Thursday, April 17, 2014

Education and Listening

Sitting in on classes at the University of Washington School of Medicine is a privilege which I could not have imagined 8 years ago - but then, 8 years ago, I would not have been interested in doing so.

After spending intense months with my family in a hospital setting, a piece of my heart has remained there, with the staff who so lovingly tended to Katie and to each one of us. I cannot forget them, nor what families like ours ask of them, day in and day out. They suffer when we suffer; though they have more experience and training, they are human, as we are.

I know that Katie's life and death impacted those who provided her with care.

Because I had over five years of training and experience in pastoral caregiving prior to the onset of Katie's illness, it is natural for me to think deeply about these dear caregivers and their feelings. As my own pain has become less like an elephant sitting on my chest - and more like a stone in my shoe - this concern for medical caregivers has grown. As the national discussion about the state of health care heats up, my concern centers upon a desire to improve conditions for both staff and patients - and questions about the best, most appropriate, effective ways to do that.

In considering those questions, I have been fortunate to meet staff of the U of W School of Medicine who are engaged in teaching, who are willing to share openly and generously, and to include me. Last week, I attended another session of "The Healer's Art" - this one about grief, loss and disappointment. The featured presenter is an experienced doctor who spoke eloquently on the topic, and guided us through personal reflection and sharing afterward. I found it illuminating.

I also had the privilege of participating in a "Values Clarification" exercise with 4th-year medical students. That was deep, interior work. We were invited to privately list 4 things in 5 categories that mean the most to us - categories such as relationships, possessions and so on. Then we were guided through an experience of facing our own critical illness and the loss of most of those 20 things. Eventually, we were faced with our imminent death. The scenario ran parallel to what Katie endured, and it dug deeply into my consciousness.

Though I have already personally encountered many of the issues that were raised, at one point the experience was so intense that I had to mentally withdraw. I came out of the guided imagery and studied my hands, centering myself back in the present moment. That is the hardest part about my desire to contribute in this field: not knowing when emotions may overwhelm me. Because of that uncertainty, I frequently wonder whether I am the best person for the job; yet I know that my experience has value to teach.

I am drawn to these physicians-in-training, and to their mentors and colleagues. I would love to minister to them in compassion - care of the soul - particularly as evidence of burnout and stress, disillusionment, unrealistic demands and the conflicts of cost vs. best-quality care become more and more prevalent in the field. Discerning whether this calling is real, is mine, and if so, how it is to be answered - how to do the work without injury to myself? - is the business of the moment.
I sit with students and staff, listening for answers, and offering the gifts of my heart.

The Genius & Wisdom of Rumi

“Let the beauty we love be what we do. There are hundreds of ways to kneel and kiss the ground.” 
“When you do things from your soul, you feel a river moving in you, a joy.”
“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.”

“What you seek is seeking you.”   
“The wound is the place where the Light enters you." Rumi

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

WORD SOUP - Field's End

I have exciting news: 

I'm going to lead a four-week workshop for beginning writers called
"Word Soup"
for Field's End Writers' Community 
on Bainbridge Island.
We're calling it "Word Soup" because it is going to combine all kinds of good things (in the tradition of "Stone Soup") in order to make a flavorful, delicious, tantalizing offering to inspire and feed your writers' soul.

If you have been wanting to write, but haven't started...
If you've started writing, but stopped...
If you've suffered an artistic injury...
If the critics (internal or external) have been holding you back...
If you want to meet other aspiring/beginning writers and share the encouragement of safe community...
If you want to look at writing "outside of the box," then please go to and sign up!

The dates are: May 15 & 22, June 5 & 12, 2014.
We'll meet at the Bainbridge Public Library on Thursday evenings from 6:30-7:00 P.M. for a brown bag dinner - please B.Y.O.B.B. (Bring Your Own Brown Bag). - This part is optional, and will help us all relax and develop community.
The workshop will begin at 7:00 and end at 8:30 P.M.

The first session is free; the total cost is only $60 for the following three workshops. Scholarships are available, so don't let cost stop you! If you know someone who might enjoy this workshop, please share! Registration is HERE.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Beach Meditation

Sun on my back
Breeze in my hair
Smell of honey and saltwater
Sound of rippling wavelets

Cold current runs
Between thighs of gray sand
Blue sky mottled
By high rushing clouds

Concrete bridge, steel cars
Swish clunk thump beep
Oblivious above
Wild whirlpools below

Wind caresses shells of my ears
White-bleached shells crunch underfoot
Cast-off glass, tumbled smooth
And driftwood borne aloft, lie still

Memories rush in like tide -
My children's lives
Our days passed here,
In freedom, wonder and in joy

Here I give thanks
For health, for life
I breathe in salt
Let go of fear

My thoughts grow calm
And become prayer:
May all be wrapped in deepest peace,
Blessed by water, earth and sky.
May all know light and love and grace
May healing fill each needful place.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Light, Refuge and Strength

I'm finding the practice of yoga two or three times a week to be highly therapeutic, physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally. Practicing more often might be better yet, but I'm a beginner, and this is where I begin.

Yoga is helping me to recognize my less-than-gentle thought patterns. It doesn't stop them altogether, but helps me notice them, and once recognized, I can choose whether or not to continue thinking that way.

At Rancho La Puerta, I heard afresh how unkind my inner-critic is, about my body and about all of the mistakes I make in daily living. The harshness of that voice stood out loudly, because I was in a space where everyone treated me with gentleness, kindness and encouragement. I began to wonder: maybe God isn't a taskmaster.

For someone who believes that "God is Love" - who has heard and believed those words since childhood - I realized that I don't always live as if I truly know it. Unconditional love is a wonderful concept, but at times, I have a functionally different image of God: God as an irritable, impatient parent. Intellectually, that doesn't make sense, but emotionally, there it is.

Recently, I saw this in action, when a friend shared her story of a family crisis. I listened with deep compassion and concern, but felt powerless to help. That powerless feeling was extremely uncomfortable. It was hard to bear, knowing that I could not make this better for her.

After more than seven years of walking in the world of cancer and grief, I found myself as lost for words as the most clueless novice imaginable. I stumbled over my words, and later, silently raked myself over the coals.

It's important to be aware of this, because there were times when I was unhappy to be on the receiving end of the things that people said to us when Katie was ill, and after her passing. Though well-meaning, some said banal, inappropriate or unhelpful things. Listening to my friend's difficulty, I felt just like one of those people.

Eventually, I noticed how savage I was being about my ineptness, and thought, "This conversation is not the most important thing in her day; let it go." I prayed for her and her family. I prayed over my clumsy words - prayed that God would communicate to her my loving intention, and allow only blessing to come from those words. I remembered yoga, and mindfulness, and made an effort to be gentle and kind to myself.

And then, this happened: a periwinkle blue (lavender) butterfly appeared.
I kid you not. 
I have never seen a butterfly of this color in my life. 
It flew right in front of me and landed on a branch. I tried to just be present to it, but I had to take a photo - the color was so rare! Then I looked deeply at this gentle creature, and knew that it was a message of love from God (and Katie), that "the Light shines in darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it."
"At the beginning God expressed himself. That personal expression, that word, was with God, and was God, and he existed with God from the beginning. All creation took place through him, and none took place without him. In him appeared life and this life was the light of mankind. The light still shines in the darkness and the darkness has never put it out." - John 1:1-5, J.B. Phillips New Testament
My personal ineptness - my humanity-  cannot muffle or put out the Light that is in this world, in each one of us. That Light is Life, and it is Love. God made us human, including love AND awkwardness.

The next morning, reading devotionals, I decided to look for all of the qualities of God that were listed in the texts of the day. Here is what I found:
  • Love
  • gracious
  • merciful
  • slow to anger (patient)
  • kind
  • good to all
  • compassionate toward all
  • faithful in all His words
  • holy in all His works
  • lifts up the falling
  • raises up the bowed
  • just in all His ways
  • near to all who call on Him
  • all-sufficient
  • generous giver
  • healer
  • restorer
  • Life
  • Spirit
  • seeker
  • finder
  • forgiving
That doesn't sound like a taskmaster to me; it sounds like a loving, understanding parent - one whose promises we can trust.
"God is our refuge and strength; an ever-present help in trouble." Ps. 46

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Take a (Mental) Picture

This week, I had the privilege of sitting in on a class at the University of Washington Medical School; it's called "The Healer's Art."

The Healer's Art is a curriculum created by Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D., author of "Kitchen Table Wisdom" and "My Grandfather's Blessings." I am a HUGE fan of Dr. Remen's ideas and her way of approaching the practice of medicine. I first read her books years ago, and have since re-read "My Grandfather's Blessings," and shared it with others. Every health-care provider should read it - and every patient; it is full of stories of healing, and healing presence.

Dr. Remen works in the Bay Area now, and I inquired about the possibility of taking The Healer's Art from her and her staff at ISHI. However, it is only open to physicians, nurses and other healthcare providers at this time, so they kindly referred me to the University of Washington Medical School, one of many medical schools where the class is taught. This led to meeting Dr. Michael Storck (one of the professors), who kindly invited me to observe the class. I will not be participating in the small group work, but will be observing and learning from the larger group gatherings. It was inspiring - I loved everything about it.

In this first session, we heard about the origins of the program, and introduced ourselves to the group. We learned about self-care, and spent time in quiet reflection. I left feeling uplifted, grateful and excited about being part of something so good.

As I was driving out of the parking area on the way to catch the ferry, I paused at a stop sign. Looking to the left, my eyes caught sight of a riot of pale pink blossoms. The little avenue leading down to Lake Union had been planted with cherry trees on both sides, and they are now in full bloom. It looked like cotton candy, like pink popcorn balls, like a bridesmaid's dress, like a ballerina's tulle skirt, like a heavenly cloud in the light of palest sunrise. The trees were bursting with energy, life, beauty and fullness; ripe, delicate, fluttery, soft, temporary, velvety, joyful.

My immediate thought was, "I have to take a photo of this." However, there was a problem: a bright red stop sign and thick, black electrical wires were butting into the frame, intruding upon the pure, pale pinkness. I quickly reversed course, and drove down to the end of the lane so that I could have a better angle for the photo. There was an issue from there, as well: tall, industrial-looking buildings loomed so large in the background that they distracted from the delicacy and soft color of the trees.

Dusk was falling; time for taking the photo was running out. I was frustrated for a moment, and then I thought: just look and remember this. Take a mental picture, and be happy with that.

This reminded me of the times when I have seen tourists looking at the world through their cameras' viewfinders; not being present to what was in front of them, concerned only with capturing and taking home an image of it. The most unpleasant example of this was in the Louvre in 2009, when we took David to Paris. There were hordes of people crowding the galleries, and it seemed to me that not one of them was really encountering the art in time and space. They were taking photographs of it - really, of themselves and their friends, standing in front of paintings and sculpture - as if to say, "I was here! I saw it." But nowhere did I see anyone standing silently before a work of art, regarding it, listening for what it had to say - which is the way I was taught to approach a work of art. And it was impossible for me to do that in 2009, because of the size of the crowds and their jostling for place.

I went to the Louvre on a People-to-People trip as a high school student, and I remember it as a quiet, reflective place, where I had time to stand before the masterpieces, and enjoy them - allowing them to speak to me. It was a spiritual experience.

I felt the same way at the Tate and the National Gallery in London, during my college term in England. I will always remember turning a corner in the Tate Gallery and encountering "The Kiss" by Auguste Rodin, larger than life, and emanating white-hot, yet controlled passion through the marble from which it was carved. How could something cut from cold, white stone be so alive and full of warmth?

After studying various works through books and slides during an entire year of Art History, it was a life-changing experience to see them in front of me. Yet I saw none of that kind of encounter at the Louvre in 2009. No conversation with the creation or the artist, no reflection, no seismic shifting within the individual, standing before greatness. It seemed like a tragic loss - a lost opportunity.

So last night, I took a mental photo of those glorious cherry blossoms, and am going to keep it in my heart. I hope to remember to do this more often: to encounter life on its own terms, as it is unfolding, rather than taking a picture of it to view later; to be here now.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Happy Spring!

I went for a walk today, and saw the sun coming through the trees, highlighting the contrast between the fresh blossoms of youth and the sturdiness of maturity:
Ah, Spring...welcome! Thanks be to God for your newness of life, invigorating hope, and visible relief after the dark, wet, spare days of winter. I am happy to see you.

Here is my latest beach glass wreath (they are sold at Caron's Beach House):
The spring tides are getting lower during the daytime, which means that we will soon be able to do some beach walking (and beachcombing). I can hardly wait!
"We are all temporary custodians of beauty....I adore wearing gems, but not because they are mine. You can't possess radiance, you can only admire it." - Elizabeth Taylor

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Transformation and Yoga

My sweet parents sent this to me in celebration of Katie's 19th birthday - a symbol of transformation (and resurrection)
One of the greatest gifts I received during the week at Ranch La Puerta was beginning a yoga practice. I was nervous to try it, since I have always had difficulty learning new dance steps and following physical prompts. For example, I took a ballet class in college, and (though I enjoyed the movement) the unsympathetic, rapid-fire teaching style of the instructor left me feeling slow and foolish. I am not uncoordinated, but I learn dictated movement only with great effort and plenty of repetition.

I have heard so many good things about yoga that I pushed through my fear of embarrassment and took a class early in the week. It was challenging without being intimidating; it was difficult, yet gentle. Yoga combines the physical, mental and spiritual in a way that I have never encountered before. I liked it immediately, and went back for more.

Here is a brief sample of a yoga session with Maya, one of the excellent teachers at Rancho La Puerta:
At the Ranch, yoga classes are not progressive. The teachers lead with positions for beginners, and then suggest intermediate and advanced adjustments. If we felt comfortable and stable in a beginning pose, we were invited to deepen it and try the next level - but there was no pressure to do so. One of the instructors liked to suggest such variations with great good humor by saying things like, "And eventually - maybe, someday - you will raise your leg up here...and maybe, someday, out to the side..." I loved the invitations, the lack of judgment, the absence of competition and stress.

One of my decisions in "taking the Ranch home" was a commitment to finding a yoga studio nearby and trying it here. Bainbridge Yoga House is just a few miles from our home, and I've been going to classes there.

Some of the great gifts of yoga come through its teachings - intention, awareness, breathing, acceptance, gentleness, stillness-with-energy, concentration, strength, ease, flexibility, forgiveness and peace. Yesterday, we were invited to "be a fountain, not a drain" - clear imagery imparted with gentle humor.
It is much easier for me to quiet the mind and bring awareness to the present moment while practicing yoga than it is just sitting in meditation. It is easy to smile at myself when - just as I am trying my best to hold a difficult pose - the instructor reminds us to soften the jaw, or to be aware of what our body needs, trust our intuition, adjust a bit, or "engage the bandhas."

Practicing yoga, I notice tenseness, tightness or inflexibility in my body; there are always opportunities to check alignment and make tiny adjustments. Each correction makes a difference, and can bring the feeling of "Ah! That's better." Instead of berating myself for what I can't do, I can recall beginner's mind: we are all beginners, every day, starting fresh, again and again. That's a privilege - a kind of daily forgiveness. The practice of accepting and being gentle with myself, just as I am, helps me to feel gentler toward life and the rest of the world.

Yoga is also transforming me in ways which I did not anticipate. Feeling at home in my body, awareness (and acceptance) of it are things which I did not learn while growing up. Christian Science expends a lot of energy denying the physical senses, so to one coming from that background, body-work is basically a foreign concept. Practicing yoga helps me to connect with myself physically, spiritually, mentally and emotionally - all at the same time. I feel stronger, and enjoy what my body can do, while becoming aware of what it cannot (yet) do - and what is possible, with practice. After class, I feel invigorated and accomplished. It is a wonderful way to begin the day, with gratitude, integration and joy.

I'm so thankful that I tried yoga at the Ranch, and can continue here at home.
Sculpture depicting Child's Pose at Rancho La Puerta
Our bodies are indeed temples for the Divine.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Holy Beauty

Photo by David Gerstenberger

On Wednesday, David and I had the pleasure of going to one of our favorite places: a former U.S. Army fort, built at the end of the 19th century, which has been turned into a state park. How thankful I am that someone had the bright idea to gift this place back to the people when it was no longer considered needed for coastal defense!

Though we have been exploring Fort Worden for over 20 years, we are still discovering places within it which we haven't seen before. The panorama at the top of this post is the view from one of those places. It provides a lookout over the former parade grounds, all the way back to Point Wilson (where the Wooden Boat Festival is headquartered each year).
The view from the same spot (when we first discovered it, on a cloudy day). The park has woods, meadows, cliffs, beaches, campgrounds, a marine science center, a museum, and more. These wide-open vistas invite me to slow down, stop and drink in the beauty of nature.

 “The world is holy. We are holy. All life is holy. Daily prayers are delivered on the lips of breaking waves, the whisperings of grasses, the shimmering of leaves.” - Terry Tempest Williams

When I got up yesterday morning, this is the sight which greeted me. Such holy beauty deserves to be shared!
“Miss no single opportunity of making some small sacrifice, here by a smiling look, there by a kindly word; always doing the smallest thing right and doing it all for love...Remember that nothing is small in the eyes of God. Do all that you do with love.” - Thérese of Lisieux

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

As I See It

This morning, I went to my parents' house to interview a household-assistance provider. Having help around the home is a good way to enable my parents to remain in their own home, rather than having them move into assisted living.

I'm aware that there are differing schools of opinion on this topic - many of their friends have moved into assisted living facilities, as have Gregg's parents - but my own parents have always said that their preference is to stay in their home as long as possible. My maternal grandmother did the same thing, so we have a pattern from which to learn.
Last summer, when my father was experiencing a bout of illness, we were looking at different options, but by grace, he has made a recovery, had a good year, and they are still living on their own, with help coming in to provide yard work and take care of cleaning chores. Gregg and I do our best to relieve them of the responsibilities we can manage, and to make their life at home as easy as possible. That's the reason I went to see about a new provider today.

When I got to the house, I smelled propane (propane as it is delivered has no odor, but the supplier adds a scent so that a leak can be detected, if one should occur). I opened the front door to let in fresh air, called the propane company, and was asked to wait for their employee to arrive to check the tank and lines.

This wasn't in my original plan for the day. My parents thanked me profusely and apologized for the inconvenience, which I assured them was not a problem at all. 

As I waited, I took care of correspondence using my phone, went outside into the fresh air, and noticed the perfume of daphne odora which grows near their front door. The sun was beginning to appear through the fog. It was a warm spring morning on the shores of Puget Sound; I was in one of my favorite places on earth, and it was a pleasure to be there.
On the beach (with big sister Deb) in the 1960s
The household help interview did not yield anything useful, but the propane truck driver was kind and considerate. He tested the lines, found that all was well, and gave helpful advice. The dispatcher was courteous, efficient, and called back to check on our progress.

After I returned home, I thought about my parents' apologies and their generous thanks, and about the fact that it is my PRIVILEGE to be able to help my parents, rather than to be working full-time in a place where I do not have the freedom to get away, to be of assistance when it is needed.

I love my job. I especially love its variety. There are certainly days when tedium or frustration are present, when the work gets "undone" as soon as I finish doing it (as with housecleaning, dishes, laundry, bill-paying). Yet I know that I am performing these tasks with love and attention, with concern for my family's well-being, and with care. That gives it meaning, and invests the work with its own rewards.
I love the location of my work. 
The conditions and the view are unbeatable. 
Just look at this fog bank as it starts to dissipate over the water.

I have no complaints, and no need for apologies. As I see it, I am blessed.