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Archive for December 6th, 2015

All of a sudden, I realized that we were only a few weeks away from Christmas.  I’m visiting my parents, to do a little IT work for them on their new Mac Mini.  My father put the tree up the day before I got here.  It’s weird to see a tiny artificial tree.  But it was an undeniable sign of what season and time it really is.

Growing up in CT, we had a 10ft ceiling in our foyer and a full wall mirror that reflected our huge tree.  Dad and I would decorate the tree and Mike and Mom would bake and cook.  And then, of course, we’d critique the job the others did.  Not enough of the “good cookies”, not enough tinsel here but too much there.  This are the little moments that annoy you in the moment or pass you buy because they are so ordinary they are extra-ordinary.  And god, if they aren’t the painful little moments that you’d give anything to have again after you’ve had a major loss.

It’s been 20 years and our lives could not be more different than they were the year Mike died.  I think one of the reasons that Mike’s loss was so huge for me, (it’s do different for parents), is that his loss brought the close of the biggest and longest part of my life.  It was truly the beginning of me losing such a sense of awe in the world, the sense of wonder, and the feelings of being safe, knowing that you had family and friends who were like family, to surround you.  What I mean is this:

My paternal grandmother died when I was in elementary school.  My landlady, who we called grandma, died shortly before that.  My 16 year old cousin died.  I moved from my childhood home and then two more times.  And I left all of the kids in my elementary school and did not go on to Catholic high school with them.

It was two years after that when my grandfather died, shortly after my 16th birthday.  This was a loss I never thought I’d survive.  I did, but life was not the same.  Left CT for two years of college in NY and then got exiled to Tennessee.  A year, maybe a year and a half after being there, we found out that Mike was sick.

A family friend, Harris, died less than a year before Mike.  Harris was my best buddy, and in many ways I was the daughter he never had.  That all feels like a loss resume, not a life.  But with Harris and Mike dying, I became an adult.  I was the only child, not the baby.  I was now a caregiver, becoming a professional, looking toward grad school and leaving family.  Again, I didn’t know how we could live after all of this loss.  But we did.  And I guess I’ve had a lot of experience with impermanence and goodbyes in my life.

I share this, not to boast about my losses, but to show that our lives felt shattered and at times, there seemed to be nothing left of who we one were.  And so many of the people, the experiences, support, history connected to our family was forever gone, save our memories and shared recollections.  Our customs changed.  No more midnight mass.  No more shopping in Stamford or Westport.  No more Ralph Lauren sweaters or trying to trick Mike into not knowing what his gifts were going to be.  No more Christmases my grandparents or with Harris and his wonderful wife Barb.

It might sound trite, and I hate to say it, but life goes on.  But damn did I wonder if I really wanted it to at some of the toughest times.  The second year without Mike was the worst.  I was in grad school and the three of us tried to have Christmas in my tiny little crappy apartment.  We had traveled a long way from our Victorian-era house with our huge tree.  What was bad about it was that ALL of this loss was real at that point.  There was no where to hide, to pretend life hadn’t changed.  For two whole years before Mike died, we wondered. . . will this be the last Christmas?  Will this be the last time we take the tree down on his January birthday?  Or accepting that he’d never be able to eat mom’s Christmas cookies.  And then 10 months after he died, we somehow got through the first Christmas.  But the second, for us, was so real.  There was no turning back.  NO room for speculation.  The rollercoaster became one long downward trajectory.

Looking back, I wish I knew what I learned after working for hospice.  There, I learned to help people create new rituals, create new memories and new relationships, and to honor in communion the losses that had touched their hearts.  We’ve always been good about keeping those who have died alive in our daily conversations.  They were physically gone, but never forgot, never would we have stifled each other’s transformed relationships with all of these people we loved.  But moving forward and creating new meaning and new lifelong relationships, those things were tougher.

I learned that you are only limited by your sense of adventure, maybe your budget, and possibly not having the energy to expend right now.  At some point, you’ll be ready.    I did all kinds of things with both the kids and adults who came to see me. We created beautiful luminaries out of white paper lunch bags and kringle cut scissors.  We decorated papermache boxes.  We made beaded bracelets (not that unlike Pandora but we’re talking plastic, not rhinestones).

With out teens, we meditated, wrote songs, brought in songs that reminded of us grief or songs that reminded us of the person we lost.  We made mix tapes because playlists had not been created yet.  We brought foods that they enjoyed with us while they were alive.

I suggested having a special table cloth and always having markers on the table during the holidays.  Anyone who was “new” to the table came and left their mark. . .a message, a signature, whatever.  And you created new memories as well as having it to honor those who no longer broke bread with you.

We let off biodegradable balloons.  We made ornaments.  We created stepping stones.  We read a beautiful Jewish prayer, all as a group, to honor and remember those no longer physically with us.  We held moments of silence.  We gave to angel trees (that was actually my folks. . . every year buying a small boy something like a bike and books for Christmas.  As mom explained it, she couldn’t give her little boy gifts anymore but she could make someone else’s little boy very happy).

But, if you were here, sitting with me, I’d ask you theses questions:

What are your cherished memories of the holidays?  What customs did you have?  Do you still have them?  Do they hold the same meaning or are they altered?  What have you changed because it was too painful to continue?  Are these celebrations meaningful to you still or have they become hollow and right now you are going through the motions?

Who do you have on speed dial or whose house can you run over to when despair starts to creep in?  Have you carved out time to care for yourself while trimming trees, recreating old family recipes, lighting candles, etc?  Have you taken a moment to connect with those who are gone?  Do you keep them updated on what’s going on or do you ask them to help you carry on?

How do you keep people part of the family and honor them when kids are involved?  Have you been honest with them about the loss(es)?  Have you given your kids (or your siblings, parents, friends, etc) the invitation to grieve?  Have you loosened your tight upper lip and allowed yourself to feel with others?  What gift do you need this year?

I’d love to hear from you, to learn about those you have lost or how you lived with their dying and how you remembered them after they had died. If you have any great ideas for activities or momentos, I would love to hear from you.  Please feel free to share as much or as little as you feel comfortable with.

Wishing you a warm heart, filled with peace during this cold winter.  May you find light during your dark hours and may you hold light for others, when you can.  May you share your grief as readily as you shared your love.

Take gentle care of yourself and wherever you are in your grief, let yourself be there and be present.

With gratitude and respect, Jennifer

 

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In his book, Peace Begins Here, Thich Nhat Hanh writes:  “Despair is the worst thing that can happen to us.”  He was a young monk during the war in Vietnam and he knew that those around him were suffering and feeling like no hope was in sight; maybe hope wasn’t even possible.  After being silent for quite awhile, Thay said to those around him:  “Dear Friends, the Buddha said everything is impermanent.  The war has to end one day.”  He felt this was important for people to hear at that moment.  He hoped that they realized there were things for them to do to life themselves out of the despair, once they realized that that’s where they were.

And as I was reading, I thought these were important words to live by, for me, here and now, both on the global level and the individual level.  Right now, I am facing a difficult situation, a bit of a crossroads and don’t know which way to go and since I am not clear, I find that I can get trapped right where I am, stagnant, fretting, wondering, conjecturing, etc.  And what does that do but wake up me up at 3am.  It saps my energy, makes me cranky, increases my stress, I have more pain on more days, and shut down and off, alienating myself from the few people right around me that care.

Isn’t that how I, and much of the world, feels right now about the situation with our planet melting, children going hungry, the rich getting richer, it being illegal to feed a homeless person, people being killed because they show up to help people at the job at Planned Parenthood and are being killed, etc.  Or they go to a movie, a game, a holiday party a restaurant and are being bombed.  We are paralyzed by fear and smoldering anger that we don’t know what to do with, that we cannot fathom there is anything that we can do with that intense level of emotion.  We get stuck, we stew, we head to Facebook or Twitter and rip into someone or some idea.  We get barely a second of satisfaction but it’s hallow and it doesn’t last.  All it does is exercise our anger muscles, making them stronger.  Sounds like my life is a mere echo of what so many in the world are feeling today.

But in his book, Thay goes on to say,  “It is very important to find out what we can do every day so that we don’t drown in an ocean of despair.”  He explains further that there are Israelis who do not agree with their government and speak out and they need to be supported.  At the same time, there are Israelis who refuse to go to war because they know it is wrong.  Does that change the pain and suffering of the Palestinians?  Yes and no.  Does it solve the bigger picture or end the war, hate, and deaths?  No.  There is no simple answers or remedies to that.  Does it help to know that there are people on both sides who want peace and do not want to see one more generation of people killed?  Yes.  It helps to give you a bigger perspective, to move from fear and anger into feelings of unity, cooperation, and hope.

We can’t always wait for sweeping gestures or one final solution to a conflict, global or not.  Some times it is the simple smile or acknowledgement by a stranger that can snap us into a different frame of mind.  We move ourselves from the perspective of being stuck, overwhelmed, and seeing no way out to having some sort of options.  Or we know someone else out there feels similar about a situation.  It’s a sliver of light in a dark universe.  It’s the seed of change being watered and cared for until it becomes a seedling.

In my own situation, it does me no good to sit and brood about my problems or to wallow in the Poor Mes.  I’ve done it, sat in it and it’s time to change that diaper.  So I do not have the power to change my ultimate outcome but I can change my perspective on the path from here to there.  I can educate myself, talk to others, do something for others, reach out, ask for help, sit with the painful feelings and fear and work to accept that right now, that’s where I am at.  I can blog, meditate, visualize, ask questions, listen, inject humor.  And like in Logotherapy, I can think of and feel the most outrageous thing associated with my situation, the things I fear the most, deep down within my cells, and see the absurdity or anxiety which stems from those fears.  Then I am able to move through feeling paralyzed to action, advocacy, helping others, etc.

Everything in life is impermanent. . .  this election cycle, global warming, all of the hatred for people who are “the other”.  Our health, our age, our relationships, our grief, our illness, our vocation, our material things. . .  none of them last in this existence, in the same way, unchanging forever.  That takes some of the pressure off.  It lifts us out of option reduction and narrow thinking to realize that things will change when we take a minute (or longer).  I think despair is even more deadly, darker, more stuck than hate or anger.  I think that despair can be the quagmire that some cannot turn back from.

So here are my questions to you (and to myself):  where are you, here and now, in your ideas, feelings, perceptions, relationships, grief, boredom, etc?  Where are the areas of your life that you cannot imagine ever changing, ever being better, ever being worse?  What is it like for you to be with that?  If you sit with the idea and feeling that something in your life that matters, good or bad, will not last, will be gone, what comes up for you?  What arises when you think of your health disappearing?  Your youth?  The love of your life?  Your enemy?  What are the things that bring up loss in your heart?  Can you let them light in your heart?

One of the most amazingly healing things that I have ever done, and I know I have written about it before, is the tapes/cds, by Stephen and Andrea Levine, The Heart of Grief.  They describe the huge painful losses and griefs, the small daily ones, the ones we don’t think we want to live after, the ones that make us or break us.  Its a good program to listen to when you want to meditate on impermanent.  There are also meditations that you can do, such as ones on end-of-life. . . but start off small.  Don’t take on the huge issues, especially without support.  Find a mediation buddy or teacher or sangha or therapist.  And if you never heed these words about anything else in life, heed them on your journey. . . take gentle care of yourself.

In light and hope,

Jennifer

 

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I grew up Catholic.  I went to 8 years of Catholic school, 2 years of Catholic undergrad, and a Catholic grad school, though I did not pick the two colleges because they were Catholic.

I was first introduced to Thich Nhat Hanh’s work my third semester at Mt. St. Mary College.  Our amazing professor had us read Walking Meditation and The Miracle of Mindfulness.  I do not remember what video she had us watch, this was 1990 probably, but when I saw Thay for the first time, I was astounded.  I had never seen a person who was so happy.  He was amazing.  He seemed to be at such peace and his slow, soft voice, even with the Vietnamese accent, seemed to cut through a lot of nonsense and get to the essence of what is important.

Now, this was the third semester of philosophy that I had.  General philosophy that I absolutely loved and General Ethics (also loved).  I had never read things like Plato or Simone de Beauvoir.  In one semester, I was introduced to existentialism and the next to Buddhism and I thought. . . these people are from the planet that I was meant to inhabit, as if they were long last family or they had appeared at my door to tell me they were taking me home.  And from there, I have studied both subjects and have come to think of them as two sides of a coin.

Anyway, before I was done with my fourth semester, I decided to take refuge in the triple gems:  The Buddha, The Sangha, and The Dharma.  I know I’m not the only one to explore in college.  But I had rejected the Church’s teaching very young.  At one point I told my parents I would not get confirmed because I could no longer recite a prayer in good faith.  So, by 8th grade at least I was setting out to find something.  Between 8th grade and college I succumbed to the empty vacuum of not believing in much.  And then, my wise teacher, at Catholic college helped to change my life and I will always be grateful to her and to Thich Nhat Hanh.

I share this part of my story as a set up to the real ideas I want to share.  So I was a New Englander, raised Catholic, saddle shoe wearing, single in church choir and say the rosary before school girl.  My family is French, English, and German and our family has been in the US since at least the Revolutionary War.  So, you probably have a picture of who I might be.  And if you saw me this time of year, you would not think twice before wishing me a Merry Christmas.  And yet my oldest and dearest friend is Asian and you might be more inclined to hesitate saying or maybe even saying those dreaded words, “Happy Holidays”.  And who would blame you.  And yet the assumption that is so easy to make would be wrong.  Book. . . Cover. . . You get the point. . .

I was so privileged to grow up when and how I did.  Mom worked with a lovely Jewish woman who always sent Matzah home to my brother and I at passover.  My friends were Polish, Irish/Italian, Laotian, Black, etc.  I volunteered for the Jewish Home for the Elderly in CT. I have met a lot of people during my life that have never experienced much diversity.

And please don’t think that I was super savy.  When an elderly woman at the Jewish home told me I was such a good little jewish girl, I wondered, in 8th grade, what my pastor would think.  I’ve had 6 years of French and can’t speak of word of it.  I’ve not traveled the world but I knew, from where I had the privilege of being born and raised, was that my experience was not everyone else’s.  I knew Jews did something on Friday night but we did Mass on Sunday, sometimes Saturday.  And I knew that they ate Tam Tams  and Manischewitz and we had wafers and grape juice.  I knew that although we were similar, we were different.

So, I say Happy Holidays, I do.  I don’t feel bad for it.  And I no longer get mad when people wish me a Merry Christmas.  I used to get angry.  I’d think who the heck are you to just assume you know me and who I am and what I believe.  I’d think, who are you to think that the whole world sees everything just like you?  I do sometimes still joke a work, “no I don’t want to be part of the Secret Santa. . . not my holiday”.  But it is said in gest.

There are so many holidays that happen between Halloween and New Years, for so many different spiritual traditions:

Day of the Dead, Halloween, Samhain, All Soul’s Day, All Saint’s Day, Thanksgiving, Chanukah, Bodhi Day, Advent, Yule, Kwanzaa, etc.  All of these world religions, traditions, festivals, etc.  May honor or celebrate the light that shines through our darkest time, honoring the dark, restorative winter, the bounty of year, the resolution of the past year and the readying for the new year to come.  So, it’s a bit of a privileged position to think that everyone I come in contact with is going to be celebrating the same way, the same days, or celebrating at all.

I want to be inclusive.  I don’t want someone to feel left out, put out.  I remember my grandfather being rude to my best friend when he said that his parents were not celebrating Thanksgiving and my grandfather thought that was unheard of.  It didn’t bother my friend, but it did me.  I know I am not responsible for how someone feels.  I even know my grandfather wasn’t being malicious but I do know how I felt when it was assumed that if you lived in our country, you must celebrate our holidays.

I love winter.  I love when snow falls.  I’m happier when it’s cold.  I love the shift in sunlight that starts in September and changes as we go into the depth of winter and back out again just before spring.  I love looking at Christmas lights.  And I love my friends.  I want them to know that not only do I respect their ideas and customs but also that I celebrate the differences between us.  I don’t want race or religion to be something that distracts us but something that brings us closer together.

And I want to feel seen and heard.  I don’t want someone to assume to know something about me before they meet me.  I want to say happy holidays and acknowledge that whatever their tradition, I wish for them a warm hearth, bountiful means, never ending love and friendship, and to celebrate that no matter how much darkness we are surrounded by, at Yule or Christmas, Chanukah or the Epiphany.  But I don’t want to assume I know who the stranger is in front of me; I want to welcome them to share their traditions with me.

I want to be curious.  I want to let them know that I see them and don’t presume to know.  I want to connect and hope someone feels welcome.  So when you see me or a Jennifer in your life, or a barista or a gas station attendant, or fast food worker, or business person and they wish you a Happy Holiday, please don’t think I am (or they are) at war with your beliefs and instead am trying to honor who you are and what you believe — not matter what it is.

In light and love, Jennifer

 

 

 

 

 

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