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.