Breathing in, Breathing out

I’ve not written much for months.  But I’ve been breathing in and out just the same.  Pretty forgettable behavior.  In fact, we breathe automatically, without even thinking.  Unless we can’t.  Or unless we become intentional about centering prayer, about listening to life happen within us.  I’d like to claim that’s what I have been doing instead of writing.  And I have.  Some.  However, we can’t stay focused on our breathing all the time.  We’d hyperventilate, or become neurotic, or both.  Sometimes we just need to breathe and not think about it.  That’s an important part of life’s balance, too.  Not obsessing.  Just being.

So that’s my excuse, my attempt at apology for not writing.  But, like holding my breath, withholding my words makes me comatose eventually.  And I must start writing again.   Like I must also pray.  Like I must also breathe.  Intent, prayer, breath are part of my autonomic nervous system, sometimes I regulate them, but mostly they regulate me.  Fascinating design plan.  Worth contemplating this morning as I write because I must.

So I wonder — what if we tried to live by only taking in air and not letting it go?  Maybe we’d be designed like puffer fish and bounce through life like a dirigible.  But our breathing teaches us we are designed for both taking in and letting go.  I believe the Designer made us this way on purpose.  Our very lives depend on a process that becomes a metaphor for everything we do.  We receive; we give.  We take in; we let go.  However, in much of our existence we seem to relish the taking and resist the releasing.  At least that’s my observation and my own experience.

In my present circumstances, I am preparing to fill my life with new vistas, new people, new experiences.  But to do so I must let go of familiar sights, friends, and good times in this place I’ve lived for thirty years.  Sometimes I literally hold my breath when I anticipate the struggle that change – even good change – brings.  Then I remind myself that the lesson I have learned in the struggle of the last three years is the necessity of trust.  I must accept change and trust the Universe with the outcome.  Even if I made no apparent changes in my life, change would come.  I age, I get new problems to solve, I meet new friends and lose track of old ones.  Finally, I die.  That’s the  ultimate breathing out humans most furiously resist.  Yet, the only way I know to find peace amidst change is to breathe in and breathe out.  On purpose.  Take over temporary control and choose each step in the process.  Live. Intentionally. Choose to trust the design and the Designer.

Perhaps it’s easier if we learn the art of release a little at a time. So I’m practicing. To do that I’ve decided I must first take time to relish the joy of taking in.  As I go through my closets, I remember the time I wore those shoes on a cruise.  Then I put them in the “to donate” box.  As I pack away vases for the auction, I remember the bouquet that came for my birthday.  I’ve found that if I take in a deep breath of life, then I can release joy into the universe.  Can I breathe like that all the time?  No!  I’m sure by the auction date, I will be operating from my sympathetic nervous system, feeling “flight or fight” adrenaline filling and emptying my lungs like a squeeze box.  But even that experience is a part of my life to accept, even to relish and remember when later I need a reminder that I survived that challenge and will yet survive more.

I am reminded of an anecdote from Madeleine L’Engle about preparing for a cross-country move to a smaller home.  A friend came to help her pack and to decide how to dispose of many favorite things.  For a time they pondered over a beautiful vase that had been a gift.  Madeleine’s heart was grieved to think of letting it go.  The friend held the vase lovingly for a moment, then dropped it and let the memory shatter on the floor.  Madeleine’s commentary on the moment:  “I told you she was practical.”  Sometimes change must be ruthless.  When I first read that account, I shuddered.  Now I’m wondering where one finds such a friend.  Or rather, finds the courage to ask her to help.

So I write today to report that I’ve spent this time of silence gaining on the habit of intentional breathing.  Taking in life and releasing joy is a gratitude exercise I’m finding easier and easier to practice.  But it’s a process.  My lungs can do it.  My spirit can do it, intermittently.  Now – if I can just get my mind to accept that meaning is not in things, meaning is in me – I’m sure, with practice, my mental breathing will grow deeper and more intentional as well.

 

 

So How Are You

At the beginning of a New Year, lots of organizations send appeals and retrospectives to encourage us to stay connected as we anticipate the coming days. My mailbox overflows it seems, and often the slicks go right to the recycle bin. But Center for Hospice holds a special place in my heart, so I didn’t just toss their missive when I winnowed it from the slippery stacks of incoming mail. The title caught my eye:  “As you approach the anniversary of your loss.”  Ah. True.  My birthday and Ron’s rebirth-day are just two months from this day. Deserves some reflection that marker.

The essay within, written by a young widower whose wife died of cancer, presented me with a new perspective on a wincing question that comes so often after a family death, “How are you doing?” I’ve asked it myself of other “bereaved” even though I know painfully well how impossible it is to give an accurate answer.  One part of you wants to scream, “How the hell do you THINK I’m doing having suffered the loss of someone I loved so deeply?” Another part longs to respond in laundry lists of misery: “I’m lonely! I walk around as though part of my own soul is missing! Everything in my life is disrupted!” Yet, most always the answer is, “I’m doing fine, thank you for asking.”   I think most of those experiencing grief would express a dislike for this all-too-frequent question.  However, the Hospice writer shares his own epiphany that this query is really for the asker.

He points out that those of us grieving a loss serve to remind others that mortality exists  When we walk into the room, we bring the specter of death in our train.  Most humans acknowledge that death is everyone’s fate, yet we continually are surprised by, even fearful of, any reminders that this reality applies personally.  And we avoid facing this truth as often as we can. One good sleight-of-emotion is to change fear and surprise into care and concern.  “How are YOU doing?”  Sympathy is a salve for our own souls  Not that this makes sympathy insincere,  just incomplete.

The suggestion I took to heart from the young man’s writing is that those of us most recently wounded by death serve as messengers to the rest of the world, walking reminders of the indefinite tenure of life. It is fine to ask me, “How  are you doing?” And fine for me to answer glibly or straightforwardly as I choose. However, the important question Death asks each of us to answer is “How am I doing?” This question is a gift, a chance to assess where I am  on my own temporary journey called “life.”  With an honest response, I can make needed adjustments, set better priorities, and better live my remaining days, however brief or long.

i like having a new way of facing this incessant question.  I can view “How are you doing?” in a more charitable light. I know Ron’s death has made me more keenly aware of the precious nature of life.  The uncertain treasure of tomorrow makes me value today even more.  And now,  when you ask after me, I can remember that one opportunity from Ron’s loss is to help you remember to ask this question of yourself so that you, too, may live life well..

This insight is an anniversary gift I shall treasure come my birthday, and Ron’s rebirth-day in March.  It’s a question I hope to keep asking – and answering positively – for  the rest of my life.  And , now, when I see you in the grocery store or at an event and your first thought is to ask me how I’m doing, I hope your second thought is to answer that question for yourself.  That will comfort me greatly,, and – I hope – you, too.

 

 

Day of Days

December 1st is a day of days in my life. Two years ago today our lives changed forever. By 6 am – the time I am writing this – we were already in the emergency room at our local hospital, assessing the extent of Ron’s stroke, contemplating where to go next. Two years later, the odyssey continues. Though Ron has moved on, I am still trying to figure out where to go next.

I know, when friends ask me how I am , I respond, “I am fine.” And I am. But I’m also not. “Fine” as I once knew it and “fine” as I am now are not equivalent – like the difference between walking on two legs, then walking with a brace. I have much to be thankful for and I am making life work, but I require extra support to keep going. And that’s okay. Fortunately for me, I have loving family and friends who brace me up. I have a faith and a prayer life that lift me when I falter. Still, today stings.

I had thought to spend this dreadful anniversary getting my left shoulder repaired. Since illness forced postponement of my surgery, I don’t have the luxury of anesthesia and pain killers to dull the ache of this day. Instead I am unpacking Christmas – for the first time in two years.

I had ordered a box of celebration helps – funny hats, crafts, etc., that I hadn’t yet opened by December 1st in 2013. Our planned theme was to celebrate the arts with our charitable giving that year, and to throw a “Karaoke Kristmas” party complete with singing and dancing. I couldn’t remember what party stuff I had ordered, so opening the box this year brought one surprise after another. For some reason I can’t now recall, I had ordered among the Santa hats and tambourine kits a pillow with a saying, “When you stumble, make it part of the dance.”

How unaware I was at the time of the extent to which I would be living those words. It feels to me that my life has been a stumbling effort to dance despite disaster for the past two years.

Wouldn’t it be nice if life never caused us to stumble? Or so we think. But today I must acknowledge the heartache, the loss, the longing for what once was, and the frustration with change that are a part of grief. I must own our story. And stumble under its weight. I can’t change the steps, but I can make them part of the dance.

Fishing for My Father

Recently, a friend challenged me to write about the times I have recognized the Spirit’s Presence in my life.  Now that my right shoulder is recovering well from my rotator cuff surgery, I will pick up my blog again to do some exploring of the long list I made of significant moments that have served to guide me on life’s journey. These “moments of clarity” are markers that keep us going through the foggy times of life.  I believe the Universe provides such moments to us all. Our job is to learn to recognize them. And sometimes we share what we have learned as a result.  Here is one such lesson from my life, entitled “Fishing for My Father.”

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​I never really wanted to go fishing, but my father hadn’t sought my company before. Ever. And so I felt an unaccustomed eagerness to be in his presence. What should I wear?

I don’t remember why the thought even occurred to me at age seven, but somehow that concern came first. Not what will I need or how do I fish, but what should I wear? Oh, I had caught fish before – I captured by hand little bluegill in the shallow stream that flowed through the ravine across the street. And I knew how to grab the crawdads behind their pinchers and watch them wave at strangers on the banks. So maybe I thought I knew everything I needed to know about going fishing. I had seen my father bait hooks and swish his line out to the deep part of the river whenever he had fished during family picnics. I knew what fishing meant. No questions there. But what should I wear?

​I settled upon a pair of trousers that I had worn to play cowboys and Indians with the neighborhood boys that spring. I knew a dress or skirt was out of the question for a fishing trip with my father. The pants felt a little snug, but I didn’t mind. I searched through the drawer for just the right top to set off the outfit, finally settling on a long-sleeved, pull-over shirt with one stripe my favorite shade of blue. Socks and black buckle shoes completed the ensemble. I felt like a princess ready for the ball.

​Eagerly, I made my way to the mid-section of our side of the duplex house my grandparents owned, the main room that we used as a dining room. In the adjacent kitchen, my mother hummed, preparing our sack lunches to take along on our excursion.

I struck a pose, standing on the large floor register that toasted my feet mid-winter, but stood cold and silent that July morning.

“How do I look, Daddy?” He was standing at the buffet that served as a collection point for all loose mail, keys, and pocket change. My father turned and surveyed me with a curious smile.

“Hot,” was his one word summary of my efforts. My gut registered disappointment. I hadn’t thought about weather or temperature, just my appearance. I decided not to be hot and to prove him wrong.

Mother shooed us both out the door, me holding the sack lunches and Daddy, wearing his special hat with his favorite flies hooked here and there, carrying everything else – tackle box, poles, minnow bucket, fishing net, and a small cooler for pop. We were a pair off on an adventure. I left with such hope.

The other details in my memory are more fragmented and perhaps blurred with memories of other attempts at fishing together on Cowan Lake. I don’t know how many times he took me, but I recall the excitement I felt at this first time of being chosen as a companion. And I remember the many lessons I learned that have stayed with me over the years. I discovered I had a lot to learn about fishing, about pleasing the men in my life, and about life in the Spirit.

Daddy was right. I was hot. But I never let on. I suffered in silence. A lesson it took me nearly thirty years to unlearn.

Although he never said so, I know Daddy was frustrated with my squeamishness and impatient with my constant retrieving of my line to see if a fish were making my bobber live up to its name, impatient because he would be the one who had to recast the line. Inevitably, his hoped-for bass would hit his bait and run while he was helping me. His reel, pole propped on a Y’d tree branch he’d cut that morning with his pocket knife, would spin out of control, and he was not there to set the hook. Usually the fish got away. Once he lost pole and all. Always I was aware it was my fault. Another lesson – one I still have to unlearn on a regular basis.

And yet another lesson I have learned perfectly: Fishing was not an activity I wanted to share. It required long quiet spells of sitting and doing nothing, while absorbing damp, earthy odors. I found it distasteful to impale a wiggling creature, whether earthworm or minnow, and cast it to its watery doom. And who would want to wash her hands in the brown water of an Ohio lake? The tedium was broken only by occasional outbursts of temper over tangled lines, snagged hooks, lost bobbers, or missed catches. However, the taste of fresh bluegill, fried in my mother’s iron skillet, did help erase most frustrations over a day of fishing for my father.

One important lesson from those early life experiences I didn’t realize until I was an adult. By this time, I was married to a pastor. I found myself, again, a fishing companion, only this time “fishing for people.” I think Jesus chose several fishermen for disciples because they were accustomed to disappointment, yet lived in hope of favorable conditions and a good catch. Now seen as a “professional religious leader” myself, I was often approached by disappointed, yet hopeful, people looking for help in “catching” some glimpse of Truth. Once a seeker asked me, “But how do you know if it’s God speaking to you or if it is just your imagination?” Immediately, I remembered the image of fishing for my father. On that first trip together, after I had pulled my line from the water to check for a fish about the tenth time, Daddy said, “Anna, when you think you might have a fish, you don’t. When you have a fish, you know you have one.” It’s the same with a message from God.  Only the surety will be the strong tug of love and assurance that pulls at your heart strings.  And, like the bluegill that provides you with dinner, the message nourishes and gives you a joy that erases the ache of life’s longings.

Sixty years later, with my earthly father now trusted to eternity and my little girl longings in mature perspective, I am grateful for those imperfect efforts at communion by the lake. The disappointments are forgiven on both sides. I was never going to be the son he’d hoped for. He was never going to the father I expected. Yet the memories we made together continue to teach lessons the Father of us both desires we master. And.that’s a catch worth waiting for.

Talking with Stones

Talk about pressure! Choosing a marker to represent the life of someone you love brings a whole new set of challenges in the grieving process. What symbols do I use? What verse from scripture would be best? Do I include Ron’s titles? How else do people know what his passion was? So many choices. I am paralyzed with uncertainty.

After all, these words ARE written in stone. The inscriptions encapsulate a lifetime of stories, experiences, and memories. A person’s headstone leaves a more or less permanent record that someone you still long for was here – lived and breathed, laughed and cried, found love and knew pain, but most importantly, is remembered. The challenge is to choose wisely.

What if I get it wrong?

I know many say they avoid the dilemma by choosing cremation and having their ashes scattered. Good for them. Not for me, thanks. Actually, Ron was okay with that approach – with burial for both of our cremains in one plot with a marker if desired. But we couldn’t agree, so we made a pact that the one left got to choose. And I’m the one still here. So he is buried in one space near my mother, and I will someday lie between them. The thought selfishly brings me comfort. Intellectually, I know it doesn’t matter, but humanly, I have a preference. And I live in a time when that preference is still possible. That burial decision is already made. I had a time limit on that one, so I got it done.

Now I have to choose a headstone. Why am I dragging my feet? I think I procrastinate because it’s so final. After this decision, what else will Ron need me to do? And so I keep exploring the options, rethinking the possibilities. And that’s okay. For awhile.

Maybe for some who lose a partner the struggle comes over getting rid of clothing or repurposing a room. Those were not so difficult for me somehow. However, this decision over headstones I’m agonizing over. “We each grieve in our own way,” folks are fond of saying. I guess, then, this choice is my opportunity to have a little dramatic hissy fit over having to do this alone. Ron was always my sounding board, my option explorer, my whetstone for sharpening my focus. And he’s not here. And I miss his wise counsel. And that pisses me off. Strange how we devolve to toddler-level temper tantrums when we grieve.

The reason I didn’t have his help with this decision was because we agreed to disagree and left the decision for the widow or widower to make. After all, the final arrangements exist to comfort the bereaved. The departed one is on to new adventures. Besides, Ron wanted the stupid flat stones that he thought would be easy to mow over – even though I pointed out to him that grieving family members still stuck urns with flowers or other mementoes at the graveside that made it impossible to mow over with the lawn tractor. And how could you find the spot without something to see from a distance? And besides, I’d argue, the grass has to be dug out or it grows over the stone and covers up the name. Ron saw no disadvantage in that, figuring once there was no one to tend the memory any longer, it didn’t matter if the grass took over. He was so logical. Gee, I miss that.

But I’m a passionate romantic. And I believe he misses that. Or maybe he is made perfect now and has achieved pure balance. Perhaps, then, I can look forward to that equanimity of spirit that was so frustratingly his. Sweet speculations. Whatever will be will be. And it will be good. Just as our life together was good even though we were not perfect.

So how do I resolve my struggle? How do I get off dead center and move forward? The way Ron and God have taught me to resolve every other inner conflict I have ever discussed with them – you choose, Anna. Even if you decide later it was wrong. Just do your best because, you see, nothing is really written in stone. Everything comes to pass. The only unchangeable force in the universe is God, yet God’s mercy is new every morning. So fear not. Choose.

It’ll be fine, Anna.

Maybe that is what I should put on the tombstone!

What Gives You Pause?

Before he studied to be an industrial engineer, my dad taught in a one room schoolhouse. Sometimes he would remember a favorite lesson and try to teach it to me. Once he asked me to read a sentence he jotted on a 3×5 card:

All that that is is all that that is not is not

Without punctuation, not knowing where to pause, the words were nonsensical, a jumble. Then he added the missing pauses and asked me to try again.

All that, that is, is; all that, that is not, is not.

This tautology always made Daddy smile, especially when he could share his puzzle with the uninitiated. I can still see him seated at the 1956 gray Formica kitchen table, white shirt sleeves rolled, the slide rule in his shirt pocket nudging a pack of Lucky Strikes. I can still hear his soft chuckle. Of course the statement was silly, an unnecessary repetition of the obvious. However, knowing where to put the pause gave the reader power over the text, allowed her to make the reading meaningful. That was my introduction to the importance of punctuation – and the pause.

Life can seem like an unpunctuated sentence at times. Days follow days like laundry hung on a clothesline. Where is the meaning in that? Of course, our work and our culture offer us some interruptions from monotony – the “weekend,” the “vacation” However, interruption and pause are not quite the same thing. One is happenstance; one intentional.

The pause that matters most – I believe – is the moment of chosen reflection, the drawn breath of gratitude, the recognition that life is a gift. To be aware in the present is to experience the IS-ness of life. The Biblical story of Moses and the Burning Bush (one most notable pause) teaches us that God’s name is I Am. As a result, for those who subscribe to the faith story that we are all the children of God, we know our name, too. We are the Am Family.  And if all that, that is, is; and, all that, that is not, is not, then we better make sure we IS!

I don’t know how you make sure you IS, but I find that I reflect best by reading and writing.  Through the power of story I can discover if I am being who I intend to be or if I need to make mid-course corrections. Reflection is a powerful tool.

The South Bend Tribune recently published an article about the Reading for Life program in which a juvenile offender is paired with a mentor to read a book with significant themes and strong heroes who must make important choices.  Other communities have implemented similar programs with equal success.  Why?  Because a story allows humans to pause their narrow focus on themselves long enough to make connections with another, to consider our similar frustrations and pain, to entertain new possibilities for making life more meaningful.

That result is what everyone wants more than anything else in life – meaning.  And that understanding happens when we struggle with the text of our own lives, when we put the pauses in the best order to make sense of what IS.  Not what we pretend, not what we dream, not what we desire, but what IS.

I hugged a fellow widow at church yesterday who asked the usual question, “How are you doing?”  I gave the usual response, “I am fine! How are you?” She replied, “I’m fine, too.” We exchanged knowing looks.  “What are the options, right?”

Right.  Except there are other attitudes to choose from.  To choose to face life as it really is and yet to be grateful, to remain aware of the gift life represents, and to work through grief in hope I think represents the best path.  But I must insert regular pauses to keep that awareness, to help make that meaning clear.

In life, it is not the pause with Coca-Cola that refreshes, but the pause in the Presence of I Am.  Punctuate responsibly.

 

Firsts

And so begins a series of “firsts” in the grieving process. Today is Ron’s birthday – the first since his death on March 11th (my birthday). I am teary. Not surprising.  At first I was tempted to give in, to begin this day filled with reflection on my loss.

However, Facebook popped up a “year-iago-today picture” for me this morning. The image caught me by surprise, fluttered briefly on my screen, and then disappeared into my news feed before I could decide whether I wanted to repost it. The photo was from Ron’s birthday party at Summertrace rehab center on Sunday, July 13, 2014. We were all wearing mustaches. Ron was trying to play “Drop-the-Ring-on-the-Birthday cake.”

Of course the picture brought tears to my eyes, but it also reminded me of the burden Ron bore every day – his paralysis and pain, his cough (he tried to eat rice pudding Dean made for him, but couldn’t), his tired smile (he wanted to enjoy the children, but needed to go back to his room to rest).  So much weariness and struggle – for both of us. How could I wish him back for another birthday like that?

And so I choose to celebrate his re-birthday today.  I rejoice that he no longer has to compromise with physical life, a dynamic spirit trapped in an uncooperative body.  He did his best.  He stayed as long as he could.  The tears are for me, not for him.  Yet I should not weep.  This is a day for the first celebration of his legacy – to be glad that in this life he did more than exist, he lived by faith, he made a difference, and he loved me.  How fortunate we both were. How fortunate we both still are.

So I will dry my tears today – again and again, if necessary.  I will embrace the day and its gifts  I will remember that the longings I feel are reminders of the eternal nature of love.

The only defense against grief is life.  To live in sorrow is a selfish indulgence of my own needs that helps no one and has no power to transform.  That attitude is the antithesis of Ron’s legacy, a disservice to his memory.  So today remember with me what Ron stood for in his life:  letting the needs of others set our daily agenda, understanding that our gifts are meant to be shared, holding ourselves to a standard of excellence, but knowing God’s grace holds us secure in our striving.

May every “first” celebration remind me of Ron’s approach to living.  This year will give me lots of opportunities to practice.  In fact, this coming July 18th would have been our 34th wedding anniversary.  So now I can just reread this post to regain my focus.  I’m sure I will need to.  The process of grief is not linear, but recursive.  That’s why the “firsts” really never become seconds or thirds.  Time does not dull grief; we must let time change our use of grief.