

As we move towards the Winter Solstice and the longest night of the year, I find myself coming home from work and lighting candles around my house. Their illumination gives me hope, and reminds me that it is possible to light up even the darkest of nights.  Their glow casts a warmth into the room far beyond the reach of their tiny flames. So for those of us mourning the passing of a child, we stand in solidarity on Sunday night when we light the candles in the blessed memory of our beloved children. 
Havdalah Ceremony at Matthew's Bar Mitzvah

Thursday, November 29, 2012

Our Journeys

Travelers, there is no path, paths are made by walking.
                        -Antonio Machado-

I’ve always been drawn to the metaphor that depicts life as a journey. Perhaps it’s the traveler in me, but the idea that we are all charting new territory as we navigate life's terrain is one that resonates with me. The only map we're ever given has the beginning (birth) and ending (death) marked on it, but we have no idea the distance between the two. Everything in between is filled with detours, potholes, twists and turns that take us to unexpected destinations along the way. That's life. 

Losing our 21-year-old son Matthew was a detour we never imagined we'd find ourselves taking. Suddenly we had to recalibrate, and we found ourselves on a new journey-a journey of grief.  And like life's journey, I think my grief journey will be a lifelong one. 

This past week I’ve found myself thinking quite a bit about grief journeys, because a woman I know in our community has lost her husband unexpectedly.  He was young--59--and now she too finds herself, without warning, on a grief journey. Actually, that’s the thing about these types of journeys, you often find yourself on them completely by surprise. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about her and her family and the path they now travel.  

What I remember most about those early days is the baffling sense of disorientation I felt.  It was hard to get my bearings; my compass had been knocked askew.  I’ve written before how time seemed to slow down during those early weeks and months, and with it my journey slowed to an almost  unbearable pace. But that's the thing about life, even when you think you are at a dead end, you continue to make progress and eventually another path emerges. So my family and I trudged forward on an unmarked trail that seemed to have appeared out of nowhere. 

Along the way I met some of the most amazing fellow travelers, many of whom I wouldn't have met had I not been on this road. We shared our grief stories with one another and I'm so grateful for their presence in my life. They helped me see through my heartache so that eventually I was able to see joy again. My eyes were opened to a world I hadn't given much thought to previously, and I have been forever changed. 

I've written before about the transformational power of grief. And while my particular grief journey is centered on the death of my son, I know that one can grieve many things. It can be the death of a marriage, the end of a friendship, the loss of a job, children growing up, moving to a new place or an illness. Loss is an inevitable part of life. It's a detour that takes us to new places that we never even knew were on our maps. But it's the journey to these new places that helps give us a new sense of meaning and purpose as we continue along our path. 

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Gratitude for the Season

Gratitude is the inward feeling of kindness received. Thankfulness is the natural impulse to express that feeling. Thanksgiving is the following of that impulse. Henry Van Dyke

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite holidays. I love that it's a day centered around food, family and friends, with no religious overtones to it. Love and gratitude fill the air as much as the sweet smells of the turkey roasting in the oven. I like to think that Thanksgiving kicks off the Season of Gratitude. There's no doubt that winter is just around the corner.  Our days of sunlight have lessened dramatically in the last month. Actually, here in the Pacific Northwest we can't really lay claim to any sunlight the past few days, just different variations of gray and rain. Lots of rain.  Trees are now bare, stripped down to their essence; their brilliant leaves of just a few weeks ago lie scattered on the ground. People are inside more and with that comes a natural inclination to look inward.

So in the next two days we begin to make our way to be with family and friends for a long weekend of eating, of conversations, of laughter, of movies and football games, and memories of past Thanksgivings. Those that are no longer with us are remembered with love and, yes, also with sadness. But we reminisce and talk about them, so that although they are not physically with us their memories envelop and sustain us.

I love the fact that we are invited to linger at Thanksgiving. Our days rush by at such a fast and furious pace during most of the year. And yet, at Thanksgiving we devote a day to food--making it and consuming it. We take time to linger at the table, soaking up each other's company, savoring each sweet moment. We don't do that enough in our day-to-day lives. I wish we did.  Lingering helps us be present in the moment. It helps slow time down a bit. Lingering helps us really listen to one another.

I'm grateful for so many things in my life. I'm grateful for my amazing family and friends, for the roof over my head, and the food in my refrigerator, for my job, for this blog, my health, and for the books on my shelves. I'm grateful for so much more than I can even say.   And yet I know there are many who live without the most basic of human necessities. I don't want to forget them.  I was just lucky enough to be born in this country at this time and I was given many different opportunities to succeed. I have so much. I want to be mindful of that and I want to remember that there are people who have so much less than me.

So on this holiday weekend as we linger over our tables, let's take some time to also remember those less fortunate. Let's talk about ways we can help make the world a more just and equitable place. December is just around the corner, and is often a stressful time for many.  As we head back into our hurried lives on Monday, let's try and come up with one action that will help someone less fortunate get through the month of December. If we do that we will carry the true spirit of Thanksgiving forward.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Gratitude for our Veterans

"How important it is for us to recognize and celebrate our heroes and she-roes!" -Maya Angelou

Today we mark Veteran's Day and I want to say thank you to the men and women, past and present, who have served and continue to serve our country in such tangible ways. 

Since we don't have compulsory military service, many of us are not touched by someone serving in the armed forces on a daily basis. It can be easy to forget the huge sacrifices these young men and women and their families make. In the community I live in, the vast majority of 18 and 19-year-olds head off to college, not to boot camp. I think it's important to note that distinction (think dorm rooms versus pup tents in Afganistan). Of course, there are other communities where the majority of young people head to the armed forces. It's their ticket to a new and better life. What incredible courage and commitment to freedom it takes them, which in turn helps us sustain our democratic way of life. 

I've written before how I'm acutely aware of the casualties of these men and women because their ages are often so close to the age that Matthew died-21. So I stand in solidarity with those families who had to bury a child at such an early age.

Tonight I lit a candle for the men and women who are giving so much to our country. Regardless if I agree with how our government has deployed our troops, it's important to express our gratitude for their service. I hope that we don't just think of them one day a year, but remember that they are there 365 days a year fighting for our country. Thank you veterans.

Finally, I've discovered a rather magical spot in Seattle that is worth checking out. It's called the Garden of Remembrance, and it's dedicated to the citizens of Washington State who have given their lives in service of our country. It was designed by Robert Murase and funded by Patsy Bullitt Collins and the Boeing Company. It was built in 1998. Even though it's new, it has a timeless feel to it, much like something you'd find in a European city. It's a block long on the south side of Benaroya Hall, and I've come to really appreciate the refuge it provides in the hustle bustle of the city. Here are some pictures:

Thursday, November 1, 2012

Simple Acts of Courage

You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, "I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along." You must do the thing you think you cannot do.
- Eleanor Roosevelt

This past week has been difficult for so many on the East Coast, and it will be quite a while before life returns to some sort of normal. Like most of you, I've been riveted to the t.v., first watching the storm approach, and then its destructive aftermath. These past four days have shown us the incredible power that nature can indiscriminately heap upon us, balanced against the equally formidable bonds of humanity.  As the stories of the storm begin to emerge, I'm struck by how people are coming together to help one another. I think we are witnessing human nature at its finest. 

I am also struck by the courage displayed by so many.  I think initially when we think about courage we think of it in the context of heroic deeds done on a grand scale, and we've certainly seen some of that this past week. But I don't think that courage is just about being a superhero. I think courage manifests itself in many ways (big and small) throughout our lifetime. At different points we're all called upon to summon up "simple acts of courage."  For instance:

I think about first-time parents bringing home their baby and wondering if they can really do this. Can they really raise a child in a world that often seems so out of control and fraught with danger? This takes courage.

I think about the young child venturing to kindergarten for the first time leaving behind all that is safe and secure as he takes a first step into the world away from mom and dad. This takes courage.

I think about the middle schooler dealing with body changes and the cruel taunts that often accompany adolescence as she learns to maneuver her way through the ever-changing social strata of junior high. This takes courage.

I think about the high schooler that comes out to family and friends, knowing that he or she can no longer live a lie. This takes courage.

I think about all of the families who have struggled during these days of hard economic times to pay the bills and put food on their tables, while still maintaining their hopes for a better future. This takes courage. 

I think about the newly divorced mom who wonders how she can make ends meet when her income has been cut in half, and she feels cut off from a world she once was a part of.  This takes courage.

I think of all those people who struggle with an "invisible" disorder like heart disease, diabetes, arthritis, fibromyalgia or MS. It can be an effort just to get through the day and manage the pain and/or illness. This takes courage.

I think about people awaiting results from a medical procedure. The days of anxiety and worry that reach out and grip them. Yet they continue on, going to work, folding laundry, making dinner. This takes courage.

I think of the people who are in the midst of dealing with cancer treatment. The physical toll it takes on their bodies, the mental anguish it exacts and yet they continue on making sure the kids get off to school, paying the bills, keeping the house clean. This takes courage.

I think of bereaved parents who have to get up every day and face a world without their child. We have to rely on the memories of who our children were, instead of a future that includes them. This takes courage.

I think of newly widowed men and women who after years together as a couple now face a life without a partner. This takes courage.

In the course of our lifetimes we may or may not be presented with an opportunity to perform a truly courageous act along the lines of Oskar Shindler or Rosa Parks or some of the men and women in Hurricane Sandy. But  I think we also need to recognize that just living often requires courage. The courage to face a new day infuses us with the will to carry on despite the obstacles in our way. It's these simple acts of courage that hold together the seams of our lives.   

Sunday, October 21, 2012

The Second Anniversary

Always in the deep woods when you leave familiar ground and step off alone into a new place there will be, along with the feelings of curiosity and excitement, a little nagging of dread.  It is an ancient fear of the unknown and it is your first bond with the wilderness you are going into.  What you are doing is exploring.
          Wendell Berry

Tomorrow marks the second anniversary of Matthew's death. In some ways it's hard to believe that two years have passed, and in other ways it seems like the longest two years ever. Whichever way I look at it, it doesn't seem fair. As anyone who has ever lost a child will tell you, there's no making sense of something so out of the natural order of things.

As you might imagine, October takes on a new significance for our family, and it's one I am trying to come to terms with. Two years ago when Matthew got sick, it became the longest three week journey of our lives. From two different ER's to three different hospitals, to ICU's, to a long open-heart surgery and to a week in a coma, it was beyond anything anyone could have prepared us for. Last year, as we approached the one-year anniversary, I found myself reliving each day of those difficult three weeks. At any time, I could tell you where we were a year ago, which doctors we saw, the nurses on duty and, of course, conversations with our boy. And while that reliving may have been important to do last year, I was determined not to do it again this year. It's not the way I choose to remember Matthew.

So as we entered the month of October this year, I tried to focus my energies elsewhere. In the beginning of the month, we went on a few walks and hikes in the Olympic Peninsula and on Bainbridge Island, which I found to be incredibly therapeutic. When I'm outside I am so much more able to feel a part of a larger piece of the cosmos. And in turn, I feel Matthew's presence in a way that I'm unable to in my more day-to-day routine. When I'm outside and walking in nature, it's as if the veil that separates us (the living and the dead) is lifted a bit and appears to be more translucent. Everything and everybody appears so interconnected. Life's biggest questions start to reveal themselves to me as I step out in nature.  And while I don't pretend to have any of the answers, I find that oddly comforting. I feel less alone out there. 

Further on into October I went to Estes Park, Colorado for work. I was so fortunate that my husband was able to join me for part of this, and we were able to spend time outside with the Rockies as our backdrop.  We were there during elk mating season and the sounds of their bugling reverberated over the rock outcroppings; their echoes filling the thin air with their ancient sounds. We walked amongst scenery dotted with the amber glow of the aspens and saw the first snows of the season deposited on distant peaks. Again, I felt the presence of Matthew.

So now we find ourselves in the final stretch and we are in Canada for a few days. The weather is not as cooperative as the beginning of the month, but that doesn't matter. In fact, being outside in the rain and cooler weather seems oddly appropriate. We will time it so that on the 22nd we will be with our other two children up in Bellingham, at the school that Matthew loved so dearly. The four of us will be together, well actually it will be the five of us.

In closing, I want to share a poem that a dear friend of mine wrote upon learning of Matthew's death. Parker Palmer is a founder of the organization I have worked at for the past 14 years. He was leading a retreat for us in Washington D.C. on October 22nd, 2010 and wrote these words which mean more than you can ever know. Thank you Parker.

For Matthew, in Memory and Hope
With great love to Robin, Israel, Jordan and Aviva...

I never met you, Matthew,
but still I weep for you,
knowing you as I do now
through your family's eyes of love. 

You died with so much life unlived
no words will ever do. I only want
to promise you that, as we grieve
your absence, we will do our best

to live well for you, to hold with
special care everyone who suffers,
knowing we are one with them, to
be of comfort to your family even

when there is no comfort to
be found, to live our own lives
keen-aware of the precious gift of
life we hold in trembling hands. 

—Parker J. Palmer October 23, 2010 

Monday, October 8, 2012


“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there. 

It doesn't matter what you do, he said, so long as you change something from the way it was before you touched it into something that's like you after you take your hands away. 

Everyone has a desire to leave their mark on this world. It's human nature to want to leave our planet a better place for future generations. I think many of us start thinking about this seriously in our fifties as our own mortality comes a little more into focus. For bereaved parents, this role is cruelly reversed. Suddenly you are faced with the death of your child and you become painfully aware that you want to make sure that the world doesn't forget them. You think of ways to create something so that your child's legacy lives on. 

Numerous organizations have been founded  by parents after the loss of their child. One of the best known is Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD was founded by Candy Lightner in 1980 after her daughter Cari was killed by a repeat drunk driving offender. Today, it's one of the most widely supported non-profit organizations in America. It's an excellent example of a parent taking a tragedy and turning it into something with the potential to benefit many in the future. 

I have two friends who have lost daughters to different forms of pediatric cancer. You may not know this, but cancer is the #1 cause of death by disease among children. I have learned much from my friends Reba Ferguson and Karen Gerstenberger. Karen's 12-year-old daughter Katie died five years ago this past August from adrenocortical carcinoma. Reba's 12-year-old daughter Hannah died of an anaplastic medulloblastoma brain tumor in August of 2010. Both Reba and Karen (and their husbands) are involved in raising people's awareness about pediatric cancer, and both have been involved in raising substantial amounts of money for the cause. They are particularly excited about a thrilling development in pediatric cancer research taking place at Children's Hospital in Seattle, WA. The Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research at Seattle Children's Research Institute is devoting millions of dollars "to accelerate the pace of pediatric cancer research--changing the way childhood cancers are treated and cured." The Ben Towne Foundation was started by parents Jeff and Carin Towne after their three-year-old son Ben died of a neuroblastoma. Through their parents' efforts, the legacies of Katie, Ben and Hannah  will live on forever and hopefully eventually eradicate pediatric cancer.

When Matthew died, we too were faced with how to honor him. He didn't have a disease that we could raise money for, and yet days after he died we were beginning to be asked where people could donate in his honor. After much deliberation, we decided  that the best way to honor Matthew would be to ask for donations in his name to the school he had been attending: Western Washington University. Matthew had just started his senior year up at Western when he got sick, and it's a place that he had truly come into his own. He loved WWU and we thought it would be appropriate to suggest that as a place where people could make donations in his name. Imagine our surprise when just a few weeks later someone from the Development Office at WWU called to say we should consider endowing a scholarship in Matthew's name. The response had been so great that we were very close to having this become a reality.  We were blown away.

The scholarship was endowed, and we've now had two well-deserving young people receive money towards their first year of tuition at WWU. Both recipients-Christopher and Macy-are paying their own way through school, and the money they received from this scholarship is money they don't have to borrow and repay. We know Matthew would be proud that he is helping them fulfill their dreams of a higher education at a school he so dearly loved. We also have a bigger goal in mind for the scholarship and that is to fully fund tuition for someone for a year. It may take years to get to this point, but we hope to continue to add to Matthew's scholarship so that one day, a student will be able to say that it was because of Matthew Gaphni, that he or she was able to attend Western.

On October 22nd, it will be two years since Matthew died. And while it's difficult to see a silver lining out of our tragedy, I can honestly say that the scholarship has been a gift for our family. We are grateful to everyone that has helped make this a reality for future students. 

Here's a link to WWU. Or you can send a check into:
WWU Foundation
MS 9034
516 High Street
Bellingham, WA 98225-9034
The gift should be designated for the Matthew Gaphni Scholarship. 

Here are some links to organizations supported and/or founded by my friends Karen and Reba to fight pediatric cancer:

Katie's Comforters Guild
The Pink Polka Dots Guild
Pediatric Tumor Research Fund
Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research

Sunday, September 30, 2012

Two Roads...

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference. 

Robert Frost

Last week, my husband and I had a conversation about the different paths one chooses in life, and how you never know which ones are going to lead you to places you never dreamed of going. He reminded me that last March marked 30 years since we first met each other on a kibbutz in Israel. He wondered what would have happened if I had landed in the kibbutz office an hour later and been directed to a different kibbutz. Our lives would probably have never intersected and we would have found ourselves on very different journeys.  I told him that for me, it all came down to a train ride in Italy when my life veered in a new direction.

I was 22 and had just graduated from college. I had conveniently saved my final quarter to study in England so that I could travel after school. From England, my friend Amy and I began our backpacking trip in Europe.  We traveled a bit in Spain and southern France and then found ourselves in Venice. We also found ourselves in different places on our journey. She was beginning to yearn to go home and I was just finding my traveling legs. The differences were unspoken, but there was a little tension between us. Then, on what would turn out to be a fateful train ride from Venice to Florence, Allison from Ottawa entered our car and my life took a new direction. Allison was traveling on her own and heading on to Greece, Israel and Egypt. She wondered if we were interested in tagging along. Not only did this allow Amy and me to part amicably, it also changed my life completely. 

Initially, what most intrigued me about Allison's offer was Egypt. My grandfather had a Ph.D. in Egyptology and I had grown up listening to his stories and looking at pictures of his various trips there. Greece intrigued me also, and while I didn't know much about Israel at that point in my life, I was up for an adventure. Little did I know when I made that momentous decision that I wouldn't make it to Egypt on that trip. Instead, after a month in Greece I would land in Israel and within days meet the man who would become my husband.

We are all faced with choices, big and small, every day. We never know when we make a decision to do something what kind of impact it might have on our future. Obviously the above example ended up being pretty significant for me. But it makes me think about all of the little decisions we make along the way that lead us in new directions. It could be the college we choose brings us to a new part of the country that just feels like home. It could be an inspiring professor whose enthusiasm for a subject makes us change our major completely.  It could be that our preschool choice introduces us to a lifelong friend. Or it could be a volunteer role leads us on a completely different career path. 

There are infinite possibilities that await us, and infinite paths to choose from. Sometimes I think it's important to stop and think about the paths we find ourselves on and reflect on our journey so far. It's far too easy to plow through life somewhat mindlessly and not appreciate the choices we make.

Obviously, I am grateful that I happened to be on that particular train from Venice to Florence and that Allison from Ottawa sat in my car. It makes me mindful that every day there is always the possibility of meeting someone who will have a direct impact on my life (or visa versa). It may be significant or barely perceptible. It may not even be obvious until years later. It certainly makes me look at the world with my eyes a little more wide open and thankful for the blessings that surround me. 

Learn to get in touch with silence within yourself, and know
that everything in this life has purpose.  There are no mistakes,
no coincidences; all events are blessings given to us to learn from.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Thoughts on Fall

Life is neither linear nor is it stagnant. It is movement from mystery to mystery. Just as a year includes autumn and winter, life includes death, not as an opposite but as an integral part of the way life is made.
Rachel Naomi Remen-Kitchen Table Wisdom

Fall is almost upon us. While the official date for the fall equinox is September 22nd, for me it always occurs the Tuesday after Labor Day. That's when the shift from summer to fall becomes most evident. This year, for the second year in a row, we took off for a vacation on September 4th. Now that we don't have kids in the K-12 system, we have the luxury of heading out in September. While last year we headed to the coast (the banner picture on Grief & Gratitude was taken out there), this year we headed east to the Methow Valley. What a beautiful place, and what a perfect time of year to go. For those of you who don't live in Washington, the Methow is east of the Cascades, and in a totally different topographical zone. It's dryer, has more wide open spaces and the sky seems bigger. We love spending time there, and this year was no exception. Temperatures were in the mid to low 80's and we spent a lot of time hiking and exploring the region. I had every intention of writing an entire post about our week there. But now, it's a week and a half later, so I'll just leave you with a couple of pictures so you can soak up the atmosphere.
Maple Pass

Lost River-Mazama

Heading back, I felt that something had shifted here in Western Washington and that summer was definitely over. There's that fall feeling in the air, where once again you see kids waiting along the side of the road for their buses, leaves begin to turn and (sadly) there's a lessening of light on each end of the day. And while fall has always been my favorite season, it is not without a healthy dose of paradox these days. For fall is the season when our son, Matthew died (October 22), when my dad died (November 6) and when my dear friend Toby died (September 18). So, for me, it's a season where I am confronted with all that life has to offer--which includes the end of life. I turn to fall now more fully aware that life is not forever and that we must embrace the preciousness that living offers us. 

Fall is also the season of the Jewish high holidays. Monday was Rosh Hashanah-the Jewish New Year, and ten days later it will be Yom Kippur. These ten days are known as the "Days of Awe," a time of repentance, prayer and good deeds. It's a time where, according to Jewish tradition, it is determined who shall live and who shall die. This concept has always been difficult for me to swallow, and never more so than after Matthew died. Matthew got sick about a week after Yom Kippur in 2010, and three weeks later he died. It's very hard for me to look at this concept of the holiday with anything but skepticism. I have a hard time believing that God sits up there and determines who shall live and who shall die and decides that it's time for a 21-year-old to go (or a 12-year old, or a mother of three young children or anyone for whom it's considered a premature death). I just can't go there. Instead, what I am able to do is focus on what we CAN do to make the world a better place while we're here. I have to come at it with love and optimism, not fear and dread.

I choose to focus on the introspection that is a natural part of this time of year. Like others, I try to figure out how to become a better person for the year to come. On Rosh Hashanah we visualize the type of world we want to live in--a world that is focused on kindness, tzedakah (charity), justice, and most of all love. I see it as a chance to focus on how we want to be in the world-both for ourselves and for others. Resolutions are made, but they're different than the standard January 1st resolutions about losing weight, eating better etc.  Rosh Hashanah presents us with the opportunity to remember what's really important in life with both a sense of gratitude and awe. It makes us ask the big questions such as how can I make the world a better place? How can I make a difference in someone else's life? How can I become a more perfect version of the unique person I am?

So as the days get shorter, I find myself turning inward. I find that despite the losses in my life, I am grateful for all I have. Perhaps it's because of these losses that I am so very grateful for my family, my friends and my community.  I wish everyone a very happy, healthy and meaningful New Year! I hope that it's a year where we can both acknowledge our blessings and share them with others.