Walking the Sea

Walking the Sea: September 2013

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Nowhere Else to Be

My grandmother is dying. Normally, something so personal to my family would not come up in my public writing but I feel the need to write about it today. This afternoon, I sat by my grandmother's chair holding her hand. I didn't understand a word she said midst her groans and I don't even know if she knew who I was but she gripped my hand like a vice. She looked at me through half closed eyes and I told her she looked good in yellow. Did she know I was the same person as the baby pictured above her bed? To me, it didn't matter but it did matter to me and perhaps to her that someone, whoever she thought they were, cared enough to sit beside her and give her affectionate touch. And though she couldn't ask for it, I thought it would be alright to send her soul the feeling of peace and of being loved. It is all I can really give to her - my presence and a sense of peace as she lives how many ever days she has left on earth.

I got "the call," you know the kind, about seven months ago last spring when my mom told me my grandmother had suffered a stroke. I visited her at the hospital and then a nursing center. She tried being at home with care but that didn't work out, so my mom and older sister found a great assisted living home for her close to my mom. Since she started there, we have had to keep moving her to higher and higher levels of care to where she is now in the memory unit. Over the summer, we went through her whole house and sold what we could via garage sales and advertisements. The rest is spread out between my mom, older sister, and I.

Eight months ago my grandmother was living independently in her own home and still driving. Now she is in a memory unit unable to really speak or do anything for herself. It still blows me away. Two visits ago, I showed her the video of me on the flying trapeze in Seattle. She could still carry on a bit of a conversation at that point and she asked  me, "What was it like?" I'd never heard my grandmother ask that question before and for a moment, we got to connect on a genuine level, a level we hadn't connected on since I was a little girl, if ever. It felt like a break in the clouds of blue sky on an extraordinarily rainy day. Such a little thing, a short conversation, but to me, it's a memory of gold I will always treasure.

I know that next call, the final one, can come any day now. We suspect her fast decline is due to a series of small strokes and you just never know with those. This might sound unfeeling, but I'm thankful her decline has been fast. I used to work in nursing homes and saw first-hand how lingering in this state for a long period of time can truly be worse than death. It is not the kind of death I would wish for myself and I do not wish it for her. Death can be a release. Still, I cry to think of it.

Up to the age of thirty-two, there hadn't been a lot of death in my immediate family. I remember my mom and grandparents going through my great-grandfather's house when I was a child though I don't remember him and I have a scrap of memory of my great-grandmother for whom I'm named, but as a child, the only other close death was my great-uncle, my grandmother's brother. He died when I was a teenager. At nineteen, I lost my most beloved cat, Emily. She came into our backyard when I was four and I was instantly in love. We were connected in a deep way from that point on and I still believe she was an "angel" sent by God to be with me. It wasn't until I was twenty-four I lost a grandparent. My grandpa, the one I was closest to, the one I look so much like, died at the Veteran's home. Going through all the things at his and my grandmother's house this last summer brought much of that grief back to the surface for me. Then, just over a year and a half ago when I was thirty-two, my step-grandfather died. Nine months later, my paternal grandfather died. Five months after that, my great-great-aunt died (I'm friends with her son, my cousin). Aunt Grace's funeral was the last time I saw my grandmother outside of a hospital or nursing home. Weeks after that, she had her stroke. Two months after that, my step-mother's mom died. During this time, I've also experienced loss in other ways: loss of relationships, loss of trust, loss of old beliefs and ways of thinking. In short, it's been a lot of loss in a short amount of time.

I have a question I answer every month: "What image, piece of music, word or two, or color, describes what life has been like lately?" This month, I think my answer is going to be sitting in front of a gravestone. I've been digging a lot of graves lately and burying a lot of what was once precious to me. It's the season of loss. I'm letting go, pulling roots out of the ground, standing beside a funeral pyre watching the flames rise to the stars, knowing that the empty feeling inside is exactly what it's supposed to be. In a strange way, those strands of loss around my soul are even comforting. Like a good cry, such loss empties you out and you are left by the riverbank with the rain falling on your face and nowhere else to be.

Post Script: My Grandma died this morning, September 24, 2013, two and a half days after this post was originally published. 

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Thursday, September 12, 2013

The Gift

I reacted without even thinking – jumping up and down, squealing with delight, amazed someone had gone out of their way to do something that generous for me, that they had really heard me and did something about it.

It all started two days before at a dinner party where several friends and I were talking while we cooked. I don't remember the context of the conversation, but I confessed to them something I had never told anyone before: that for years I had wanted a basketball of my own so I could shoot hoops. I loved trying to make the basket and letting my mind just think and ponder over whatever was going on in my life. It was my way to meditate but I only got to do it when I was on my own somewhere with a basketball and something to put it through – a rare occurrence.

I had forgotten about the conversation by the time I walked into our aerial class the following Monday night when my friend suddenly pointed at me and shouted, "You!" I wondered what I had done or what she wanted me for when my eyes followed her pointed finger now directed at the desk where sat a brand new basketball still in its box. My reaction was immediate and involved my whole body as I squealed and jumped around – enthusiasm personified. My wide grin lasted the entire class. She even lent me a sharpie so I could write my name on the ball, not that I'll let it far out of my sight when playing with it. I even took it in with me to proudly share with friends at a Mary Kay party after class. Even now, that grin has just not gone away.

Though I thanked my friend profusely for this wonderful gift, the best way to thank her was to actually take the ball out and use it. The basketball would still mean something to me if it sat at home, but that is not what the basketball was for. If I really wanted to appreciate her thoughtfulness, I needed to go out, play with it, and live my dream.

Thus the ball got "baptized" at a friend's house – I was so excited to put it through a hoop! I then looked around for a basketball court near my apartment and found one close by that's rarely busy. Tonight I headed there to really break it in. It was everything I've dreamed of! I shot hoops, made some baskets, ran after the ball, pondered, thought, enjoyed being outside, enjoyed the time alone just thinking and playing and being. It was bliss.

But what if I hadn't taken it outside to play with it? What if I had left it in my apartment and didn't use it? What if I decided that even though my friend gave me this gift, she had not actually meant for me to use it? That sounds ridiculous, I know, but isn't that what we do with some of the gifts God gives us? God gave us each a human life and we spend it being angry and afraid, fearful and timid, unforgiving and bull-headed. We don't take risks. We play it safe. God gave us each a body and instead of fully living and expressing ourselves in it, we detest our bodies, find all kinds of faults in them, park it on the couch and feed it crap. Is that the way to treat a gift? To not only neglect the gift but abuse it, ignore it, be afraid of it? We are meant to live the lives God gave us, to delight in our bodies! We are meant to take chances, leaps of faith, to challenge ourselves, and do things we never thought we could! We are meant to exercise and play, to respect our bodies, treasure them, and care for our bodies with love. Instead of sitting around, we need to get out and enjoy what God gives us! I think it breaks God's heart when we take the gifts he gives us, the ones he meant for us to enjoy, and we hide them away or ignore the gifts, doing anything but delighting in the joy she/he means for us to have.

There are also gifts in our own souls we don't fully understand; times when we discover things about ourselves that don't fit with our preconceived notions of the world, our beliefs, or our own sense of self. A gift or an ability, a characteristic or thought, rises to the surface into the light of day and our immediate reaction is to ignore it or run away from it, condemning this gift as a bad thing simply because it doesn't fit with the boxes we've known.

Is it possible we could step back for a moment away from those boxes of belief and theology, take in the view of the larger picture, remember we actually know only a tiny fraction of what is in this world, and take a risk with the Gift Giver? Can we acknowledge that just because a gift is beyond our comfort zone, that it could still be a gift given by God who is calling us to stretch and grow? Can God call us to let go of what we've known before so we can embrace a new thing and transform? If we truly believe God is greater than all created things, then we must also acknowledge we do not know or understand everything. We have to be willing to be taught even when that teaching might be unacceptable to what we and our friends have known before. Following God's voice, trusting his gift and the way he leads us on, we need to understand the gift of who we are is given for a reason, that the Creator does not make mistakes and that if this is who you are, you need to learn how to live out that gift in the most loving way possible.

Whatever your gift is, you need to learn to live it out. Whoever God has created you to be, dance it in love and joy! God does not make mistakes and if God created you that way, you are going to have a much easier time with yourself if you simply accept who you are and learn to flow with the gift instead of trying to squelch it down. These gifts of ourselves are meant to be enjoyed, played with, delighted in, and used. God did not give you that gift if he/she did not mean for you to live it out.

My basketball now has a special place in my living room where it constantly reminds me how much I love taking it out and using it. It is harder to remember to use the gifts inside myself, the ones God gave me, but I have learned they are a part of who I am and to be truly at peace with myself, I must accept them and learn to use these gifts as well in the most loving ways possible.

Being true to yourself and who God created you to be won't always make the people around you happy, sometimes quite the opposite. Even so, living out who you truly are will release you in ways you never thought possible. Once you get a taste of that freedom, that inner peace, staying inside the boxes no longer matters once you know what it's like outside of them where your soul has room to breathe and play and live. Then, you in turn become a gift God opens and gives to the world. Live the gift.

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Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Tell Me Your Story

Tonight on NPR, there was a show on people being isolated. I loved a quote from it, "When hearts don't have a place to break, they become harder." The man's words brought to my mind a scene that happened last Tuesday at Playback. Dena had told a story about some of her kids not being willing to see her. We know Dena well, she has told many stories to us that have formed a larger story we treasure hearing. We know all the regular troupe members pretty well as we share with each other a lot of things most groups of friends never tell each other for years. It has formed us into a tight knit group. We are accustomed to tears. We share in our laughter.

After listening to Dena tell us her struggles, we played back her story. She cried. Crying turned to weeping, weeping turned to wailing, and an intimate moment even beyond our normal intimacy occurred. The six others of us walked over to Dena where she sat on the stool and wrapped our arms all around her. Held in the middle of our hug, Dena wept into our arms. From where I knelt in front of her, I could feel her tears falling on my skin. It was a real moment. A moment of genuine love and openness, of a naked soul unafraid to let us see her and the honor of getting that look at who she is.

We are rarely so honest with each other in our culture. We hide away our deepest thoughts and emotions in fear that those around us will not embrace us in our mess, in our pain, in our struggles. We are afraid of falling and finding there is no one there to catch us. We are afraid to find out what we ourselves fear, that we are indeed, in our truest selves, not worth knowing. And so we hide. People don't see who we truly are. We are even afraid to let ourselves see who we truly are. Our hearts don't have a place to break and we harden. But that night at Playback, I learned a different lesson in a very experiential, very physical way. When we take a risk, and share ourselves, wisely, with people who love us, they don't just see the mess. They don't dismiss us because we're in pain. They see the beautiful, the shining light, the immeasurable worth of our souls. They see us as we are - absolute love - and they move closer.

Holding Dena while she wept didn't repulse me one iota. Quite the opposite happened, I was deeply humbled to be entrusted with such an intimate moment with her soul and with the souls of our friends also surrounding us. The divine in me held the divine in her. And though we did not speak of God, it was a moment when we stood face to face with her, with him. Any time such raw love is freely given, we feel God's presence most keenly. We know we are standing on holy ground. It touches us, it wheels us around and shows us what real love is like. If I could give a gift to the world, I would give every person such a community where they feel so comfortable, that they can go in and share their real selves week after week. You don't have to have the story together or even understand it yourself. You just have to share it. The power of the story is beyond you. It touches you, moves through you and sets you free. The fact we deeply listen and honor each person's story is a huge part of that power. You feel heard. You feel that those deep places within you are in fact beautiful and worthy of being heard. Over time, I have learned that if I simply share something that's on my mind with someone I trust, that burden is lightened, even lifted. It normalizes me.

A large part of the power of pain is the fact we hide it away and are afraid of what it really looks like. If we pull it out, face it, bring it into the light, and share a hard or embarrassing thing with another person, we find it's not as awful as we thought it was. We might even be able to pick it up and start taking it apart to work through it. Seeing another looking at our pain and declaring it and us worth loving, we react as we would toward the warm sun, we turn our faces to the light and begin to agree, yes, perhaps we are loved and we begin to love ourselves.

Most of the time, it is hard to see God as we imagine God to be. But we are made of God. When we love on someone, God is there showing herself. When we hold someone in pain, God has wrapped them in his arms. When we deeply listen to someone else's story, God's ears are open. We can be that light, we are God's love. The experience in communing in that endless love gave me a glimpse of how much power really is in God's love and how much power there is in us. While we must let each person walk their own journey, we can each live as a light of love, a being of light reflecting back to them the light of who they are. We can encourage them to share their stories, we hold them with gentleness and grace, we look at them in divine love. We are the hands and feet of God and being so, we find this mystical force reflects back on ourselves, that the love we extended to the other came back and embraced us.

Thank you Dena and Salem Playback Theatre for giving me your blessing to post such an intimate moment between us. You are an amazing tribe.