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Archive for the ‘Rituals, Rites, Religion, Spirituality’ Category

Hang out with people who are capable of making a commitment to you and your life, and who require that you make a commitment to theirs. Hang out with people who care about you, with people who need you to develop and who say so. Make such a commitment and don’t break that bond until you and all beings are perfect.

~~Reb Anderson, “In It Together”

To my two oldest and dearest friends,

I know you don’t want to talk about Advanced Directives and dying;  I get it and I love you for willing to be my surrogates once my parents die and for making that kind of commitment to me.

But I felt like I needed to put this out to the universe because more and more of us aren’t having kids, aren’t marrying, are married to their work, travel all the times, etc.  So here goes.

My time being with you was oh so short but you left a mark on my heart, like you were a sharpie.  I cannot think of two kinder people.  Nor do I know anyone who would continue making a scared contact with me for lifetimes.

As I look back, at mid-life, I have stood on the shoulders of so many who were there to catapult me into different lessons I had to learn, or as Ondrea Levine has said, “the healing I took birth for”.  From first or second grade, I’ve lost a lot of people:

Grandma Stevens

Grace

Aunt Ida, her brother Harold, (the spitting image of my grandpa), Cora, & Marge (I was closest to Aunt Ida by proximity)

Grandma & Grandpa  Martin

Harris & Barb

Grandpa Stevens

Mike

Tommy & his partner

Mike

Mike from CARES

Keith (Lois’ friend from CARES)

Amy’s mom Franny

Lois

And those are people with whom I’m close, not to mention all of the people who I counseled through hospice and other places I’ve worked.

Most people would see a list of losses and not have a clue what to say.  But I do, at least from my POV and previous experiences.  And what do I say?  one people where they are at, even if you don’t agree with it.  Let these folks live on until you re-commit to doing this all over again and begin anew.

I heard, during hospice orientation, a wonderful nurse Mosier said, “It’s a privilege and an honor to work with our patients and their families.”  And oh my god, did I get it once I started having clients.  And why did I love the work?  Because people who are dying go for bullshit; most don’t play games.  They are themselves and either take to you in and love you or drop you like a hot potato.  Who has time for drama and for squabbles when there is so much to do.  And this idea and feeling got me through some of the roughest times.

So I hope you get that we all have some control over how we leave this world.  Tibetan masters used to pick out the day of their deaths so has not to leave an energy gap for his sangha.  Now thats’s crazy mad skills (which I do not possess.” But I want my say too.  This hospitalization for my migraines shown me that I don’t want to wait until the end of life as it’s no longer his/her dying, it’s The Dying or my dying.  I want to tell you I love you every time we are in contact.  I wish I could hug you each day for the rest of our lives, but I cannot in person, so I do it in my dreams.

I am so honored to be able to call each of you my friend; two of the very best as a matter of fact.  Each of you came into my life when I needed help, a boost, a friend and I’ve never been more grateful for anything.

My Advanced Directives are not macabre; they are life-affirming.  They are not going to make me die sooner nor are they a statement about how I feel about my life.  They are to tell you, the two I love the most, after my folks what the heck I want when I can’t speak for myself.  That’s a pretty intimate thing and I don’t take it lightly, but I also don’t take my friendships with you for granted.

It’s like handing you the flashlight to my heart, so that you can see what’s there.  I do not want to suffer and if I can’t be conscious of the love that surrounds me in this world, then  don’t want to be a part of it.  I want to be surrounded by love and peace.  I want to go out of this world, to wait for our next incarnation together.  I don’t want to live in fear of dying and I don’t want to suffer the way Mike did for years.  If I cannot see the beauty in the world, then it’s time.

I wish we all could have as much love and attention to those who are being born into dying as we do being born into this world.  I’ve seen magic happen.  Lois’ last year or 2 were amazing.  She lived her dying like the spiritual warrior and Earth Mother that she was and surrounded by little pink lights (that’s another story).

I think the greatest good in this world be companioning someone who is dying.  And if my folks are gone, I pray that I will have one or both of you to be there and we keep are commitments to each other.

And to those who read this blog, think about where you stand, and then for goodness’ sake, tell someone.  Get it in writing.  Because when its too late, it truly is too late.  And thank you for witnessing.   Invite the ones you love to the conversation and then love them every day.

Addendum:  I decided to publish this because more and more people aren’t getting married, having kids, whatever… they need to have the conversation with those who will be there in the end.  Don’t wait to be a golden girl to have THE TALK.

Blessings, Jen

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Caregiving has always been a “thing” that my family did.  Growing up, my brother and parents helped take care of our land lady, Grandma Martin, who lived upstairs and had Melanoma.

In 8th grade/Freshman year in high school, I volunteered at The Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield Co.

We took care of my grandfather after heart surgeries.  And there were a number of them.  Some cardiac surgeon probably built a gazebo with all of the stays my grandfather had at Yale.

1993-1995, we were caregivers to my dying brother.  Don’t try to be a caregiver if you don’t have support and a good massage therapist, yoga teacher, and awesome friends!

I’ve worked with people who have DD diagnosis, addicts, hospice, and general counseling.  Have helped my parents with food prep for their freezer or late night computer questions.  Weight Watchers leader, etc.  Have done that since Dec 2013.

Then sometimes, the tables are reversed; some times out of choice, some times because that’s the way the world turns….

I find myself as patient right now and will be again this Spring.  Hospitalized from uncontrolled migraines.  And this is the best thing I’ve ever done for myself, save completing my Advanced Directives.

But being on the other end of caregiving has been weird the past 2 1/4 days.  It’s weird to have folks kind of waiting on me.  It’s weird being pushed down the hall in a wheel chair rather than pushing (which is what I did when I hurt my back at the nursing home).  And I figured out in less that 24 hours, they gave me 102 oz of ice water to drink.  God, my Grandma (Gussy) would have loved all the ice water.

Anyway, the staff at St Joseph’s Hospital in Chicago, have been sooo awesome!  I cannot say that enough.  What a difference in caregiving from what I see every day, day in and day out at my workplace.  I had not planned to order dinner but at 5:30, I even had the cafe call and ask if I was planning to order.  How nice and dedicated to service this hospital is.  This is also the unit (floor) for the Diamond Headache Clinic and I always feel I get good care there too.

But, when I was wheeled down for an MRI, this tiny woman from Yugoslavia pushed me in the wheelchair.  She was well over 60 and I felt like a heel for them having her do it.  I was doped on Valium but could have pushed myself down there.  What went through my head was, you don’t deserve this, I am able and competent. . . yada, yada. . .

But I heard myself, as I talked to myself.  I was raised that the way you do good in this world, the reason you took this life, (or that the gods gave it to you) was to love others, be of service, and emulate your life like the great wise ones (well, as a catholic girl, that was Mary, Jesus, etc).  I have felt guilt for years if I wasn’t the one making things better.  But, as I read on the wall downstairs, we are here to give love to our neighbors and treat them well. . . not something being seen much in the media, social media, etc etc.

So here are some of the questions I am asking myself while I try to be mindful during my stay here:

What does caregiving mean to me?  Am I comfortable with the role of caregiver and care receiver?  If not, why?  Who have been the caregivers in my life and what was our relationship?  Who have I given care to?  Do I remember them all (as a professional who worked with HIV clients, I’ve had many patients die).  What gifts that I and my wards give each other?  What blessing did my caregivers grant me, if any?  If you are still currently a caregiver, do you use your support system, do you say no, how do you recharge your battery, how do you balance issues of intimacy?  Can you turn off your caregiving to be present at home?  What’s the most important part of caregiving for you?  What kind of care do you need.

In spirit… Jennifer

 

 

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All violence is injustice.  Responding to violence with violence is injustice, not only to the other person but also to oneself.  Responding to violence with violence resolves nothing; it only escalates violence, anger, and hatred.  It is only with compassion that we can embrace and disintegrate violence.  This is true in relationships between individuals as well as in relationships between nations.

~~  Thich Nhat Hanh, “Cutivating Compassion to Respone to Violence”

This quote is a bit of a hard one to chew on right now.  First because it feels like we are enveloped in a violent world.

We’ve ravaged the planet.  Multiple countries are at war in the world and no one except, maybe France, has declared war. . . or so it seems. Our political candidates are inciting mobs to injure people and some are saying hateful things about certain groups that if the candidate laid a hand on the people they hate so much, it would be called a hate crime because of their protected status.

A war on drugs.  On cancer.  On the left.  On the right.  Women.  Abortion.  Christmas.  We seem to have a constant sale on wars and we can’t get enough.  And all of this violence and absolutely nothing feels just.

On a personal note, this quote is a bit tough to meditate on becuase I find myself getting so angry when I read Facebook.  I want to (and admit I sometimes do) post messages that are mean, name-calling, etc.  It is all just TOO much.

But then, I take a minute and reflect which then leads me to reflect on more things for more time.  One of the things I keep trying to bring to my mind’s eye is a picture from a Thich Nhat Hanh talk (I don’t remember if he said this in 2003 when I saw him or if it was an audio Dharma talk).

He said when you are seated on your cushion, sit tall and steady.  And place your hands on your lap, palms up, and imagine a baby Buddha sitting in your palms.  Hold your hands like you are cradling the baby Buddha and allow a half-smile to come to your face as you glance down at the baby.

I find when I can remember to do this, to take the time, it settles me.  I try to think, what if whomever I am angry at was the baby Buddha.  How would my anger, my frustration, my mindlessness affect the baby? Would I want to do that to the baby Buddha?

And lately, I have been asking myself, can you hold the whole planet like it is the baby Buddha?  Some days I can and I feel at peace.  Other days, I don’t think I can hold anything because I have fists, not open palms.

Right now, where are you?  Can you sit and imagine yourself as the baby Buddha?  The planet?  The person who cut you off on the parkway?  Your boss?  The person at the grocery store?  Can you imagine any little bit of love that can start to cool the embers that envelope us all on this planet?

Take gentle care and remember those around you are suffering just like you.

Love and peace, Jennifer

 

 

 

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Whether we’re looking inside ourselves or outside ourselves, we need to cut off the head of whatever we meet, and abandon the views and ideas we have about things, including our ideas about Buddhism and Buddhist teachings.

Thich Nhat Hanh, “Simply Stop”

Well, this is probably a paraphrase of one of the most famous Buddhist sayings. . . in other words, “If you see the Buddha in the middle of the road, kill him.”

Yes, I am continuing my topic of letting go that I started earlier today.  In that post, I wrote about letting go of a friendship that is no longer useful, beneficial, or healthy.  But what about our ideas?

Here’s an interesting one from my personal life. . .   My father was estranged from his sister for a good portion of his life.  I grew up hearing that he would walk on by even if she was struggling and needed help.  He would not talk to her for any reason.  She tried to call a few times and he refused to take them.  Mom tried to get him to talk to her.  Finally, as my dad’s aunt (the only living sibling from that generation) was getting on in years, closer to dying, she talked to my dad about this a lot.  There is great wisdom in the generations before us.  Especially from our elders.

Dad went back home to go to his aunt’s funeral and he took the trip over to see his sister.  I thought I might die of a heart attack.  I never, never thought I would see that day.

They didn’t get any closer in the 2 years prior to her death.  He called from time to time to see how she was and she was so sickly he usually talked to her eldest daughter.  He did return for her funeral as well.

I’m not sure if he found peace of mind (and heart) by getting a hold of her, but he felt that out of his respect and love for his aunt, it was the right thing to do.

How many times do we hold on to things we heard growing up?  How often do we continue to listen to the tapes again and again?  Or worse, how many times do we refuse to look at a thought because we can’t imagine who we would be without it?

So here are my questions to you:  What things to you believe to be truthful about the world you live in (your personal world and the world we all share?  What are the thoughts that you would die to defend?  What are one’s that you question but haven’t been able to let go of?  What thoughts or beliefs have you been able to shed and how was your world changed without them?

Yours truly on this crazy journey.

Jennifer

 

 

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It is hard to let go of things, harder to let go of ideas, and even harder to let go of spiritual pretensions. Over time, as we familiarize ourselves with the many subtle twists and turns of letting go, we begin to be more savvy about how ego steps in to appropriate the entire process. In the millions of mini-decisions we make day by day and moment by moment, we are challenged each time either to let go or to re-solidify.  ~~~  Judy Lief, “Letting Go”

This has been a huge topic in my life this year and I finally came to grips with the face that I needed to sit with this topic or go mad.  Well, not really.  More like be mad, frustrated, hurt, angry, disappointed, betrayed, etc.  And I think I could write 100 blogs articles on this topic and never feel satisfied.  But from now until my next birthday, March, I plan to look at this topic, again and again, to see what truth it holds for me.

The hardest thing to let go of this year was a long time friendship. . . no the long, long ones, but someone who I’ve known about 10 years and had immense faith in up until recently.

It’s so painful to feel betrayed and lose the fidelity of someone you consider to be family, to be a sister, and someone whom you’ve shared the intimate stories of your life.

I’ve long known that friendships did not last forever.  I’ve lived in many places and have lost touch with people mostly because we were out of proximity.  I few people I’ve even turned away from when my grief was too much and I could not take the energy expenditure it took to keep up with the friendship.

And what I have found with time is that letting go of idea, belief, quest, dream, person, etc. is that there are layers and layers to let go of.  For example, when Mike died, I lost a brother.  I lost my big brother.  I lost the person whom I looked up to, especially on things of culture as he loved music, fashion, the arts, cooking, etc.  I miss that influence in my life.  Genetically, he was the person closest to me in the world.  And for those of you who haven’t lost a sibling, that might not make sense and I hope you never have occasion to “get it”.

But just as this was true for Mike or Harris & Barb, or anyone else I have loved, it is true of our dreams, our fears, and our desires.

I ask you to join me, in the months ahead, to look at your life and see what no longer fits, what hurts, what you never use, what you can’t have because there is no space in your life, or who you need to let go, by choice or my circumstance.

Ask yourself:  How does this benefit my life today?  Does it bring me closer to my dreams?  Does it connect to the deepest part of me?  Can I trust this person?  Do I trust them enough to bring up the subject and work through the problem?  What about your health, your mental health, your body, etc?    Are there things you need to let go of, release out into the cosmos?  Do you need to say goodbye to stress, anxiety, mindless eating, anger, a stale job, or habits that do nothing or perhaps harm you?  Ask yourself what are you willing to look at?  Do you have support as you look at these things?  Maybe even start of with that question first — if you are going to let go and allow healing to occur, who is there to support you in your process?

Feel free to share via post or email.  If you use the Ask Here tab, you can email and if you tell me not to share it in a post, I will happily respect that request.

May your heart know great love and gentleness.

Jennifer

 

 

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This morning, I was reading a Facebook post by Robert Reich.  I had seen his commentaries on Facebook and in the last week, what I have seen has appeared normal, sane, and much more positive than a lot of other things out there.  So, I decided to “like” him on Facebook so I could read more things from him.

Just after this morning’s post, I know he is a man with a lot to say, both from his intellect and from his heart.  He described being with his 102 year old dad and feeling the need to hide our current state of affairs from him and I totally get that.  And I have a lot of respect for him wanting to shelter his dad from the enormity of just how crazy and scary our world is right now.

How many things his dad has lived through!  My grandfather would be 102 in Feb ’16 if he were still alive.  One of my dad’s cousins just posted that her dad would be 100 years old if he was alive too.  How to even imagine what it means to have lived for 100 years, let alone the last 100 years in the world.   I think back to when Mike died 20 years ago or even Lois dying 15 years ago.  It’s painful to search for people you loved (love) and find no trace of them on the net.  It’s like they didn’t exist.  You can find everything on the net, right?

Even as a child, I was curious about the fight between good and bad, light and dark, saviors and villains.  Maybe it was all the Catholic school teachings?  Maybe it was just from seeing movies, news, tv, etc.  Maybe those “inherent” dichotomies are just born into us?  I’m not sure.  But this is something I think of, time to time, when I let my world get quiet.  We’ve come so far in the treatment of HIV and AIDS.  And yet, where would we be if the US was not so slow to talk about it.  Thank goodness for Rock Hudson and Reagan having HIV sitting in his living room.

On one hand, we have fewer and fewer people acknowledging any religious tradition and many of us do not turn to Judeo-Christian religions for our ethics and morals, or our solace when nothing makes sense.  But we do have people who have made it their spiritual journey to fight for the planet, those less fortunate, those with particular illnesses, and I think that should be commended.

We don’t have to kneel in the pews to praise the glory of the dawn or the expanses of the universe or hold intentions that the hate in the world will one day dissipate.  We have more kids, young kids, trying to solve the problems in the world — the kid who wants to clean the plastic out of the oceans, a 10 year old who sings to the elderly, a 13 year old that sends teddy bears to kids in Haiti after the earthquake, etc, etc.  Maybe listening to our children makes more sense than to listen to the vile hate and evil on the tv and internet today.  You know, the reports of cities make it illegal to feed a homeless person or setting up metal spikes to keep them from holding up outside of buildings.  Or those who spew hate about a particular religion or people. . .

I try to stay away from the news, and try to focus on my world and try to figure out how to break the confines of hate, gossip, treachery, and ill will.  I try to work with those things within my own heart and mind because if I can’t how do I expect anyone else to?  If I can’t what makes me think anyone else will take on that huge task, especially alone like I currently am.

But folks, it’s not a time to give up easily or to flirt with things like spirituality, rightness, goodness, kindness, advocacy, community, etc.  I think we need to take a stand.  Hundreds of people took a stand during WWII.  And I mention WWII because I am a bit of an amateur historian when it comes to the segregation, hostility, brain washing, mass evil that has come to be a part of the history of that time.  And though the world said, let we not forget, I think we have forgotten in the gravest ways.  Where has this rise in antisemitism taken off like a wild fire?  How long have we allowed China to create its own Holocaust within Tibet?  Why do we stand for the mass extinction of our lands, our world that feeds us and can help us to stay whole and healthy?  When does the side of good rise up and do something about all the dangers?

I honestly don’t know what I would do if I were Prof Reich.  I applaud his love and need to protect his dad.  And I bet his father has a world of wisdom to share with us after living for so long.  I hope as a scholar, not a son, the professor has archived his father’s thoughts, ideas, and wisdom.  Heck, I know I want to archive the silly little songs my dad has sung to me while I was growing up or the feel of a hug from him or mom, or to learn every one of mom’s recipes by heart, to have something of her close to me.

I have to admit, I long for the 1980s, yes, beyond just the music (Depeche Mode forever).  I was in my teens, I had two hart working parents and a pain in the neck older brother.  I still had grandparents.  I still lived in the places I had always known.  I had friends, had created friendships, that would still be with me today.  I learned how to be charitable with my time whether it was hanging out on a Friday night to give drunk kids rides or it was going to The Jewish Home for the Elderly of Fairfield and giving love to wise old lonely people when I could get their after school.  Whatever was going on in the world, I think we were sheltered, or at least I was.  I didn’t even realize the person who slept in the bedroom next to mine had HIV.  It was still a time of innocence for me.

And may in our old age, we want to recreate an age of innocence for those older adults that we love.  We want them not to fear the world since aging and dying can be such big fears.  Maybe we want to create a time, like after birth, when the baby is so loved and we are so mindful of their every accomplishment and every beautiful breath?  Wouldn’t it be lovely to have friends make quilts and blankets, and stop by with flowers, or pick up prescriptions, or just to send a not of love?

I am so honored that Prof Reich shared such a deep a meaningful situation from his own life with us.  We are so much stronger, so much more human, when we can be ourselves and share who we are from the heart.  This is the kind of person who I want to know more about. . . his father too.  These are the people who have integrity and want to see good come from this little experiment on this planet that we all signed up for. . .life.

The battle between good and evil will always be there, as long as humans are there.  I pray with every person who takes up a microphone to speak out against Muslims, or people of color, or the President, that there are just as many people encouraging our brave kids to do better to help the world.  I hope there are more people learning yoga and sitting on their zafu.  I hope there are more people who rise to see the sun return to us as they sit and are thankful for the grace in this world.  And I hope there are just as many in the wee hours of the night, finishing school programs, writing songs, praying for world peace, and looking into their own hearts.  I add enough anger, frustration, lack of caring into the world and I need to recommit myself to being that young girl who saw the beauty and awe leaving early for school just to be closer to the Divine.  I need to remember who I am which is an advocate, an educator, and hopefully a person to planet peace in the darkest places.

Prof Reich, wherever you are, I wish you love and peace as you spend time with your dad.  I hope you feel the strength, power, and wisdom of your community as you enjoy each moment with him.  And, probably most importantly, I hope you feel my gratitude for you being genuine and sharing the bittersweetness in want to protect your dad.

Namaste!

May the merit of all our good flow into the universe a thousand-fold.

May the love we feel for those close to us also reach those people who feel unlovable.

May those we love never doubt that we love them with our whole existence and we would not betray the sacredness of them or our relationship to them.

May the merit of every word, every song, every syllable, every breath keep hope alive that there is a different way and we can find a peaceful existence in this threatening world.

Metta, now and always,

Jennifer

 

 

 

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The Third Noble Truth. . .   There is an end to suffering. But how?  Don’t you think if everyone knew there was a way we’d all be signing up?  Ani Pema Chodron writes in Comfortable with Uncertainty, “. . . suffering ceases when we let go of trying to maintain the huge ME at any cost.  This is what we practice in meditation. When we let go of thinking and the story line, we’re left just sitting with the quality and the energy of whatever particular ‘weather’ we’ve been trying to resist.”    What?  Okay, no wonder were not lining up around the corner.  I love Ani Pema but what does this mean in real terms?

The cessation of suffering is to put an end to the cravings, clinging, desire, ignorance, obsession and more.

Oh, okay.  Wait, what?  We can stop suffering by stopping are ignorance and desire?  We can stop it when we let go and stop clinging?  That’s great!  Wait, who would I be without my attachment or my perseverating?  How can I stop wanting?  I’m sure there will be an iSomething out soon. . .  and I will HAVE TO HAVE IT!

Wait, there’s more. . .

When suffering is stopped, there is also no more rebirth, suffering, and no dying again.  This is the liberation of all beings from the cycle.  Then we are free.

Mandy Barrow, on resources.woodlands-junior.ket.school, a homework resource for kids in the UK, interprets the Third Noble Truth like this:  “The third truth is that suffering can be overcome and happiness can be attained; that true happiness and contentment are possible.  If [we] let go of our craving and learn to live each day at a time (not dwelling in the past or the imagined future) then we can become happy and free.  We then have more time and energy to help others.  This is Nirvana”.

We have so many stories in our heads.   We have so many wishes in our hearts.  And the more impossible they are, the more we probably want them, and the more we want them, the more suffering we have.  I have some that I am not sure I will ever want to let go of, no matter how much pain they cause.  To me, some of these stories, at least right now, are the breath that keeps me alive.  But if I want contentment, peace, ease, am I willing to let go of that which I grasp onto the tightest?

I think it’s so important to do this work (see the upcoming post on the Eight-fold Path) with the Buddha,  Dharma, and the Sangha.  They are our inspiration, our safety net, they are our teacher, and our support.  If the journey was easy, a lot more of us shining in our contentment.  But there isn’t. . . whenever starting a journey into the unknown, make sure you have your tools, your guide, and your desire to let go.

And the best news, the Buddha gave us the tools.  The Fourth Noble Truth is the tool, the ultimate tool.  The Fourth Noble Truth is that they way out of our suffering is The Eight-fold Path.  Over the next few days, in addition to other things, I will write about The Path.

Until then, ask yourself some gentle, kind, questions and just sit with what answers come up for you.  What would you be without your storyline?  You desires?  You want for a different outcome?  Who would you be if you were not always right?  Who are you, stripped down of all the trim and trappings?  Are you ready to sit and be present to whoever it is you find?

With deep respect and honor,

Jennifer

 

 

 

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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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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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