Monday, June 24, 2013

The Spaciousness of Summer

There is more to life than increasing its speed.

To celebrate the start of summer, my husband, daughter and I went hiking on the Olympic Peninsula. We woke up Saturday morning to the sound of birds chirping and the sun streaming through our windows. For most parts of the country this probably sounds like a normal start to a summer day. But in the Northwest, June is frequently cool and overcast. In fact, summer weather often doesn't make an appearance until after the Fourth of July. But this June has been different. We've had sunny, warm days and there's been a feeling of crazed energy as we've burst forth from our houses a full month early. We decided to take advantage of the sun (plus the forecast for the coming week is back to our more typical "June-u-ary" weather). So we headed out to the Olympic Peninsula, unsure of our final destination.

Dungeness Lighthouse at tip of spit
We ended up at one of our favorite spots-Dungeness Spit. This is the longest natural sand spit in the United States. It juts into the Strait of Juan de Fuca for five miles ending at a lovely little lighthouse at its furthest tip. From one direction you can see Vancouver Island across the water and from another Mount Olympus hovers in the distance. Typically when we go there we walk for miles along the beach. But this time we also walked along the dunes up above.

As we hiked along the path, I found myself yearning for those days I remember as a kid when summer seemed so endless and "agenda-less." Back then, plans were what happened in the moment, they weren't written down weeks in advance, squeezed in between other commitments. How did it get to be so complicated? 
Hiking up above the spit
As we walked along I made myself push aside thoughts of tomorrow, next week and next month. I really concentrated on being present to where I was right then. I tried to conjure up that girl from summers past and just "be." I watched a pair of dragonflies mate in an acrobatic dance swooping left and right above me. I saw a hawk glide silently above the cedars. I listened to my daughter and husband banter back and forth. I felt the warmth of the sun on my arms, grateful to be in only a t-shirt and not in typical Northwest layers. I tried not to leave myself, as we tend to over and over in the course of the day. 

I've written before of my desire to be more mindful of the present. For me, it's one of those things I have to keep reminding myself to do. I know that when I am present, I am more grateful for everything. Life, like long summer days, seems more spacious and open-ended. But it's hard work being present and in the moment. It doesn't come as naturally to me as it once did, but I'm working on it.

I'm working at watching the clouds as they change shapes across the sky. I'm working at feeling the wind on my face, the sun at my back. I'm remembering to listen to the crickets' song at dusk. By connecting with nature I am reminded that I am connected to something much larger than myself-something that transcends me and will survive me. It's a comforting thought.
Looking towards Vancouver Island
So as we change seasons and move into summer, I am again reminded of its abundance and spaciousness. I am appreciative for its long, warm days, and grateful to be outside more. I try and respond with my whole heart to the beauty of the world. All of these things help remind me to be present now and give thanks. Here's a lovely Mary Oliver poem to conclude this post:

The Morning Walk

There are a lot of words meaning thanks.
Some you can only whisper.
Others you can only sing.
The pewee whistles instead.
The snake turns in circles,
the beaver slaps his tail
on the surface of the pond.
The deer in the pinewoods stamps his hoof.
Goldfinches shine as they float through the air.
A person, sometimes, will hum a little Mahler.
Or put arms around old oak tree.
Or take out lovely pencil and notebook to find a few
touching, kissing words.

Mary Oliver in Long Life

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Grief Work

We don't know what life will bring, so it is what we bring to life that matters.
Patricia Campbell Carlson

It was really interesting to observe the reactions I got when I told people that I was going to a Bereavement Skills Training Course. They ran the full gamut from genuine interest to feigned interest to horror to concern. Most people didn't really know what to make of my decision to attend a four-day training at the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Colorado last week. I think many were worried about why I would want to do this. Wouldn't it be too difficult for me? Wouldn't it dredge up painful memories of Matthew? And while I can certainly appreciate their concern, I'm here to say not only did I survive, but it ended up being one of the most worthwhile trainings I've ever participated in.

Dr. Alan Wolfeldt is renowned in the field of grief and bereavement and has devoted his professional life to working with people in various stages of grief.  His main premise is that of "companioning the mourner." By this he means being with and present to another person's pain and not trying to take it away. It's about walking alongside the mourner, not leading them. It's about acknowledging and listening with the heart, not trying to direct their pain to an easier place. It's not about "fixing" someone.  All of this makes such innate sense to me, and yet so much of this is not the direction that our culture is headed towards. In fact, Dr. Wolfeldt said more than once that we in America live in a perceived "deathless society." Of course we don't. But unlike our grandparents' generation where death was more visible on a day-to-day basis, death nowadays is remote; it's behind closed doors.

Still with me? I realize that this may seem like a dark and foreboding topic, but I can promise you that I walked out of this course both educated and rejuvenated.  Doesn't it make sense that if we deny or inhibit our emotions our pain lasts longer? After a significant loss we can easily lose our joie de vivre--our reason for living.  It's only natural that when we lose someone we love our divine spark feels muted. The easiness that we once inhabited our lives gives way to an all-encompassing heaviness. But rather than subverting or denying these feelings of loss, we need to mourn well so that we can go on and live our lives well. We need to acknowledge the loss and subsequent pain, not evade it.

I learned so much that it's hard to know what I want to say in this blog post. I imagine that I'll be writing in the coming months about many different aspects of what transpired in those four days. But I'll tell you something that I've thought about often this past week, and that is how we started on the first day. There were 36 of us gathered to glean what we could from Alan Wolfeldt. Thirty-six people who were interested in learning more about the mysterious body of knowledge surrounding grief and loss. It was a mix of social workers, nurses, clergy, hospice employees and volunteers. Before beginning, Dr. Wolfeldt asked us to tell the story of why we were there, as well as share a significant loss in our lives. We took three and a half hours to hear everyone's stories. This was not a quick check-in, but instead a thoughtful exercise that ultimately resulted in creating a sacred space that lasted the week. We listened as one-by-one people shared what we soon came to realize were our love stories. It was amazing. For me, it was the chance to talk about Matthew and this new journey that I find myself on. There were both tears and laughter as people opened up their hearts to strangers. There were two other bereaved moms in the group, and of course there was a natural bond between the three of us. But what soon became evident was that everyone has a story (or two) of loss, for that's what being human is all about.

Three years ago I wouldn't have imagined myself on this path. Three years ago I was writing a little blog about children's books, as well as working on my own children's book. But as we all know, life often takes you in a different direction than the one you start out on. And now I find myself on my own grief journey with a worldview that has been dramatically changed by life's circumstances. My heart has been broken open and I find myself drawn to the world of the mourner. I find that I am able to sit with people who are in a dark place and listen to their stories of loss and love. I'll end with a C.S. Lewis quote that Dr. Wolfeldt shared with us that resonated with me:  "Grief is like a long, winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape."