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Living with Grief and Listening to Winter

hughes Heart of Snow

The sky is grey today.  My boots crunch and my body tenses when I first step out into this frigid January morning.  I move slowly, huddled against  the cold,  still baring the gravity of  grief and the weariness of long nights with too few exits and too many echoes.

Getting out of bed took little effort yesterday,  my mind was alert,  my movements fluid, and the sun was shining.  I breathed a sigh of relief, finally able to recognize the promise of a morning  without my mother in it.  I didnt have to force myself to leave my house, and I jogged and jumped and danced during my water aerobics class. My body felt light and graceful.  It was going to be a good day.

Someone began to sing, these boots are made for walking and I cheerfully joined her in song, hands on my hips and legs lifting high.  And then my eyes met those of a woman who is older than my mother and the pain slammed into my chest without warning.  I was breathless as a memory consumed all of my oxygen. My young and sexy mother is singing that song while I  prance around her in my imaginary boots.  We are pointing at each other, warning that one of these days these boots are going to walk all over you.  In that moment, all was perfect.  The depression had not found her, she was cancer free - healthy,  happy, and ALIVE.  I was safe.

My eyes filled with tears and to my horror, it occurred to me that I could start crying in a public pool surrounded by perfectly nice and normal women. I took a deep breath, clenched my jaw, called upon my well practiced will, and pulled myself together.

Rumi wrote that our lives are like guest houses. If my life truly is like a guest house, then grief, an unwelcome guest, has settled in for the time being. I cannot move out, and there will be no eviction. And so, If Im to avoid structural and collateral damage, then Ill  need to make accommodations.  Grief, I will make a place at my table for you, but I will not feed you.  Instead, I will infuse my cooking with love and gratitude and nurture my family with them.  And I will stop wasting energy trying to lock you out, instead, Ill open all of my windows and invite beauty in.

My walk is complete. I return to the home that I now share with grief, close the door, absorb the heat, and resolve to not long for spring, but to listen to winter

The Winter of Listening

No one but me by the fire,
my hands burning
red in the palms while
the night wind carries
everything away outside.

All this petty worry
while the great cloak
of the sky grows dark
and intense
round every living thing.

What is precious
inside us does not
care to be known
by the mind
in ways that diminish
its presence.

What we strive for
in perfection
is not what turns us
into the lit angel
we desire,
what disturbs
and then nourishes
has everything
we need.

What we hate
in ourselves
is what we cannot know
in ourselves but
what is true to the pattern
does not need
to be explained.

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.

Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.

All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.

All those years
forgetting
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.

All those years
forgetting
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.

And the slow
difficulty
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
otherness.

Silence and winter
has led me to that
otherness.

So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

David Whyte

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Safire Rose On Letting Go


I have been in Florida for the past month and plan to remain here with my mother until she dies. I find very little time for writing these days, for little else actually other than caring for her and my father. I am firmly planted here by my mothers side although my thoughts and heart wander quite regularly back to Maine where my husband, daughter, grandchildren, friends, and clients go about their lives. I send them love and hold them closely in my heart. There is a great deal of both holding on and letting go happening in my life right now.

The following is a poem by Reverend Safire Rose sent to me by a wise and wonderful woman whom I feel blessed to know. I hope it touches you as it has touched me.

She let go. Without a thought or a word, she let go.

She let go of the fear. She let go of the judgments.

She let go of the confluence of opinions swarming around her head.

She let go of the committee of indecision within her.

She let go of all the ‘right’ reasons.

Wholly and completely, without hesitation or worry, she just let go.

She didn’t ask anyone for advice.

She didn’t read a book on how to let go.

She didn’t search the scriptures.

She just let go.

She let go of all of the memories that held her back.

She let go of all of the anxiety that kept her from moving forward.

She let go of the planning and all of the calculations about how to do it just right.

She didn’t promise to let go.

She made no public announcement and put no ad in the paper.

She just let go.

She didn’t analyze whether she should let go. She didn’t call her friends to discuss the matter.

She didn’t utter one word.

She just let go.

No one was around when it happened.

There was no applause or congratulations. No one thanked her or praised her.

No one noticed a thing.

Like a leaf falling from a tree, she just let go.

There was no effort. There was no struggle.

It wasn’t good and it wasn’t bad.

It was what it was, and it is just that.

In the space of letting go, she let it all be.

A small smile came over her face.

A light breeze blew through her.

And the sun and the moon shone forevermore.

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Autumn and My Mothers Cancer

Today was a perfect autumn day, the kind that calls me out of my head and into my senses. The kind that finds me with my car windows rolled down and the music loud. The kind that makes me feel giddy and free. The kind thats drenched in vibrant color and sunshine during the day, and graced with the scent of baking apples and cinnamon at dinner time. The kind that says to me, hey, just maybe you can spend each and every day living in radical amazement each and every day even the hard ones.

Theres such sweet celebration and melancholy in autumn temperatures drifting down, mists rising, the ancient choreography of birds embarking on their long migration, the harvest moon an enchanting paradise so soon to be lost as nature once again begins her inevitable journey into the frigid arms of winter.

While the autumn advances and the leaves deepen and dazzle before relinquishing their hold on the bodies that have sustained them, my mothers own grasp weakens as her cancer progresses and her spirit quickens. My love of nature has never been more acute than in autumn and I have never loved my mother more fiercely than right now.

I walk along the shore of Wolfes Neck woods, hear crows cawing in the distance, tilt my face up towards a gentler sun that caresses now instead of scorches. Im both awed and saddened at the same time. I wonder how much of life is at its most beautiful just before dying. Is this the truest bitter gift of death, that life becomes oh so much sweeter?

Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. .get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

Ammidst the loss, the longing, the life, and the love, I am amazed

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On Darkness, Despair and Hope

I havent written a blog entry in over a month, the longest I’ve ever gone without writing. Sadly, inessential activities (like this blog) have been overshadowed by my mothers cancer and my daughters illness, and the lion’s share of my life energy is being poured into sustaining hope and tending wounds.

The trajectory of my mother’s illness is too final and predictable to contemplate, while the weight and course of my child’s suffering is crushing and unknowable. It seems that we have set upon one of those night passages that Sue Monk Kidd observes can “blister the spirit and leave us groping.”

As I tentatively feel my way through a murky shadow land, I remind myself that the whole of my life is still abundantly blessed with love, and sweetness and light even as it requires me to be stronger and wiser than ever before demands that I do/think/feel more than I have ever done/thought/felt before. Even though it insists that I. must. become. more.

Julia Cameron reminds us that “creativity like human life itself begins in darkness.” For over two decades as a psychotherapist I’ve witnessed so many transformations that were initiated by heartbreak and cultivated in darkness. And while there have been times when I could hardly bare to look into the depths of despair and suffering, I am especially grateful for them now, each and every one of them, because I have seen with my own eyes and heart what we are capable of surviving, overcoming, and becoming. Because I have seen, I can believe.

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When all thats left of me is Love

  I just finished Linda Campanellas book, When all thats Left if Me is Love: A Daughters Story of Letting Go about a daughters experiences supporting a mother who is LIVING with small cell lung cancer. I stress LIVING because that is exactly what her mother did. She LIVED right up until she died and Campanella remained determined and committed to helping her mother do exactly that throughout the entire process to LIVE as fully as possible.

One example of how they made the most of each and every day was that around 4:00 in the afternoon Linda, her mother, her father, and anyone else who happened to be in the house at the time settled in to celebrate happy hour. There was much laughter during this time, and the sharing of news, stories, small gifts, and great love. No one in the room was in denial of death or free from grief, however each was acutely aware in the moment of how precious life is when savored, how beautiful and even luminous in can be in the face of its impending loss.

While Campanellas book contained heart break and grief, it also offered me, a daughter whose own mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer in August of 2010, much needed comfort and perspective. While I have so often felt powerless when confronting my mothers cancer, Campenella has reminded me of my families strength and essential proficiencies. We are masters of loving, and as we weave our love throughout each and every moment that were together, we can create a sacred container which honors life and offers healing even in the absence of cure.

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Getting Through Painful Times With Positive Psychology

During this journey through my mothers lung cancer I am relying heavily on the concepts of positive psychology to help us get through. In Happiness: Lessons From a New Science, Richard Layard wrote, cultivate the sense of awe and wonder, savour the things of today; and look about you with the same interest as if you were watching a movie or taking a photo. Engage with the world and with the people around you. In one sense, as Leo Tolstoy said, the most important person in the world is the one in front of you now.
We leave before sunrise each week day morning to make it for moms radiation treatment on time. Yesterday, while pulling out of the drive way I noticed how incredibly beautiful the full moon looked hanging in the pre dawn sky. I pointed it out to my mother and we stopped the car and savoured it. Within a few moments I began to feel my breathing deepen and my body relax as I allowed myself to drift toward the pull of the moon. We hadnt needed to venture into the wilderness, or even stroll through a park, all we had to do was to simply pause and look up to be connected with something vast and beautiful and transcendent. I reached out and took my mothers hand and allowed myself to fully take in the blessing of it all.

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