Sunday, June 24, 2012


For me, every hour is grace. And I feel gratitude in my heart each time I can meet someone and look at his or her smile.
Elie Wiesel

Port Townsend Beach Hike-June 2012

A few weeks ago, I was reviewing my PTO (paid time off) from work and realized that I needed to take some vacation before our fiscal year was up on June 30. So I decided to take last week off and use the time to get some things done around the house and catch up with friends. What a wonderful, relaxing week it was!

I really didn't have much of an agenda for my week off, although it tied quite nicely in with our community's annual Rotary Auction. For those of you who don't live on Bainbridge Island, this event happens every year and is touted as the world's largest rummage sale. It's quite amazing, and draws people from all over. This year it will fall on June 30th and, conveniently enough, the week to start dropping off your unwanted items started last Friday. This gave me the impetus I needed to purge my house of stuff. Once I get into this role, it's hard for me to stop. I really get a lot of satisfaction out of giving things away that we no longer need. My husband would probably say that I could be a little more sentimental. For example, yesterday when we were loading things into the car he pulled out this interactive globe that the kids loved when they were small. He looked at me and said he remembered how much they liked to play with it and shouldn't we hang on to it? I gently reminded him that it had been sitting on a shelf for at least the last six years and that there was another family out there that would get as much joy out of it as ours. The globe was put back into the box and delivered to Rotary.

The other thing I did last week was catch up with friends. I went for walks, drank coffee, sipped wine, listened to live jazz and just spent time with people I hadn't been with in a while. It felt somewhat decadent to squeeze so many delightful conversations and interactions into one week, but I'm grateful I did. I think that sometimes given the structured lives we lead we can forget the importance of just being with friends and catching up. These rich encounters really feed my soul, and I know I never regret time spent with a good friend.

I was also able to get some reading in. I finished The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman, which if you like historical fiction is a must. I was swept back into the world of ancient Israel told from the points of view of four women. I also read the thought-provoking article in The Atlantic that's currently making the rounds called "Why Women Still Can't Have it All". I'm still mulling this one over...perhaps another post. I  attended a lecture by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, a Harvard professor who read from her new book Exit: The Endings that Set Us Free. It's a book I want to pick up as it explores the experiences of different people with stories of transitions and exits.  Finally, I just started reading my dear friend Toby Schneider's book The Offering: An Unexpected Journey. Toby died in 2005 and finished writing this weeks before her death. Her brother Howie just had it published and it is an absolute joy to read her wise words and hear her voice again. She remains a true inspiration to me.

So that was my week away from work. I am coming off of it feeling renewed, a little lighter, and definitely richer for my encounters with friends. While I think we all know how beneficial time off is, I have a new appreciation for sticking close to home. Sometimes we just need to step out of our routine a bit to realize that the things we need are actually very close at hand. We don't have to venture far to gain much.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Musings on Impermanence and Living in the Present

That nothing is static or fixed, that all is fleeting and impermanent, is the first mark of existence. It is the ordinary state of affairs. Everything is in process. Everything--every tree, every blade of grass, all the animals, insects, human beings, buildings, the animate and the inanimate--is always changing, moment to moment. -Pema Chodron

Walking to the volcano in Nicaragua
Life can change in an instant. Of this, there is no doubt. If I didn't subscribe to this notion consciously before Matthew died, I now count it as one of my most unshakeable truths. Nothing stays the same in nature, so why should it in life?  I think by letting go of the notion that life has to go a certain way, we in turn are better able to go with life's flow. Or maybe a better way to say it is rather than trying to think we have control over our lives, we should allow our lives to have control over us. It's how we react to change that matters anyway.

In my grief, I've been given the opportunity to pause and look at the deeper questions of my life. I have actually found the thought of life's impermanence to be oddly comforting. What strikes me is that it comes down to living in the present, not the past or the future. After Matthew died, my husband and I took a series of meditation classes. In one of the classes, the teacher asked us to think about if we were past thinkers, present thinkers or future thinkers. I had never really given that much thought and quickly realized that I was a future thinker. I realized that I was always planning ahead, making "To Do" lists and thinking about tomorrow, rather than today. The result was that I was missing out on a lot of the present. So since then, I've tried to make an effort to think in the present--to just BE in the now. It's not always easy, but when I do it, I find that one of the byproducts is that I'm so much more grateful. Mindfulness heightens my awareness of life-both its preciousness, as well as its fragility.

One thing I've noticed that works for keeping me in the present is savoring the moment through my senses. When I make an attempt to savor things through taste (a good piece of dark chocolate), smell (challah in the oven), hearing (birds in the morning), touch (the feel of flannel sheets on a cold night) or sight (a particularly stunning sunrise) I feel tethered to the moment. My thoughts don't wander forward or backward. It may sound strange, but savoring things helps keep me centered. I've also found that it's not such a difficult thing to incorporate a little savoring into your daily routine. 

So to end these rambling musings, here's a quote from one of my favorite "grief books"  called Grieving Mindfully: A Compassionate and Spiritual Guide to Coping with Loss by Sameet M. Kumar. My copy is pretty dog-eared, as I've kept it close at hand over the past year. There's a lot in it that is applicable to all different types of loss/grief. Anyway, this quote spoke to me the first time I read it, and continues to speak to me today.

Mindfulness is an awareness that arises as we pay attention to purpose, nonjudgmentally, to unfolding experience in the present moment. The way of paying attention is crucial. Mindfulness is sensitive, warm, friendly, compassionate and allowing. Mindful attention does not try to change what is happening. Instead, it reflects--accurately and precisely. Being mindful means being a witness to, and connecting consciously with whatever elements of our life that are present now, in this moment. 

Sunday, June 10, 2012

I'm grateful for...Silence

Only in solitude do we find ourselves; and in finding ourselves, we find in ourselves all our brothers in solitude.

Miguel de Unamuno

Washington Coast, Fall 2011

I find that the older I get the more I crave silence. It's an interesting concept, especially for someone who, on the Myers-Briggs, is an "E" (extrovert). But I'm discovering that time alone is what rejuvenates me these days.

I think that much of this comes from the stage of life I'm in. When my kids were younger, so much of my time was spent going to their activities, volunteering in their schools, working, and just the overall "busy-ness" that comes when you are in your thirties and forties, creating a life for you and your family. Luckily for me (and perhaps because I am an "E"), I enjoyed it. I liked meeting people who were also fully engaged in the childrearing years and working towards making our community a better place. I met many, many friends over the years and am grateful we walked on the same paths.

But now that my kids are (more are less) out of the house, I have for the first time in 23 plus years, more time to myself.  One thing I've observed is that a little time spent in silence is essential to starting my day. No longer do I leap out of bed, turn on NPR and meet the day full steam ahead. Instead, I get up early and do a 15-minute Qi Gong routine, followed by a daily reading from "An Almanac From the Soul." I don't even put the radio on until I get into the car an hour and a half later. I have found that by not leaping into the thick of things right away, whether it's the news or my own busy activities, I'm better able to center my day and move forward more mindfully.

For instance, on the days I commute to Seattle on the ferry, I head upstairs to one of the quiet rooms. A few years ago I think I would have eagerly sought out people I know down in the main galley and enjoyed the 35-minute ride talking to others. But on these early mornings, there's something very peaceful about sitting in silence with others looking out at Puget Sound or reading my book or my laptop. 

I don't think I'm unusual in this regard. I imagine that many others are also finding silence rejuvenating in their "middle age." And while this is a departure from the way I used to start my day,  I can't imagine going back. This slower, more mindful start to my day suits my 52-year-old self.

This doesn't mean I don't get a lot from my interactions with others. I do (remember I'm an "E!"). In fact, since Matthew died, I know more than anything the incredible importance that family, friends and surrounding community play in my life. It really just comes down to balance and the value of slowing down a bit.

I'd be curious to hear if others are experiencing a change in the way you start your day. Or perhaps you have found that you prefer being around people more than you used to. I think when you hit your 50's, you suddenly have more time to reflect on what it is that nourishes your soul, and more ability to act upon it. The demands on your time are simply less than they used to be. 

So to conclude this rumination, here's the June 7th reading from  Almanac of the Soul which initially prompted these thoughts:

True experience always comes about in withdrawal ‘from the crowd.’ The original, true and proper attitude of the mind is—as Heraclites says—that of ‘listening to the truth of things,’ the avoidance of the pressure of falsehoods, half-measures, mediocrity and gossip. Our journey in the territory of being should be made in silence, with wondering, wide-open eyes. The fullness of truth and reality is revealed  only to those who attain to a silence which covers every aspect of their beings, or who, in other words, make their basic attitude toward the whole of being one of delicate and reserved courtesy…For anyone who wishes to hear what is true and real, every voice must for once, be still. Silence, however, is not merely the absence of speech. It is not something negative; it is ‘something’ in itself. It is a depth, a fullness, a peaceful flow of hidden life. Everything true and great grows in silence. Without silence we fall short of reality and cannot plumb the depths of being."

God is With Us by Ladislaus Boros

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Stories of Resiliency: Part 2 with Molly

When we come upon beautiful things...they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space.
Elaine Scarry

Helping Hand by Molly Greist
I wanted to share a bit more about my conversation with Molly Greist, specifically about her stonework, and then about Matthew's headstone. As I said in my previous post, Molly found herself drawn to stonework after her son Peter died.  So one day, within that first year after Peter's death, a friend asked her to come to a dedication of a piece of stonework at a local elementary school. It was a piece of twin bear cubs done by a Seattle artist named James Washington
Twin Bear Cubs by James Washington (1989)

As Molly looked at the stone she found herself looking at it with the eyes of a stonecarver. She peered at the twin cubs and to her they were like windows into the stone. Inspired even more, she found an ally in Mr. Washington and picked up her hammer and chisel with new fervor. 

Molly admits her early attempts frustrated her. She couldn't make the stone into what she wanted. She asked James Washington to teach her how to carve, and he told her he couldn't. Instead, he told her that she had to listen to what was inside the stone, it had to come from within. She explained to me that "I can't tell you what this is. It has to come from you. It is in you. And it’s coming out of you through your writing, like the chisel and stone for me. I was no more or less than the stone itself. When you can get to that place where you are no more or less than the beauty that is around you, then it comes out of you. You can almost step aside; you can get out of the way of yourself."

This worked for her, and as I said in my previous post, check out Molly's website. Her art is simply amazing.  

Matthew's Headstone

My husband and I realized that we wanted Molly to carve Matthew's headstone. So we invited her over last summer to talk about it, and we got a glimpse into her world. She told us that she approaches each stone with no expectations of what will come out of it--the form emerges as she carves. She asked us to think about finding a rock for Matthew's headstone. At first we both were daunted by that task, but then almost simultaneously, we realized that we might have the perfect stone in our yard. 

For years a somewhat large, roundish stone rested in our back yard. When the kids were little they climbed on it, and as they grew older it transformed into the obstacle one had to maneuver around when mowing the lawn. Just a couple of years ago, my husband, Matthew and Jordan moved the stone out of the way of the lawn mower and into a rockery. As we stepped outside on that clear July morning, and walked towards the stone, I immediately sensed that this would be it. The stone at that point was lying on its side, covered with moss and deeply weighted into the damp earth. Molly bent down and examined it, and I began to look at it with completely different eyes. It had a smooth front with veins of something (quartz?) running through it. It was jagged in parts and smooth in others. And, most importantly, Matthew had played on it, touched it and lifted it. Molly nodded that it would work.

We spent time coming up with what we wanted inscribed on it, and later that summer managed to get it over to Molly's studio (it was heavy). We were aiming for a very private unveiling in October, one year after Matthew had died.

So last October, my husband, son, daughter and I headed out to the cemetery for the unveiling. When we pulled in, I saw that Molly and her husband Steve were already there and that they had unloaded the stone. It stood at the head of Matthew’s grave, ready to be lowered off of the dolly. We walked towards them, and suddenly the incredible beauty of the stone hit me. Up to that point, I had only seen a picture of it with the words inscribed on it, and now here it was. Yes, the words are words no parent should ever have to read. The dates on it were far too short of a life lived. But, something magical was emanating from it. The vein of quartz burst through it in a way that made the stone seem alive.

I looked over and saw that Matthew's friends' Ben and Trevor were walking our way; we had invited them to come out for the unveiling. They had been Matthew’s best friends through middle school, high school and college, and happened to be home the weekend of the unveiling. They had lost their best friend, and it was only right that they were here too. We gathered around the stone and slowly lowered it into place. It slid perfectly into the spot. I looked at how it sat, kitty corner to one of my closest friends who had died six years before, underneath the towering fir trees that stood completely still that morning. We said the Kaddish (mourner’s prayer) and I went up and placed a heart shaped rock I had been saving on top of the stone. I helped my daughter find a rock. Molly and her husband slipped away, as did Matthew’s friends. Then it was the four of us, and yet it really was the five of us. It will always be the five of us. 

Something happened when the stone was placed on Matthew’s gravesite. The official year of mourning had come to an end, and a cycle was completed. We had weathered the four seasons and come full circle, back to fall again. There was a sense of closure. Not for the loss of Matthew, for there is no closure when you lose a child. We will forever have a huge hole in our hearts as we continue on our lives without him. But, there was a sense of closure for that first year of mourning.