Rocks of Ages

I’m walking in a narrow riverbed, wearing special river boots and feeling my way carefully over rocks hidden under murky water. I am carrying a hiking stick, probing for balance. Above me, cliffs soar 1500 feet revealing a slit of morning sky. I place my hand along the sandstone walls of the slot canyon, touching what was seabed 61 million years ago. Touching what water can do to rock. Touching a strip of smoothed rock-face about shoulder height, burnished by hundreds of thousands of hands just like mine, pressing skin on stone.

This is a hike called the Zion Narrows, where the Virgin River flows through Zion National Park in southern Utah. It is a spectacular end-of-summer adventure that Ann and I have been training for by walking Whidbey trails for months: increasing distance, hours, weight in our backpacks. We ride the first park shuttle of the day and arrive at the wade-in point, in the middle of the park about 7:30 AM.

People dwarfed by canyon walls. Zion Narrows.

We will stay “in river” for over nine hours, walk over 10 miles, and alternate between moments of utter aloneness with Nature, and navigating around clumps of people in various stages of appreciation and athleticism. People come from all over the world to do this hike and the languages that stream by us babble like the river itself. There are many families, mid-life and younger parents, teens and toddlers, some younger grandparents. I would say I am the elder here—except that is a ridiculous, egocentric, anthropomorphic comment when walking along these cliffs comprised of sedimentary deposits of unimaginable age.

In the National Park Service brochure, it is written: “These rock layers hold stories of ancient environments and inhabitants very different from those found in Zion today. In this distant past, Zion and the Colorado Plateau were near sea level and were even in a different place on the globe—close to the equator. The rock layers found in Zion today were deposited approximately 110-270 million years ago, and only in recent geologic time uplifted to form the scenery of Zion National Park.”

And I am a seventy-two year old human-being walking in the floor of the canyon, pressing my palms onto the skin of the rock, awash in awe and wonder. I am humbled by the beauty, and calmed inside the incomprehensible bigness of this story. Truly, Earth is the planet of the stones.

Moving slowly, deliberately upriver, I am held in a beauty that allows both gratitude and grief to rise. Gratitude that the canyon is still protected; grief for most everything else, especially that other Utah canyon lands are being auctioned off by shortsightedness and greed to the oil and gas industry. The mantra, “forgive me, forgive us,” wrenches through my heart…but just as quickly the thought races back, “What humanity has done to the Earth is not forgivable. It is not even appropriate to ask such a thing of these stones.”

Forgiveness is a human issue. Inadvertently or intentionally we trespass on one another’s trust. As we become aware of our transgressions, most of us try to be accountable for harm done, we practice making amends, learn to ask to be forgiven, and to forgive. We ask this of one another. We ask this of institutions because corporations, churches, governments, and militaries are all run by people. Forgiveness functions at the scale of human flaw, human harm, and human capacity for recovery.

Zion Narrows–high noon

The stone I am touching is outside this drama. I am standing under a cliff that does not register my presence: forgiveness is not the business of these stones. They are invulnerable. They are the body of the Earth. I am the disposable being here. My species is so young we are not even embedded in the geologic layer. And when this era crumbles to dust, what a layer that will be: landfills, atomic waste and nuclear warheads, mountains of plastics, tumbled skyscrapers, rusting vehicles, the bones of billions and the Sixth Great Extinction. But the cliffs will take it all and press it down and make more layers atop us.

Geologists have named and chronicled these layers: the Carmel Formation, the Temple Cap Formation, the Navajo Sandstone, the Kenyeta Foundation—representing several hundred millions of years of compression and upheaval. The waterfalls seeping out of the sandstone have been a thousand years in the making, since an ancient rainy day drove droplets into the top layer and they filtered down and down and down. Purified, they fall on my uplifted face. The earth has cleansed it all—whatever happened then, the stink of dying mastodons, the rotting seaweed of a long gone sea, and whatever happens now and tomorrow—eventually we all become a chapter in the story of the stones.

I stand in a moment of profound recognition: human beings cannot destroy the Earth. I kiss the cliff walls with unbounded joy, with the certainty that this rock will survive.

The land I live on, my island in Puget Sound, is an old river delta made by glacial melting 10,000 years ago. It is young and unstable, the layers loosely packed and crumbling back into the sea. It rests on the edge of deep coastal fault-lines.

This land I visit is old, weathered, wise even. It transmits endurance. Standing in place. Allowing wind and water to shape it. To sustain joy in these times is a matter of what I identify as source, as ground. I pause here: feet in the river, hands on the stone, sun and shadow all around me.

Stilled.

It is still true that beyond the canyon walls humanity is busily destroying the biosphere that makes our version of life-on-Earth possible. It is still true that the foundational question of life on Earth at this time is whether or not we as a species will rally ourselves to correct our relationship with Nature. It is still true that the answer may be no: or that our systemic tampering with biological and geological energies is beyond our capacity to correct to our liking. It is still true that how we have treated one another, and how we have treated the species that companion us, and used the resources offered us, is unforgivable and has grave consequences that are all coming due. But in this moment I am just a tiny desert lizard licking the water of life off the rock walls. I am in sunshine. I am home. I surrender to what is.

Canyon lizard–the weeping rocks, near entrance. All photos by Ann Linnea

 

Managing my outraged heart in a time of horrors

In the back of my journal are pages devoted to news clippings, magazine articles and photos: the Parkland students, injured Syrian children, Rohingya families fleeing into the poorest country on earth for shelter, addicts shooting up on city streets on their way to work, ICE patrols breaking up families of farm workers, earthquakes and storm surges, a starving polar bear leading her emaciated cubs to suicide at sea, the destruction of our protected national wild lands. Now also the photos of children being torn from their parents’ arms and shipped around the country to secret detention centers. Lost.

I paste some variety of these pages into each journal volume. My life ramblings filling pages front to back: these wider horrors and concerns pasted back to front. To endure being informed I have to find a sacred way to hold what’s actually happening, not just toss the daily news into the recycle bin or trash icon. I am a journal writer: the journal is an archive, a document of witness.

LOOK, my journal says, while you are sitting on the deck writing the morning up, or having dinner with family or friends, or working your way through personal challenges—this and this and this is also happening.

I have scrawled in black marker on these pages: I allow myself to believe that I can live with integrity inside the territory of my personal life; but I do not know how to live with integrity in relationship to the shattering of the wider world. My privilege contributes to destruction; the beauty, safety, and love around me I offer as prayer.

Right now, with the separation and incarceration of thousands of children and parents on the Mexican/US border, I can no longer claim to live with integrity in my own personal life: certainly not in my life as an American. I cast about in anguish for something effective to do.

A few days ago I emailed all my representatives. I wrote to a list of names that I’m told are the PR folks at the contractor companies that are putting up the detention centers. I shout at the people in the news stream—the young ICE officers, border patrol guards, attorneys, social workers, food delivery truck drivers, Congress members—“Resist! Resist! Resist! Don’t leave that room without taking the children. Run with them toward the cameras, make us all look, make the media become your protector.” I send small donations. I stand in protest—but I am far away.

I am a 72 year-old, only English speaking, Caucasian woman living just south of the Canadian border. I have few skills to help in this crisis except my own grandmothering arms; how I would make dinner, how I would encircle mother/father/child and refuse to let anyone rip them apart, how I would step between… Would I? How do I?

How do I manage my outraged heart in a time of impossible horrors?

In Bob Stilger’s book, After Now, When we cannot see the future where do we begin? he explores the potent idea that disaster gives us a chance that will never come again: to create the community we want. After the triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami and the reactor meltdown, Bob says some Japanese were courageous enough to admit, “This disaster has the potential to release us (Japan) from a future we did not actually want and to redefine where we are going.”

The United States is in a huge reset button: the end game of capitalist corporatism is now flashing uncontrolled in front of us. This is where we have long been headed—it’s just all laid bare; this imbalance of power was already available for misuse in the system; this is the greed of the great Monopoly board turning on itself. Our current disasters—both natural and politically generated—have the potential to imprison or empower us. Inside the walls of our nation I want the world to know millions of us are stirring awake and asking, how can we use this disaster to release ourselves from a future we did not actually want—and to step boldly, humbly, courageously into the future we do want, embracing the losses and reaching for the new promises that we ourselves call into being.

I carry my journal and my fountain pen with me everywhere. The pages of my life story and the larger context story are racing toward that point where they will meet in the middle of the notebook.

LOOK, my journal says: Look at everything: do not turn away. Carry it all: release it all. Refrain from violence, especially in your own heart, and understand the nature of fierceness, of holy outrage. Then take what action you can. Now. Today before one more child suffers, before one more piece of our precious earth is destroyed.

And then…we change the story!

Story is a map; and the story that gets one person through helps to get the next person through. (C. Baldwin in Storycatcher.)

Winter sunset from my desk.

Scattered across my laptop screen are files that contain opening paragraphs of my autumn’s attempts to write a blog entry. The happy reason for blog silence is my commitment to writing a novel in the creative hours I carve out of a week. An unhappier reason is how easily my attention has been engulfed in our great catastrophes. After awhile I’m not sure what more to say.

When a Canadian friend visited recently I cautioned her, “Crossing into the US right now you are entering a trauma-field of constant media overwhelm. Across a broad spectrum of politics, race, gender, religion, we are aware of the distress we’re in, and how little we seem able to manage it. It’s like the whole country is driving on black ice: we feel the vehicle of our civil life veering out of control. We may have our hands on the steering wheel, but we’re not the ones steering. We may want to hit the brakes or accelerate, but we know that any misaction will throw the car (and country) into total skid. Multi-vehicle pile-ups are everywhere. Most people are just trying to get ‘safely home’—whatever that means—but we are driving through our lives in growing panic.”

Our hearth in winter

I have been hyper-aware how almost every conversation diverts into a downward spiral. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair. There is no “happy place” in these conversations, and I fear we are entrenching ourselves in defeatism.

In my 30’s, I was in a group of several women who met monthly to discuss each other’s dreams. This meant unpacking the imagery, often dialoguing between characters (aspects of self), and sometimes finishing an interrupted storyline, or creating a different ending so that we could imagine a way out of a situation.

Around that time I had a recurring dream of a bear chasing me across my yard. I would make it safely to the house and lock the door and then realize it was just a screen door. The bear would arrive, start to claw at the screen, and I’d wake up. So I finished the dream by dialoging with the bear: “Who are you and what are you in my dream to tell me? Why do you want to catch me? What will happen if I let you in?” I created an ending to the dream: I let the bear in. We danced. Years later, when I was writing Life’s Companion and exhausted during the final chapters, I remembered the bear and called it to my back, leaned into its strength, and typed my way to the final page. Susan Seddon Boulet, who illustrated the cover and inner section pages, drew this image for me.

Susan Boulet, Woman in Bear Hug, collection of the author.

This is what we need now! We need to end every dive into the nightmare with a new ending: a story that inspires us forward. Talk about the weather— it spirals into climate change—and then we talk about the healing capacities of Earth and our love of nature. Talk about sports—it spirals into protests and corruption—and then we talk about human strength and the wonders of our bodies. Talk about men in public life—it spirals into sexual harassment—and then we speak of the men of integrity we know. Talk about politics—it spirals into despair—and then we imagine a revitalized democracy emerging.

Story is a map. We are at the end of the known story and it is our work now to map our way forward through imagining the possibilities into being. We can change the ending of this nightmare and dance with the bears, transform the dragons, rest in beauty.

Once upon a time… and then…and then…and then.

Original cover of my book, Life’s Companion, Journal Writing as a Spiritual Quest, Bantam, 1991.

 

 

 

 

Where is my mother?

There are several children’s books by this title. Various cartoon animal-children, in search of their animal-mommies, inquire of other cartoon animals, “Have you seen my mommy?” I saw a book like this at the library and it raised the question for me about my own mother, now several months after her death.

My mother’s ashes were divided into four equal parts and given to each of her children. Together we threw some ceremoniously off the ferry into the waters of Georgia Strait on our way back from her memorial service. I put some into a small pouch that I wore next to my heart in the Seattle Women’s March on January 21st. That pouch now resides next to a photo of us, a little shrine near my writing desk. And I recently ordered a dozen “memory stones.” These are beautiful little disks (future talking pieces?) of  blown glass, with ashes that turn to bright, white sparkles. My

Her two favorite colors, and “her” in the center.

mother becomes a tiny galaxy to be distributed to grandchildren and friends.

These gestures give me peace of heart—but what I am enjoying most are all the other ways and places “she” shows up. Like the small wooden bench that sat for years by the entrance to her patio home, and then on her apartment balcony. Now it graces our remodeled bathroom and we use it every day, admiring its sturdiness and how well it held up from years outdoors before its pampered life indoors.

I am enjoying the fancy dishes, flowery Royal Doulton patterns bought right at the factory in England. When she offered them, I accepted with delight—under three conditions: “1. I’m going to use them every day; they are not going into a china cabinet (no I don’t want your cabinet). 2. I will put them in the dishwasher (though not the microwave), even the ones with gold trim. 3. Before they go into

Four-legged water saving device, prewash service.

the dishwasher, I’m going to let the dog lick them.” She winced, but handed them over. Genius on her part: I think of her every time I reach for them, which is several times a day.

 

Also in the kitchen, a metal garlic press from my childhood that still works better than any “new and improved” press I’ve bought over the years, and I’ve bought a number of them. This family heirloom will go to the niece or nephew who can make the best garlic-laced lasagna. There will be a cook-off before I pop off.

The list grows and shifts as I notice things, so only one more confession: some days I’m wearing her underpants. Silky, with lace trimmings, they are brand new, as she spent the last year of her life in adult diapers. The only drawback: they have a taped nametag on them from the care centre. If I’m ever in that proverbial car accident, it’s going to confuse the paramedics when my driver’s license says Christina Baldwin and my underwear says Connie McGregor.

I’ve been listening to more classical music this winter, wearing her sweaters and scarves and appreciating everything she did to urge along a sense of culture, style, and flair in her tomboy daughter.

About 20 years ago, I invited my mother to join a journal writing retreat I was leading at Hollyhock Farm in coastal British Columbia. She already lived in BC, on the southern tip of Vancouver Island. Ann Linnea and I were just settling on Whidbey.

I felt ready to call a circle in which my mother could sit among a sisterhood of writers and I could be the teacher and guide, my book Life’s Companion, would be the text. She was then just a few years older than I am now, newly widowed from her Canadian husband, and her mother had recently died at 106.

So we arrive at Hollyhock. I don’t remember our conversation, but were walking the wooded trails overlooking Desolation Sound. A day of blue sky and matching blue waters, islands dotting the sea, mountains in the distance. I began touching a trailing branch of cedar, “Mother,” I said softly. Then more conversation before touching a moss covered boulder, “Mother.” We walked on. Gesturing into the view I whispered, “Mother.”

I was trying to signal her, before she joined the class, that I had transferred the mother archeypte from her/personal to Gaia/transpersonal. After a while, she began to touch the greenery around us, and whisper with me, “Mother…” Mother Cedar. Mother Boulder. Mother Ocean. Mother Mountain.

Connie in a tree–about this time period.

I do not feel orphaned by her departure. My Mother is the Earth. I miss Connie/mom, think of her daily, and wonder how she is enjoying the whatever-comes-next that so fascinated her. My grief is primarily a peaceful ride. When I can calm my awareness, I look for signals coming through—something I thoroughly expect from her after all those years standing in my shoes trying to receive through the veil from her dearly departeds.

I was her firstborn, her “practice baby,” she said, the one she didn’t quite know what to do with. Our relationship was a long road, and it finished in beauty, peace, and open heartedness. That is sufficient. When I need to have a wee cry, I go down to the beach and nestle in amongst the drift logs and sand and am held. Mother Sea. Mother Sky. Mother Mountain. Mother Trees. Mother in my own heart.

The Search for the Lost Chord

This is my remembrance piece for my mother, Connie McGregor, spoken at her Memorial Service 7 January 2017, at the United Church of Canada in Chemainus, BC, her home community.

Connie, summer of 2016

Connie, summer of 2016.

 

All her life, my mother was looking for “the Lost Chord”—that mystical longing for ultimate harmony.

The story of the lost chord comes from a famous Victorian parlor song about an organist playing idly at the keyboard who suddenly comes upon this chord. He is enthralled with its beauty, but can never find it again, finally deciding he will only hear it in heaven.

Longing for music awakened Connie’s heart. Musical chords were the DNA of her soul. What she couldn’t communicate any other way she poured into music. As a teenager in the Great Depression, in Rapid City, SD, she had a 15-minute weekly recital she played on the radio.

Our earliest memories of her are musical. There are photos of her teaching Sunday school with a passel of 3 & 4 years, our tiny hands full of rhythm instruments while she sits at the piano, toddler Carl in one arm, playing “Jesus loves the little children,” right-hand only, trying to attach our fledgling souls to the power of music.

Uncountable nights of our childhoods, finally getting all four of us to bed, she would ignore her 1950s “housewife” chores, sit down at the piano and pour out Debussy, Chopin, Ravel, Vaughn Williams, Rogers & Hammerstein, and favorites from the Methodist Hymnal.

1952--such a period piece photo

1952–such a period piece photo

Connie also longed for social justice. In 1940, while studying at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon, she was profoundly influenced by the university president, Carl S. Knopf (after whom our brother is named). Knopf was a theological pacifist and urged the world to consider alternatives to war and violence. Shared pacifism was an early bond between our parents.

Our father, Leo, became a conscientious objector and after their marriage in 1942, Connie and Leo served together in the Civilian Public Service Corps throughout WWII. In recent years, when the contributions of pacifists are finally being recognized, Leo is quick to point out, “The women served too and deserve equal credit.” During this time, Connie played in the camp orchestra, worked as a secretary in federal prison, and started early pre-school programs for the children of women employed in the war effort.

My parents during the war years while in CPS in the Northwest.

My parents during the war years while in CPS in the Northwest.

After the War, while Leo went to graduate school, 1946-48, Carl and I were born less than two years apart. In Indiana, a few years later, when Becky was a baby, they sponsored refugee families from Germany and Poland. In the early 1960’s, now with Ricky completing the family, and our relocation to suburban Minneapolis, Mom took us downtown to African Methodist churches, to interracial youth groups and play dates. When the Vietnam War broke out, she fiercely supported both my brother in the Army in DaNang, and me in the peace movement in San Francisco.

In 1990, with her Canadian husband, Don McGregor, she moved to Vancouver Island and after his death in 1995, began what was probably the most satisfying period of her life. Here in Chemainus, she read peace poetry on Remembrance Day, at Waterwheel Park, setting up a lectern and standing by her convictions. In Ladysmith, in her Strata, she stood up against a financial injustice occurring there and would not be intimated or ostracized into changing her vote. She called her neighbors to accountability.

She donated to many causes, especially Amnesty International, and filled envelopes with $20/bills that she slipped anonymously to folks in need at Christmas time.

Longing for spirit, Connie lived faithfully within Christian tradition, but kept the church door of her heart open to many sources of insight. She attended whatever church best met her needs for community and open-mindedness: Lutheran, Methodist, Unitarian, Congregationalist, Spiritualist, UCC. She demanded that people think through their theology, not just sit in the pew and accept doctrine. She led book discussions, prayer and Bible studies, and she read Martin Buber, Carl Jung, CS Lewis, Simone de Beauvoir, Joseph Campbell, Marcus Borg, and John Spong. Many people have been influenced by her ever seeking mind… we, her children, certainly have.

C'sbks copy

Her bookshelf in her apartment.

It was not always easy being around this insatiable curiosity, but it was always interesting. To be Connie’s family or friend, you had to learn to define (and defend) yourself, to chart your own path, to articulate and stand by your beliefs. She didn’t want agreement—she wanted mutually rigorous engagement. Her search for belonging, on one level a huge desire to find “like kind,” was also a huge desire to be met, intellect-to-intellect.

Still curious and in awe of the world in 2014

Still curious and in awe of the world in 2014

The last few years were hard on her—and on all of us who loved her. Her short-term memory left great gaps—not dementia of the usual sort. Until just a few months ago, she could still be roused to talk about theology or conscious dying; she could play piano; her humor would come forth like the Dormouse waking out of the teapot. She just couldn’t remember that we’d come to visit or what she’d had for lunch. When she entered the Chemainus HC Centre, she told the director, “I am still a woman of intellect and I expect to have a voice in my care.”

Last January, on the last night in her Nanaimo apartment, my sister Becky and I had a kind of mother/daughter sleepover with her. We sisters were having a glass of wine when Connie, who barely sipped alcohol, asked for some. “Do you want wine?” I asked her, “or do you want communion?”

“Communion,” she said. So we entered sacramental space. We offered one another the cup of life. We broke out crackers and fed each other holy bread. We took her favorite perfume; a fragrance called “Happy,” and anointed one another. “Is something big about to happen to me?” she inquired.

“Yes. You are moving into care, mom. This is your last night among the beauty of your things. You need nurses and aides who can help you and keep you safe. You are going back to Chemainus. You are trading things for community. Can you do that?”

She nodded. “What will be my job there?”

“Your job will be to let love all the way in, and to send love all the way out.”

As I think about the blessings embedded in this year of deterioration—I am so grateful that she took on this final job. She got there. She died whispering “I love you…” she died listening to us whisper “I love you, too.”

Her search was over.

She became the lost chord.

 

 

2016 Nov 5 Connie last piano copy

Playing piano on her 96th birthday, 20 days before she died.

 

What is dying, Nina?

Cool sunrise over a fake lagoon in Chandler, AZ, oasis in the desert. A November day here will turn hot and we will go jump in the community pool. I have brought my teacup and journal to a little veranda to write and think about my mother who lies dying in the nursing home that has tended her this past year. I am in Arizona. She is in British Columbia.

My reverie is sweetly shifted by the arrival of my six-year old granddaughter. She is watching me closely this week as I am tracking with my sister & brother who sit at our mother’s side. In the vacation rental house where we are all staying during a reunion and family Thanksgiving, there is a flickering candle altar with photos that honor my mother and also her Uncle Brian who died three years ago. In this same three-year period she has also lost her great-grandfather and her other grandmother, her father’s mom.

altar2

She is twirling my hair, sitting on my lap. “What is dying, Nina?” she asks. “People get dead and then they’re gone.” I take a breath, she’s trusting me to give her something she can understand.ns

“People have two parts that make us who we are: the soul, and the body. I recognize you because I know how you look, and sound, and feel. And I recognize you because who you are shines out from inside you. When you are in your mommy’s womb, the body and the soul come together and you are born in one piece that is both physical and spiritual.

“Then you live your life—one beautiful piece of body and soul. Dying is when those two parts separate again. The body goes back to the earth, and the soul goes back to spirit.”

“Is that heaven?”

“Yes, heaven is one name for where the spirit goes.”

“Why is your mama dying? Is she hurt? sick?”

“She’s dying because she’s so old her body is tired and her soul needs to be free again. I am happy that she is going to be free, and I cry when I remember all the things we’ve shared and learned from each other.”

We look across the lagoon, and there is the metaphor made visible. “Look at the palm trees, Sasha… see how they are reflected in the water?” She nods. There is the tree that we see growing on the ground, and there is the tree that is reflected upside down in the water. The standing tree is like the body, the reflected tree is like the soul.”

Body & soul.

Body & soul.

“Oh… okay. Can I draw the picture in your journal?”

She takes a pen and begins to draw palm trees and us on the veranda. The day moves on. My mother still breathes. We wait in vigil, both near and far.

PS: The afternoon of this posting, November 27, 2016, my mother Connie died peacefully with my brother and sister present. Now she knows the “big secret”of what is dying. Hallelujah.

Half-mast in sunlight

Friday afternoon in my little village by the sea. Second Street is closed for a summer market: flowers, vegetables, crafts, bread, the stalls are lined up and people stroll through. Dogs on leash are everywhere. Two friends have a new puppy they are carrying in arms. Sunshine and a refreshing breeze off the water.

My father and I are sitting at a patio table in front of the Commons coffee shop chatting about his upcoming 96th birthday. He wants a pizza party on our patio with his four children, three in-laws, a friend or two. He wants this—all this: a village around him, a street full of familiar faces, people waving to us, some stopping to say hi, to bring their own story into the ones we are telling each other. He wants this—his daughter, his daughter-in-law at the next table talking with friends from our decades of work and travel. We all want this—peace amongst acquaintances, friends, strangers, the earth’s abundance spilling over our shoulders. Ice cream cones and coffee. Our corgi, Gracie, wanders back and forth under the two tables seeing who might be eating something, who might have a dog biscuit to share or a cookie crumb. Safety. Peace. A couple of young musicians playing acoustic guitar and familiar songs about love.

It is a moment of complete refuge and beauty.

On the other side of us a group of several women and a man are finishing ice cream cones. One gives her waffle-tip to Gracie to finish. The man asks, “May I pet your dog?” Gracie snugs her back up to his legs and he begins massaging her: both of them blissed, his fingers in her luxuriant fur. A few minutes later when they are ready to stroll, he speaks to me again, “Thanks for letting me pet her.”

We really look at one another. I reach for his hand, strong brown fingers, in this moment his eyes bright with ease in a dark face. I am a seventy-year-old Caucasian woman: he is a middle-aged African-American man. We are in the village together. There is sunshine. Refuge. Beauty. I say back to him, “She loved it. You take care, now. Have a good day.” We smile. He’s gone.

My father and I look at each other. Tears rise in our eyes. What is happening in our country? In the world? In the unspoken chamber of my heart, I want to shelter this friendly stranger, be ready to push him under the table, wrap him in my white skin. “Don’t put your hands in your pockets. Don’t make any sudden moves. Don’t drive too fast or too slow or with a tail-light out. Don’t get shot.” In various ways, my father has worked for social justice all his life. My first memories are of living in downtown Indianapolis where he was a social worker in what was then called a “neighborhood house.” It was the early 1950s, Negroes were streaming North from the rural South looking for work and needing to learn the ways of the city. My brother and I, at four and two, unaware of race or skin tone or poverty, were just kids on the block, racing around in summer heat, days like this. Eating ice cream cones, our mother would strip us down to our white carter spanky pants so that she could just hose us off afterwards, not have to do a load of clothes. Little half naked kids, vanilla and chocolate, all sticky chested.

The seed of my gesture, white hand and brown hand, resides in those days. So do the seeds of our current violence. We talk about then, and now. I am facing the end of my work life. He is facing the end of his life-time. We have done and are doing all we can.

IMG_6408We walk slowly through the middle of the market toward the post office. The flag is at half-mast. Orlando?—where 49 died and 53 were injured dancing at the Pulse? Istanbul?—40 dead and 230 injured? Baghdad market?—where nearly 300 die from a truck bomb? This week’s police murders of black men: Baton Rouge? Suburban St. Paul? The sniper murder of five police in Dallas? The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken for the world.

Social trauma at this scale is incredibly hard to hold. We are surrounded by problems for which there are no resolutions. How do we help one another not go mad? Not get utterly lost in despair? Find moments of sweetness such as this summer afternoon?

These moments exist in every life: when we trust the friendliness of public spaces, when we pet one another’s dogs, smile at one another’s children, hold one another’s gazes, smiles, and hands. This is what I call a stackable moment: a choice to remember something, to stack it into our memories. We can stack trauma: we can stack healing. We can stack violence: we can stack love.

I choose to stack this moment, to savor it, roll it around and around in my mind until I can call it back to sustain me. There was sunshine. There was my father alive in his stories. My beloved was next to me. There were friends. Dogs. Fruits and flowers. There was a kind man who trusted to put his brown hand in my white hand. We were in the weave together and the world was whole and holy.

The flag is at half-mast. My heart is broken—and open. This is how I stack the day.

 

My life is a full-time job

Just before heading back to airport.

Just before heading back to airport.

I emerge from two weeks of “Grandma Camp” and family time, and realize that it’s April and I’m about to turn 70 years old! The world is greening around me— asparagus is up, tulips are peaking, and our flowering crab apple tree is having a glorious bloom after soaking winter rains. I am profoundly thankful to be surrounded by this beauty; and I know it is impermanent, and I know I am impermanent.

The old tree still blooms

The old tree still blooms

Turning 70 is a big deal—and a privilege. Not everyone gets here… mortality is more real to me than in the decade behind me when I jokingly said, “Every year is like a speed limit—life seems to be moving faster and faster.” Well, 70 is a shift into the larger mystery. I intend to use it well—the day, the year, and (with health and good fortune) the decade.

Last August, when my friend Barbara Borden turned 70, I began thinking of the nine months preceding my own 70th birthday as a gestational time. Barbara and I proclaim that she was born on the day I was conceived, so I anticipated a period to reflect, assess, and set goals. I imagined the winter of handing on The Circle Way as a moment of breath and redefinition, exploring how our educational company, PeerSpirit might articulate its own transition. I began a correspondence with several friends in the turning-70-cohort exploring the meaning of this passage for us. I thought I could hang on to this thread, but life happened and took up all that contemplative space. Mom-care and other family concerns, the work and complex communication required to serve on the neighborhood association board as we face repairing the bluff/beach access, the ongoing transition needs of work, and and and…

It seems there   is no easy fix to anything anymore.

I want to think of this coming decade as a golden era in which I can bring together my two life passions of activism and story. I want to be a walking/talking/writing antidote to the frenzy of tweets and texts and fractured sound-bytes that stream off the devices we now carry with us everywhere. I seek opportunities every day to practice transforming experience into story and making a narrative that leads to greater civility and cooperation. Hey let’s just be us: listening, speaking, framing a world we can stand in together.

I am writing a book because the story keeps welling up inside me in spite of everything that calls me away and pulls at my time and attention. These characters are my birthday present. I don’t know what will come of it, only that I am dedicated to this particular story. I want to live long enough to tell this tale. I don’t know why it’s important beyond my own creative fantasy, just that it is.

When acquaintances ask, “So how’s retirement?” I don’t know how to answer. The word seems irrelevant and meaningless to my actual life. I don’t know what to say because saying anything is a much longer story than they may be expecting in a brief encounter, so I just smile and tell them, “I’m not retired. Being myself @ 70 is a full-time job.”

This blog entry is the beginning of a longer story that I intend to dip into this year: what does it mean to turn 70, to stand in the privilege of age and aging? What do I choose as I face into a decade that may well be my last full-on shot of contribution and energy? What remains mine to do now in regards to the larger issues around me? How will I expend and celebrate the strengths I have and admit the fading of strengths as I notice them? How do I come home?

Self @ 69...

Self @ 69…

To begin, Ann and I are heading into a five-day birthday retreat—off line, just us and Gracie, and a nearby island to explore. Alone and together, in silence and circle, turning a funky beach cabin into sanctuary. My gestational imagery returns… along with the labor of giving birth to myself in the new now.

 

 

Stardust, Black Holes, & Fog

Our mother always loved the open road. In the 1950s with three, then four, small children and not much money, she would pack us in the car and head west from Indiana or Minnesota to various family homes scattered throughout California, Oregon, Washington, and Montana. Two-lane blacktop in the era before Interstate highways and no air conditioning. Our father would stay and work, taking the bus to Montana to meet us at his parents’ homestead and drive home.

Now, her gypsy adventuring is confined to Chemainus Health Care Centre, and the only road ahead of her is the last stretch before dying. In the midst of her short-term memory loss and physical frailties, we who know her spirit are trying to help her make this stretch meaningful. Based on the rows of books on progressive theology, social justice, and conscious aging that I sorted out of her apartment, she was planning on navigating this passage with full mental faculties and an ability to educate those around her.

Instead, we deal with stardust, black holes, and fog. When embedded in long-held routines, she functions with surprising clarity as her church friend emailed: “Connie participated fully in the service.  …There was no doubt she felt happy and I was surprised how many people she knew by name.”

She knows these names and routines because they are encoded far enough back that she has a memory link for them. Memories have to make it through the fog, not get trapped in the black-hole, and then maybe turn into stardust—a point of remembering. Meanwhile, it’s a hard adjustment to live in the fog of new surroundings, routines, and people.

Later that afternoon, she managed to dial my sister’s phone and Becky emailed: “Mom called an hour ago confused about a lot of things… We talked again about the process that brought her to Chemainus. That it was her goal to be back among friends. That where her bed is not the important point. What is important is that her home is her community.

“Obviously she was very tired. She may be able to do well in the mornings but she gets more confused as she fatigues. She told me, “And I’m cold here.” As a nurse walked by she yoo-hooed out to her. When the nurse asked what she needed Mom asked me, “What did I need to tell her?” So I said, “tell her you’re cold.”

In a jumbled reality capacities are jumbled as well : she can delight her friends with glimpses of the dynamic woman they have known for 25 years and she requires constant repetition to frame what has happened to her. Her sequencing behavior is nearly gone: being chilled she can’t remember that the lap robe beside her could be wrapped at her shoulders. She has fallen 3 times just moving around her 8×10 room, forgetting to use her walker.

Yet, even under these conditions, she seeks to find a daily purpose: Why get up in the morning? Why breathe? How do I make it down this last stretch of road?

Every day I send her this message telepathically—it works as well as any other delivery method—“Mom, you can work around your foggy brain and find your reason for being. Bring bits of kindness to those around you—hold a hand, listen, help—and receive all these things in turn. Make music. Notice beauty. When you forget, just do it all again. You are safe now to wander in mystery from one moment to the next.”

The last day she was in her apartment, she woke from dozing in her chair and recited a poem she’d made up in her sleep:

“You see me sitting alone in my chair,

You think that I’m here, but I’m really out there—

Communing with angels, I’ll be with them soon,

Just after I learn how to jump over the moon.”

 

Learning to jump the moon—that’s a purpose. And however she makes that leap, she will be a teacher and way shower for her family and friends.

The photos here show our journey: 1946 to 2016… 1946

2015

 

 

 

 

and the video shows the journey moment of her soul.

Standing in Stardust

Until last Monday, my mother was living in Nanaimo, BC in a nice apartment in an independent senior housing community. She had moved there in May 2013 from her townhouse in Ladysmith and from her church in Chemainus… both small towns about 35 kilometers south on Vancouver Island. Though her impetus was to “take in more city culture,” the past three years have been a spiral into diminishing capacities: increasing short-term memory loss, decreasing mobility, breast cancer. As we, particularly my sister Becky, worked across the US/Canadian border to bring care around her, she was wobbling in a widening gap of services.

In early October 2015, she had “a frontal lobe incident.” Her health aides put her in hospital: her friends called for help. In the past four months I have spent 30 days in Nanaimo with my sister, my brother, or brother-in-law. In mid-December she started falling: cracked her forehead on the corner wall, to hospital for sutures; delusional and disoriented, to hospital for observation; hand puffed up, to hospital for diagnosis of cellulitis; burn on her shoulder blade, to hospital for culturing.

Early January, a Health Services committee cleared her for referral to government subsidized complex care. No one was making any prediction as to when this would happen, or where she will be sent. She was in the queue along with hundreds of other vulnerable seniors. As my sister, brother-in-law and I headed north, again, and I suggest to Becky, “prepare to stay on.”

And then a miracle occurs: a place opens up in complex care. The place is in Chemainus Health Care Centre, her first choice. All her friends live within a few minutes radius her church community is 6 blocks away.

And everything starts to flow! We are standing in stardust. Her friends prepare to welcome her home. We bring mom to see the place, trying to explain this move to a woman with almost no “now.” She does remember volunteering here and playing piano for the residents. Her former neighbor is the activities director. Everyone starts telling us how stable the staff is, how happy the place is, how good the care. We are gulping sighs of relief.

All weekend our mother asks, “Is something big about to happen to me?”

We say, “Yes. You are moving back to Chemainus. You are moving into nursing care, mom. You’ll have what you need to keep safe, and it will be a big adjustment.”

“What will happen to everything?” she gestures to her apartment.

“A few things will come with you to make your new home. The rest we will take care of.”

Sunday we take her for a long drive in the countryside up the coast. She’s too cold to get out of the car, but we enjoy vistas, get cake and coffee, and drive home to her apartment for a last dinner in the dining room. Mom and her daughters sleep in the apartment together one last time.

Monday—she goes “into care.” First night, she’s in a temporary holding room and looks at us like a baby bird peeking out of a nest. Walking away is heartbreaking. My sister and I hold hands and cry and drive north to take apart her household.

The next day she is moved into her own room, 8×10 feet, with a picture window—ocean view. We bring her clothes, artwork and photos, television, CD player and one small box of classical CDs. She has a room that is the right size for her brain and body, and a view that is the right size for her soul.

Over the years, she has read 20 books on conscious aging and dying. There is no reason to sugarcoat what is happening. We repeat and repeat until something gets through the fog that surrounds her and lodges in her mind on the other side of short-term memory dementia.

“Is this my forever room?”

“Yes, Mom.”

“I don’t have to move again?”

“No mom.”

“This is where I will live until I die?”

“Yes.”

“This is where I belong?” She stares out the window a bit.

“Yes. Your children will come visit and all your friends are nearby.”

“You can find me?”

“We know exactly where you are.”

“Who pays for this?”

“It comes from your pension. You don’t have to worry about money anymore.”

As I post this blog, it’s been a week. She is guided down the hall to play piano. She is taken to church among friends. She has a chair with view to heaven on earth. She is re-embedded in community.

She is tired and grieving and settling in—so are we all. I come home knowing she is still on her soul journey—that the mind and the brain work with each other, and sometimes have to work around each other. She asks, “What is my job now?”

I tell her, “Your work is to let love all the way in and to offer love all the way out.”

And so it is for us all.

 

A room the size of her brain, a view the sizze of her soul.

A room the size of her brain, a view the size of her soul.