Friday, December 29, 2017

Loving Loco: On Grieving and Gratitude

Photo: Howard T. Ezell Photography
My mom used to say that we needed marriage counseling, Loco and I. We certainly had our moments.

We had a lot in common, our hearts shaped by hard history and the sting of rejection and misunderstanding. Severed belonging. I’ll always believe that the universe put us in the same room in the shelter that day quite on purpose, for we had so many lessons to learn from each other.

Loco topped out at 6 pounds, but had a personality as big as the world and an attitude to match. At full stretch, he could occupy a queen-sized bed in a way that, many nights, left me teetering on the edge, clinging to the corner of the blanket he had taken from me and wrapped himself in. He was a great dog…and like most great people I know, he wasn’t all that well behaved. He could be sweet one minute, sassy the next, and then turn absolutely defiant in a heartbeat. He tested my patience the way nothing else ever has, and he opened my heart in a way that nothing else probably ever will. If he could talk, he might’ve said the same thing about me.

Photo: Howard T. Ezell Photography
I learned about unconditional acceptance and love from Loco…giving it and receiving it. There was nothing he couldn’t forgive and, well, I could never, ever hold a grudge for long with him either. I learned how the most maddening things end up making the best memories, the funniest stories. I learned about letting another heart connect with my own. 

17 days ago, the lesson became one of impermanence. Suffering. Old age, sickness and death. Letting go.

How could I possibly have known of the enormous, empty crater sized hole that would be left in my life in the absence of this 6-pound dog? How I would so deeply long for the feel of his warm little furry body in the crook of my arm as I write? How I would cry at least once every single day…not just a tear or two, but the deep, heaving, choking, shoulder racking sobs of all-consuming grief that feels like it has no end?

And when the waves feel overwhelming, I take refuge in the sense of pure gratitude in my heart for how lucky I was to have this little creature in my life for the time that I did. Gratitude to whatever gods may be that brought us together. Gratitude for every lesson that I learned on my journey with him.

Even the letting go…

Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Show Up for Every Moment: Lessons from My Apprenticeship with Grief

The King and the Ring

I recently heard this story and researched it a little. According to internet sources, it is a Jewish wisdom folktale as told by a man from Turkey named David Franko. I really like it:

“One day Solomon decided to humble Benaiah Ben Yehoyada, his most trusted minister. He said to him, “Benaiah, there is a certain ring that I want you to bring to me. I wish to wear it for Sukkot which gives you six months to find it.”

“If it exists anywhere on earth, your majesty,” replied Benaiah, “I will find it and bring it to you, but what makes the ring so special?”

“It has magic powers,” answered the king. “If a happy man looks at it, he becomes sad, and if a sad man looks at it, he becomes happy.” Solomon knew that no such ring existed in the world, but he wished to give his minister a little taste of humility.

Spring passed and then summer, and still Benaiah had no idea where he could find the ring. On the night before Sukkot, he decided to take a walk in one of the poorest quarters of Jerusalem. He passed by a merchant who had begun to set out the day’s wares on a shabby carpet. “Have you, by any chance, heard of a magic ring that makes the happy wearer forget his joy and the broken-hearted wearer forget his sorrows?” asked Benaiah.

He watched the grandfather take a plain gold ring from his carpet and engrave something on it. When Benaiah read the words on the ring, his face broke out in a wide smile. That night the entire city welcomed in the holiday of Sukkot with great festivity.

“Well, my friend,” said Solomon, “have you found what I sent you after?” All the ministers laughed and Solomon himself smiled.

To everyone’s surprise, Benaiah held up a small gold ring and declared, “Here it is, your majesty!”

As soon as Solomon read the inscription, the smile vanished from his face. The jeweler had written three Hebrew letters on the gold band: gimel, zayin, yud, which began the words “Gam zeh ya’avor” — “This too shall pass.” At that moment, Solomon realized that all his wisdom and fabulous wealth and tremendous power were but fleeting things, for one day he would be nothing but dust.”

This too shall pass. I’ve worn this phrase out as I have moved through my years in the rooms of 12-step communities. It’s the mantra I recite when I am stuck in traffic, or having a bad day at work, or sneezing and coughing my way through the Tennessee allergy season. It’s the “note to self” that I keep handy for the moments when I feel the dark waters of depression lapping at my feet, or the clutch of anxiety tightening in my chest. In these moments, this too shall pass is grace.

And then there are those times when this too shall pass is kind of a bummer. When we are enjoying time with those dearest to us. Vacationing in a tropical paradise. Holding a newborn baby in our arms. Being recognized for our hard work in the field we are passionate about. This too shall pass. Damn.

The Truth of Impermanence

Impermanence (or Annica in Pali) is one of the 3 marks of existence described in the Buddhist teachings – along with suffering (dukkha) and the non-self (anatta). Every being that exists in this moment is going to change, leave, or die. It is the natural order of things. What we find in this moment may very well not be found in the next. This too shall pass.

Life is busier than it has ever been for most of us. Our calendars are overflowing with appointments and deadlines and meetings as we multitask between screens and conduct conference calls in our cars during the evening rush. So many of our moments slip by completely unheralded and largely unnoticed and, as the clock strikes 11 or 12 and we crawl into bed exhausted, we look back and ask ourselves: “Where did this day go? What was I doing all day?” Our moments turn into our days, and into our years, and into our lives. And this too, all of it, shall pass.

The biggest wake-up call that I have ever gotten around the truth of impermanence was when my mother passed away.

I have spent, really, my whole life being in denial about ever losing my mother. She would sometimes try to talk to me about her end of life care, and more often than not, I would cut those conversations short with a lighthearted, “Oh, mom, you aren’t going anywhere — you will probably outlive me!” During our last visit before she died, she had a sense of urgency that I had not seen in her before. Over and over, she told me how proud she was of me and how she never, ever wanted me to forget that. When she hugged me goodbye, it was the tightest, longest hug I have ever experienced and, as I waved goodbye from the backseat of my cab, it hit me. The clock was running out. The moments were sifting sand between my fingers. The next thing I knew, my mother was gone and I was plunged headfirst into what Francis Weller describes in his book The Wild Edge of Sorrow as an “apprenticeship with grief.” [1] This term really resonates with me because this grief, alive and deep and relentless, has proven itself to be a most prolific teacher. I continue to learn its lessons every day.

We Think We Have Time

Paulo Coelho writes: “One day you will wake up and there won’t be any more time to do the things you’ve always wanted. Do it now.” [2]

For years, my mom asked me to move closer to her and spend more time with her, which was something that I very much wanted to do. But, you know, I am an anxious sort and a little (a lot) aversive to big changes in my life. So, I had my conditions. I made rules for how much money I would need in the bank and decided that I would definitely not be comfortable moving without a job in place at my new destination. When I would sit and think about everything involved with moving my somewhat small life 700 miles northeast, I would get overwhelmed and mired down in the details of hiring movers, packing my things, finding an apartment that will let me have my dogs. Best to wait until the circumstances were right, right? I thought I had time.

The irony about the whole thing was that my mom was never afraid of a move, sometimes leaving everything behind to start completely over. She didn’t always love it, but it didn’t paralyze her. She was always open to a new adventure. I wonder if, during the time I was grappling with the decision, she ever wondered where on earth I got that from. If she did, she never said it out loud.

I wonder what it would have been like had I challenged my conditioning to play it safe, put everything I own (except my dogs) into storage, and taken the chance on the possibilities of a new locale. How would my life be different now, having spent more face to face moments with my mom and cherishing the relationship that we had built, particularly over the years of my sobriety?

This is lesson number one: This too shall pass. Do it now.

Holding Back Our Hearts

The second lesson is not really so different from the first. How many reading are holding on to words that have never been spoken to those that might need to hear them? Why are we, as a society, really, so afraid to let others know what is in our hearts?

I didn’t really even know until my mom was gone just how many things were unspoken between us. Important things about love, and life, and forgiveness, and grace, and the bond that was so strong that it couldn’t be broken even in the direst circumstance. I told my mom daily that I loved her, but I realize that it was sometimes in that way of feeling a bit recited. A bit usual. I always meant it with my whole heart, but now I really have a deeper understanding that there was so much more to be said. Thank you. I’m sorry. Forgive me. I hope that, when I grow up, I will be just like you.

Again, from Paulo Coelho: “Life is too short for us to keep important words like ‘I love you’ locked in our hearts.” [3]

This is the second lesson: Reveal your heart. Say what you need to say.

Showing Up for Every Moment

My meditation teacher often shares a story about a busy, single mom that is constantly scurrying around, trying to get things done and hurrying her toddler through meals and activities trying to keep them both on schedule. Then one day, she went to the doctor and was given the news that she had cancer and really could only expect to live another year or so. She later described how, in those moments and days after the diagnosis, her mantra became: I have no time to rush.

My parents moved to Washington DC in 2012, right about the time I started to get a little room in my budget for travel. I visited as often as I could, and my mom and I would spend time together shopping or walking in the park that was across the street from her apartment. She had some physical limitations that caused her to move kind of slowly, and I can remember times when I felt impatient and sometimes frustrated … hurrying us both along. So many times, I was only halfway there.

Like nearly everyone in our society, I spend much of my time focused on some destination. I’m preoccupied with my phone, or a text, or Facebook notification or figuring out what is next. Anticipating, planning. Trying to hack the next moment instead of showing up for the one that’s right here, touching it, savoring it. When I look up from the phone, or step away from the computer, a strange kind of anxiety sets in. I don’t know quite what to do or how to act in that state of disconnection. What I didn’t realize during all of those missed moments with my mom, was that the connection that I was longing for would never be found in my iPhone, but it was right there for me if I could just let go of the gadget and reach, instead, toward the loving soul walking next to me.

This is the third lesson: Show up for every moment. All the way. All in. Connect to what’s right here.

It’s not a cliché that this moment is all we have. It’s truth. This too shall pass.

All of these — taking action, revealing our hearts to those we cherish, being present for our moments — really spring forth from the root of intention. We have to do it on purpose. Each morning before my mind has a chance to get too busy, I do a short meditation and ask myself: How am I going to live my life today? How will I keep my heart open today? How will I show up for my moments today? How will those I cherish know that I love them today? When I walk out the door with these questions in my back pocket, I find myself acting in ways that honor my heart’s aspiration to be kind, to be open, to be brave, and to be present.

This Moment is Our Greatest Teacher

Perhaps the lesson I’ve most deeply learned in this ongoing apprenticeship with grief is that my greatest and most accessible teacher becomes whatever is arising right in this moment…no matter what it is. Oscar Wilde once wrote: “Where there is sorrow, there is holy ground.” [4] My moments with grief have, indeed, been holy ground. I have learned to approach this soul sadness with reverence. To touch it all…as Rilke says, the beauty and the terror…gently and with great compassion.[5] The longing, when you take it by the hand, will lead you directly to the sacred center of your own heart where you will find that which you thought was lost, the loving from which you can never be separated, because it is actually who you are.

Our moments on earth are fleeting. They are unrepeatable. Here and then gone. This too, shall pass.

What is your intention for your moments today?

[1] Weller, F. (2015). The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.

[2] Coelho, P. (1993). The Alchemist. New York, NY: HarperCollins.

[3] Coelho, P. (2013). Manuscript Found in Accra (M. J. Costa, Trans.). New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf.

[4] Wilde, O. (1905). De Profundis [Gutenberg Project eBook]. Retrieved July 10, 2017, from

[5] Rilke, R. M. (2001). Go to the Limits of Your Longing (A. S. Kidder, Trans.). In Rilke's Book of Hours: Love Poems to a Lowly God. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.