Monthly Archives: February 2015

A children’s craft teaches me a lesson

Gratitude beads

Gratitude beads

My regular meditation teacher is on vacation and so yesterday when I went to class we had a substitute teacher. Our substitute was someone who regularly sits in our class, but none of us knew that she volunteers at a women’s shelter and at the palliative hospice – where she teaches meditation classes  to children and youth – sessions for children who find themselves in a lonely and scary place.

We are immediately open to her comments that teaching children how to sit still and just listen to their inner selves, especially under such difficult circumstances, is truly worthwhile.

Of course, they are often too young to sit still so she makes crafts with them to help them understand.  In meditation, we sit still and quiet our thoughts…our thoughts that fill our minds – endlessly. As adults this is not an easy feat – it takes practice, so we are fascinated by her comments.

She shows us a simple water bottle. She has filled it with water and added a few ounces of sparkles or glitter – the same glitter that is sold in tubes in the dollar store or craft store. She has taped the lid securely; a few pieces of masking tape wrapped around for good measure.

When she shakes the bottle, the glitter sparkles and falls slowly in the bottle much like a snow globe. And just as if we are all children in her class, she sends the bottle around our circle for show and tell. I find that I am fascinated by the sparkles and stare at the falling of the glitter. I realize that we are all speechless.

Our meditation teacher has made her point. She places one of the bottles in the middle of the floor in front of us and we slowly realize that we are silencing our thoughts – that internal chatter of our minds – and instead, we are just staring into the glitter, watching as the shiny bits circulate and fall slowly, so slowly.

Good. Point made, our teacher announces.

She has a second craft to teach us, she tells us. And we are all to take part. She distributes a short, thin piece of rope to each of us and plops a big bowl of brightly-coloured beads in the centre of our circle. Oh, she wants us to make bracelets, we think.

But first, she gives each of us a piece of paper and a pen. On the piece of paper, she instructs us, please write ten things that you are grateful for. Not big things. Just something small. She reminds us that when she makes this craft with young children, they might be under a lot of distress, so she wants them to focus on the small things…perhaps a beloved pet, favourite teacher, a favourite toy, candy, movie, cartoon character.

The example she gives us: pumpkin pie. She loves pumpkin pie. So, the first item on her gratitude list is pumpkin pie. The second item is her grandmother who gave her the recipe for pumpkin pie. The third item is the store where she drives to buy the ingredients for the pie. She is grateful for farmers, the fourth item – farmers who grow the pumpkins. And five, six, and seven are spices: nutmeg from Indonesia; cinnamon that comes from Ceylon; ginger from China; the eighth item is the delivery truck that brings the spices, the pumpkins and the other ingredients to the store; and the ninth item of gratitude is the sun – the glorious sun that grows the pumpkins and the spices. And lastly, the tenth gratitude item is that she is still here…to eat her favourite pumpkin pie. She inspires us to think about the pumpkin pie and its connection to countries all over the world; we, too, are interconnected to everything in the Universe.

Next we are instructed to choose a bead for each gratitude item and then we make our key chain/bracelet. Lastly, she gives each of us a small bell to string onto our bracelets and then we tie the ends. When we hear the bell, we are to remember that we are grateful, yes; interconnected to all things, also.

Then we meditate.

I am really quite moved, in spite of the simplicity of the craft. I have often listed things that I am grateful for and in fact, I once saw fireflies in my garden one evening last summer that prompted a spontaneous gratitude list that filled a couple of pages. I am big on gratitude!

But when she reminded us that all things begin with gratitude, I got it!

As I drove home from my class, I thought of a simple prayer of a Zen master:

“Thank you for everything. I have no complaints whatsoever.”

 

 

 

Sign on telephone pole

Last week we experienced temperatures in the minus twenties, Celcius. In spite of the cold, I decided to take my daily walk so I just added a few layers – extra tee, two pairs of mitts, hat and a headband, and wool socks. (I only break those out from retirement when it is really, really cold.)

I am glad that I walked as I noticed this sign taped to a telephone pole. I didn’t have a camera or cell phone, but today I decided to re-trace my route and see if the sign was still there…it was!

Please take a hat if you need one. Smiley face.

Please take a hat if you need one. Smiley face.

Love transforms us

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Portugal countryside

Yesterday I read an article on a travel site that high-lighted life-changing trips and those words sparked the thought “What life-changing moments have I experienced?”

Certainly I experienced true bliss and joy when I once stood in a village made of slate stone erected on the side of a mountain in the beautiful country of Portugal.  While there, I leaned against a slate wall and all I could see for miles and miles were vineyards, green fields and dots of cork trees. There was a complete silence. Suddenly I could faintly hear in the distance the sound of bells – sheep bells.

Life-changing? Yes.

For sure I experienced utter joy when I gave birth to my beautiful twin boys so many (many) years ago one October day.

Life-changing? Yes.

Absolutely when I set eyes upon my husband (even more years ago).

Life-changing? Yes.

The telephone call that told me that my sister’s mammogram results weren’t good. And the moment that I fell into my husband’s arms, crying with relief, when the physician assured my sister that the operation was successful.

Life-changing? Yes.

And without a doubt, when I cared for my father who had Alzheimer’s, and then sat by his bedside for a week, all day and all night, when he slowly but surely died.

Life-changing? Yes.

And just last December, when our beloved mother died in our arms, surrounded by family and loving staff…life-changing? Yes.

So what do we mean when we say something is life-changing? Well, for me, it means in that moment, I was transformed. That something deep within me resonated and I felt it. I knew without a shadow of doubt that my soul (my spirit) was touched. We know because we can feel the reverberations – it’s like a gong that is resonating deep within…over and over. And it feels – well, like something really, really big is happening!

And always those moments can be resurrected easily: I just go into my memory bank and pull them out and easily I am transported to the moment as if it were yesterday. I just pull them out, breathe them in, and savour them. Yes, even those overwhelmingly emotional moments at my parents’ vigils.

I savour those moments because they comfort me. Those moments remind me of what makes our life so precious.

Those moments are filled with love. Love. And Grace.

When I stood on that mountainside in Monsarez, I felt joy that brought me to tears. I knew in those moments that the Universe was beautiful and that I mattered, even in my insignificance.

When I glimpsed my babies for the first time, I smiled at my husband (through the tears) and knew for sure that we were forever changed – we were now connected to two beautiful beings that we were to love forever.

Love.

Love transforms us. It completely changes us and our lives. It changes our thoughts, our perceptions, and our energy (our power).

So, yes! We do all have life-changing moments. Sometimes those transformative moments are the biggies – birth, death, illness, marriage, loss. But often those moments are very simple instances when we are hit by an insight or a eureka.

I once walked into a vacation rental that was plain, sparsely decorated and had a terribly uncomfortable bed and I turned to my husband and announced that “wherever I am, I am home.” He still teases me about that one. But what he didn’t realize is that when I walked into the rental apartment, that I had this sudden flash that I was happy and content – no matter where I landed. It was a huge life-changing moment for me! I cling to that thought whenever I am feeling uneasy or uncomfortable…I just remind myself that I am enough!

I suspect that when we choose our professions or careers that some of us have had those life-changing moments. When I opened my first children’s clothing store, I felt something deep within. I remember my husband and I sat on the floor of the store one New Year’s Eve, toasting the New Year, and thinking that I was meant to be there. But I also remember the moment when I knew, just knew, that I was not to be there any longer and that it was time to close the store. Strangely enough, only two months after closing my store, my father’s health and my mother’s inability to cope led me to caring for them full-time.

Life-changing moments or events or challenges (because often it is the challenge that defines who we are and who we are meant to be) are significant if we choose to see their significance and meaning.

Whether those moments are momentous or simple, it is those moments that are gold! They are precious. That’s why we savour them. They’re alchemy.

(Note:  The travel site I visited was AFAR.)

 

 

 

 

Life stories and memories – gifts!

 

 

 

 

Sometimes you will never know the value of a moment until it becomes a memory…Dr. Seuss

 

There are many reasons why we would want to record a person’s story or history, but when a loved one has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or another dementia-related disease, the reasons become more urgent:

  • to preserve history
  • to preserve our elders’ wisdom and stories
  • to recognize that persons with Alzheimer’s or another dementia-related disease are ordinary people who have often led extraordinary lives
  • to change perceptions
  • to create deeper understanding and compassion
  • to encourage mental stimulation and a sense of well-being
  • to hone cognitive skills
  • to encourage a sense of identity and help retrieve the person’s sense of loss
  • to enhance a person’s self-worth and self-esteem
  • to create a more loving connection between the recorder (family member or friend or volunteer) and the person with a dementia

When I visited with my mother in the long-term residence where she lived, we would often sit together and look through photo albums. I had made a family photo album on Shutterfly for her birthday two years ago and it was a big hit with both my mother and the staff at the residence. When I needed to distract her I would pull out the photo album as it always calmed my mother, and often caring support workers would retrieve her albums for her whenever they sensed that she was feeling low or depressed.

Rarely would my mother look through the more recent photos of our family – my son’s wedding at a cottage setting (which she attended); our family’s annual weekend in Toronto to attend a Blue Jays game; Thanksgiving or Easter dinner gatherings – none of these interested her in any way.  (Of course, we know now that persons with Alzheimer’s disease do not retain newer or recent information; instead past memories from an early age are often still intact until the later stages of the disease.)

But, let her eye catch a photo of her own wedding, or a day in the country when she was a young teenager, and she would be transported to a happy time and her stories would tumble out of her. She barely told one story in its entirety…the stories were jumbled and it was difficult to follow them.  At the time I remember that I thought that I didn’t dare record them as they were too disjointed and confusing.

Since then my sister, my kids and my husband talk often of her stories and between all of us I believe that we could have recorded them and made sense of them. Instead, her best friend, while at my mother’s funeral, told us that my mother often regaled her friends with stories of life in the army as a cook (during World War II) and that my mother was often the life of the party. What?? Really?? No, how did we not hear of these stories? As children, it was our father who we remembered as the life of the party! Not my mother!

We lost an opportunity to capture her life story in her own words.  And I believe that she would have enjoyed the process and the attention! She loved the limelight – sometimes. She was (like most of us) a dichotomy.

She liked to show off and kick her legs up even when she was in a wheelchair during the last few years of her life.  Many of the staff asked me if she was a ballerina in her young life. A ballerina? Not that I know of…but she loved to dance. (That I did know.) Many of our fondest memories are of our mother and my aunt dressed in their finest dancing dresses showing their latest dance moves before they went out for an evening with my father and uncle. Back then I thought that she was absolutely beautiful and exotic.

But my mother also shunned people and disliked people fussing over her. She had very lovely black and white hair, a grey platinum shade (even at 91), and its unusual colour encouraged staff and volunteers to pat my mother on the head – oh, she disliked that! She would “riff” for hours if someone patted her head.  I would try to console her and remind her that because people liked her, they would stroke her hair. She would just hmmmpf!

Whether she liked to kick her heels up or start singing a song out of the blue…those acts were done on her terms. Her quiet acts of rebellion were her response to her loss of control in most areas of her life.

And for that reason, I believe that she would have liked us to have recorded her life story. She would have basked in the attention and limelight! And her story would have been on her terms.  Yes, disjointed. Yes, garbled somewhat. But, still her story.  And that alone would have pleased her.

But as you know by now, my mother died last month…so this project is a little too late.

As soon as possible, I am going to begin to record some of the stories of residents at the long-term care facility where my mother resided. Before it’s too late.

My intent is to begin the process with some basic questions about birth place, schools, friends, parents, grandparents, and proceed to the big life questions, the questions that explore the meaning of life.

  • What are you most grateful for as you look over your life?
  • Tell me about your happiest times?
  • What makes you happy today?
  • Tell me about your accomplishments and what you are most proud of?
  • What is your greatest strength? Tell me how this strength has served you.
  • What gives you joy?
  • How would you like to be remembered?
  • What word means the most to you, and please explain: Love, Trust, Faith, Hope, Joy.
  • If you were to teach one lesson only…what would that lesson be?
  • What are your hopes and dreams for the next generation? Your grandchildren?
  • What can we do each day to make a difference in this world?

After caring for both my father and my mother who both had Alzheimer’s, I have no delusions that persons with Alzheimer’s or another dementia-related disease will be easy to interview. In fact, I suspect the task will be quite challenging. I am prepared that many visits will be necessary, and ironically since the clock is ticking, that many visits will be futile or lack substance. I think we need to be prepared for those challenges.  I will go with the flow. (Since I am always preaching it.)

But I also believe that the journey itself will be illuminating; the process itself will be enriching for all of us. And that is always enough.

Our loved ones who have dementia-related diseases and our elders (who do not have a dementia) have gifts to share – we must try to recognize those gifts and we do that by giving a voice to them.

Sit in silence and take time to listen…be open to connecting to another person. Give space to your loved one so that you can hear the stories. The reward will be shared gifts.

“In the end, only the stories survive.” Glaciers, Alexis M. Smith

All life stories matter because we all matter

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Lately I have been reading a lot of books about World War I, or The Great War, as it is often referred to. My parents both served in the Second World War; my father as a paratrooper, my mother as a cook in the army.
But it was not my own parents’ participation in the war that aroused my interest in reading history books of the years 1914 to 1918, or the years leading up to the First World War.
No, believe it or not, it was more about synchronicity, or what you might call coincidence.

A group of us often get together for the monthly First Fridays that our city’s downtown merchants host – an evening of art, music, shopping, and free snacks and nibbles. And it was while I was munching down on some free nibbles (with a glass of wine in my other hand) that I began to chat with a retired teacher who I had not seen for some time. She began to fill me in with her latest escapades and that included a trip that toured the many war memorials in France. She confessed that she was obsessed with The Great War and devoured any books that she could get her hands on. I was interested.

Later that same evening, another chat (in another shop with more free food) leads to another friend introducing the subject of The Great War. Okay, it’s a beautiful evening, the wine and free food are plentiful, and people are talking about…The Great War? (Now I hear woo woo music in the background!)
During the following week, on a number of occasions I overhear a mention of the war on television or I happen upon a newspaper article about the First World War. I walk into a book store and I am immediately drawn to a book display of “History of World War One,” “The Great War,” and others. Okay, now I’m hooked. (Because that is how my mind works. If I begin to notice things then I begin to pay attention and before too long I am looking for more signs.)
Synchronicity? Coincidence? Anniversary of the war so it just so happens a lot of people are writing about it and talking about it? Yes. Yes. And, yes.
But the fact that I began to pay attention means something.

You might assume that because I am now reading books about this war that perhaps I am going to pursue writing something about the subject. Or, you might assume that I have become an aficionado of the subject material. But you would be wrong. In fact, really wrong. I can barely remember the names of the battles, let alone which battle took place in which area of the country, or which country (there were so many countries involved in the war). Too much information.
But here’s the funny thing about synchronicity. We are each unique enough that we have different “take aways” from our experiences, and so I find that my reading list has led me to another path…life stories, legacies, memories. Many of these war stories are written through the eyes of a soldier – his journals, his diary, his letters sent home. Yes, this is what has captured my attention – the personal stories of heroism, grief, horror, persistence, courage, survival, friendship, and everyday life in the trenches (if we can call that horrible existence everyday life?).

I am still reading these history books and accounts of the war, but I have also become fascinated in the writing and recording of life’s stories – of the ordinary person who has lived his life as best as he can. The soldiers that went to war in 1914 were often humble people who never dreamed that nearly one hundred years later that our generation would be reading their words – personal accounts of what the soldiers experienced, what they saw, and the horrors that they hoped they would never see again. Sometimes the only emotions that their letters or journals revealed would be in what they didn’t write – the sparseness of the page, the terse, few lines – brief sentences that described the hunger and cold.
A sentence, “The horses were shot.” might really mean …we watched as the horses were mired in mud up to their flanks. Someone shot them as they were of no further use to us. (The sorrow they must have felt when living beings were shot.) Or, “The mud is too deep to go further.” (We are now entrenched behind the lines and will be unable to move, probably for weeks, if not months.)
“Our platoon is down in numbers.” (Many of my friends have been killed.)
“I miss you. Please wait for me.” (Don’t forget me.)

Personal stories and accounts that describe an unspoken horror… leave an indelible mark on the reader so many, many years after the events.

So now I find myself in another library section, an aisle where books about writing life’s memories and stories, are shelved.

I find myself wanting to preserve stories because if there is one thing that I know it is that our life stories matter…because we matter.

“A life is not important except in the impact it has on other lives.” Jackie Robinson

Last spring my friend was delighting me with stories of her 100 year old aunt’s memories and I encouraged my friend to record and preserve these wonderful stories – so she did. Over the next few weeks my friend recorded her aunt’s tales of life as her aunt remembered them: her childhood, her teen years, the Depression and its hardships, her enduring friendships, her church, her marriage and the years following the war. One hundred years of stories and memories. What a legacy for her family! I was privileged enough to sit with my friend and her aunt on a couple of occasions and heard her delightful, but sometimes sad, stories, and later I edited the “book.” Yes, my friend made a book and decided to throw a big birthday bash, including book signing! It was a huge success!

For me, the most exciting part was watching my friend’s aunt’s transformation – she blossomed more and more each week.  She basked in the attention and her stories became fuller and richer as the weeks flew by.

My friend made a difference in her aunt’s life – just by paying attention!

I cannot wait to begin to record and preserve some memories of the residents at the long-term facility where my mother used to reside.

More gifts to follow…