Monthly Archives: August 2016

Why continue to blog?

For the past few weeks, I have not blogged much. An intended short respite from blogging became a two or three-month break.

Since my mother (and my father) have passed away, and I no longer care for parents with Alzheimer’s, I have struggled with my new blogging role. Yes, I still blog about people with Alzheimer’s or a dementia-related disease, but I also am finding that I return over and over again to the topics of mindfulness, awareness, creativity and expansiveness.

I wonder if I am defining myself as a carer, when I clearly no longer am a carer. That part of my life is over.

I have friends who think I volunteer at the long-term care facility where my mother lived for more than two years for the sole purpose of hanging on to my past. That is, they wonder if I am still clinging to my role as carer for my mother and father when they had Alzheimer’s.

They make a valid point. When a person’s role in life is a full-time caregiver, it is natural and human to feel a loss of identity once death ends that role. I understand that.

My friends mean well. I know that.  But when I listen to their words of concern, I always counter with I am where I am supposed to be.

I know this without any doubt.

How do I know? Because when we are doing something we love, we feel such joy. I visit the residents who have Alzheimer’s or other dementia-related diseases (and some do not have any diseases – their bodies are just slowly breaking down) and I receive many gifts from them. They teach me patience, wisdom, strength, compassion, generosity and more. I find myself laughing out loud to their insightful remarks or clever retorts; yes, Alzheimer’s does not rob them of humour and laughter.

I have learned to pay attention and listen more. (To listen is my 2016 intention.) I have honed my mindfulness practice. I have learned to just go with the flow – not to take things personally or to react when a resident screams at me or turns on me. I quietly respond or I walk away and find a personal support worker. (My cardinal rule is: I am not here to fix anybody or cure them.)

And I have learned to stay in the present moment – to give up expectations. Expectations is about living in the future.

And I have learned that impermanence is the only constant in life, and while I still dread death and disease just as others do, I am accepting change more easily. Living in the now and being filled with gratitude eases my fears.

So, when I think of my volunteer work I know that I am living a purposeful life – one that I would never have realized if it were not for caring for parents with Alzheimer’s.

My past journey has led me to this new journey. And so I have learned to trust life, even in my darker moments.

Many years ago while watching television,  I heard a group therapist say,

“Every time you tell your story, you give away a little piece of the pain.”

According to this therapist, telling our story (owning up to it, accepting it, and saying it out loud) is the basis of healing.

When I volunteer at the care facility and visit with the residents, I am capturing a little piece of each of them. With luck, I will have a better understanding of who they are now and who they were in the past. I have found that the more they learn to trust me, the more they are willing to open up and share their story. And when they share (even a small chapter of their life), I can visibly see the impact on them: they relax, they smile, they sigh, and sometimes they shed a tear. I have learned that everyone wants to be heard. And to know that they matter. It’s universal. And I have learned that when we are listened to…we heal.

When I sat and recorded, and later transcribed, one of the residents’ life story, I was struck how much I became connected to this woman after I learned of her story – where she came from, how she got to Canada, how she built a life and family here; her sorrows, and her joys. I felt such a connection to her when we finished her life story. And still do. I rarely miss an opportunity to visit her when I volunteer. And I know (because she has told me) that she feels the same connection to me. I am grateful.

When I visit the residents, I hope that each of them knows that they matter just as they are. Many of them are at the end of their journey – they are in the last innings of the game (as my baseball-loving husband would say). The last stages of the residents’ lives are as important as the last innings, albeit for different reasons. Last innings are about last chances to win the game. In life, last stages are about reconciliation, forgiveness, and peace. On second thought, perhaps not so different, as peace is a powerful win.

I have a hope or an intention that everyone can understand Alzheimer’s with more compassion and kindness. It is such a misunderstood disease; no wonder because it is complicated, complex and incurable. It is mysterious: Why do some have severe personality changes, and others do not? Why do some become violent and angry, while others recede and become quiet? Why do some talk more (in early stages), while others fidget and cannot sit still? Why are some residents (seemingly) normal during the day hours and yet affected by sundowning during the evening hours (their moods swing or they become cognitively diminished)? Our brains are not one-size-fits-all.

That just scares the hell out of all of us. So we cringe when we even just hear the word dementia. My mother used to react to the disease cancer in much the same way.  She would lean into my ear and whisper,”the C word.” Strangely enough, even with Alzheimer’s and living in a long-term care home, she would whisper to me, “Poor man. He has the C word.” Bizarrely, she didn’t realize that she, too, lived in the same place that he did, with another disease that people whispered about.

So I write about my experience with caring for parents who had Alzheimer’s in this blog. Not because I am an expert; not because I have any answers. My journey was difficult and I struggled with it.  But I had a second chance to do it better.  And so I did. And that made all the difference in the world.

And I write about my encounters with the residents at the long-term care home so that people will understand that they do not lose their essence when they have Alzheimer’s or other dementias – they are still here! If a reader learns nothing else but that someone with dementia still matters, then my intent is fulfilled.

If I can change my thoughts and accept disease and learn to live with it in loving kindness, then anyone can. And I believe that we need to accept the disease, so that our time with our loved one can be one of quality and love, not fear.

So I write about mindfulness and acceptance because that is how I changed. And I write about creativity and joy because that is what I experience now. Who knew that my journey would lead to such joy and expansiveness? But I shouldn’t be surprised: Compassion and an open heart always leads to more love, more joy, more insights. Joy leads to more gifts.

When we share our gifts (no matter what those gifts are) we connect to other people – and that is how each of us makes a small (but significant) change. And I believe that is how together, we will heal humanity and our Earth. One person’s small act at a time. One small connection at a time.

We change the world when we realize that we cannot change the world. We can only change ourselves.

“Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise so I am changing myself.”   Rumi

My blog is a small act. And so just for today I will continue. Tomorrow – we’ll see.

But here’s a last thought: Am I not still a carer? Are we not all carers? Are we not all caring or protecting or comforting someone or something? Are we not all carers of our earth and humanity?

 

 

Sketching, mindfulness, and meaning

Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.   Thomas Merton

This past year I have been learning to draw. It started out as a way of exercising my brain – learning something new and challenging – and has morphed into a daily ritual that balances me.

I had no inkling that a dollar store sketch book and a box of pencils would open and expand my creativity, and in the process open and expand my spiritual awareness. My brain gets a work out (after a few perspective lessons, I am exhausted), my mind lets go of disparate thoughts and rests, and my whole body relaxes. Time stands still until I stop drawing and I re-enter the exterior world.

Sometimes I flick through my filled sketch books just to understand where I am going and where I have been. My sketches tell a story.

In the beginning my go-to book was a dog-eared, how-to-draw book that I found in my deceased father’s library (box of old books). Along with all of the volumes of Winston Churchill’s tomes and books about health and ABC’s of nutrition, I found a solitary art book.

I remember my Dad’s “art” period. I was young, married with children, and kinda in awe of my father’s zest for learning. In his late sixties he took up painting, learning to ice skate, learning to build an ice rink for my active boys, and learning to play the accordion (which he within a few lessons promptly pawned off as a birthday gift to my mother which only added fuel to my mother’s long-time assertion: Your father gives the worst gifts).  Too busy with raising young children, I have no recollection of when he began or ended his art phase. But at family gatherings we noticed new artwork springing up – one day a large landscape (forests and mountains) over the living room couch; another day a large rural scene (with farm animals) in the hallway. Neither was particularly engaging (to our limited eye), but I remember the lesson that came to me: even when our creative efforts are not perfect or do not conform to others’ tastes, display it anyways and own it.  (Sad (and ashamed) to reveal that when we had to disperse of my parents’ worldly goods, no one wanted the large landscape paintings.)

Following in my father’s footsteps, I am teaching myself to draw and discovering that the more that I draw, the more my sense of awareness of all things is heightened. One day I am drawing a leaf on a twig and the next I am discovering the interconnectedness of all things. The twig, the leaf and me – we breathe the same air; rain and sunlight nourish us.

My completed sketch books (much like my collection of writing journals) reveal many lessons: some of them reflect the things I do well – because apparently we all have leanings to what we draw and like to draw (birds, nature, outdoors, streetscapes, people, flowers and leaves) – and some of them are graphic reminders of what I need more help with (perspective, birds, nature, outdoors, streetscapes, people, flowers, and leaves). I enjoy drawing birds, but I do not like drawing animals or cartoons. Although strangely, I once drew the cover of Marley and Me (I was reading the book to my peeps at the long-term care facility) and the completed sketch of Marley looked pretty good. I left that drawing out for days, I was so impressed with myself. (Dad, I owned it!)

sketch of the day

Drawing blue herons is a favourite.

With urging from the You Tube teachers and art books that I devour, I draw objects that I find around my house, and I often draw the views from the window in the back room where I sit each morning, drinking coffee and green smoothies. I draw the same view over and over; I draw the window frames and the shutters. Sometimes the shutters are closed and sometimes they are open. Same view, different frame outlining the view.

In Henning Mankell’s Wallander series, the protagonist’s father is a renowned painter who we learn has Alzheimer’s disease. A prolific painter, his father paints only the Swedish landscape; but in a heartbreaking, evocative scene, Wallander finds numerous paintings and realizes that each of the paintings depicts the same landscape – one view, painted over and over again.

Now that I have taken up drawing, I had this bizarre moment where I thought that I, too, was drawing the same view from my window, over and over again.

Perhaps, like Wallander’s father, I am attempting to perfect the scene and get it right. Or, perhaps, like me, Wallander’s father paints that particular landscape because it is just there.  (Most likely, the Alzheimer’s disease has prevented his father from remembering that he has already painted this view.)

I have learned that to draw, one needs to let go or surrender to the process. Just let go of the fear of messing up; let go of the need to be perfect; let go of the need to control (because believe me, the end result is not often as planned). I once drew the porch that I was sitting on while looking down and sideways (confused? me, too) – I was attempting a perspective and proportion lesson. Needless to say, you will have noticed that particular sketch is not included in my post. Even my kind and supportive husband looked at it with horror, what the hell is that?

My peeps (or the residents) at the long-term care home where I volunteer inspire me: They draw well; exceptionally well. So I begin to wonder if dementia allows them to let go of the rigid thinking and presumptions that are barriers to drawing perceptively? Does our right-brain thinking expand and, therefore, free us when we have a dementia? Do we surrender to the process of drawing because the left-brain thinking that restricts us is now diminished?

Because of their dementia, do they just surrender to the it is what it is of the moment. The ism of the moment or the is-ness, or whatever. Because to draw, I have learned just to be present. Just be. Allow my mind’s assumptions and presumptions to take a rest. And, like my father, to be happy and accept my progress, or lack.

Because to draw or sketch with ease one needs to be mindful. To pay attention to the details – the micro and the macro. To pay attention to the lines and the white space on the page and not worry about the finished picture. To pay attention to the simplicity of the object or scene – to allow the mundane to expand and become profound.

If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is – infinite.  William Blake

And I have learned that the greatest lesson (or gift) when drawing, is that I can see more deeply and completely. I can see the inherent beauty in the simple and in the ordinary.  And when I sit in mindfulness, I begin to realize the interconnectedness in all things and in all of us. I feel the Sacred.

I can find joy and delight in just staring at my climbing hydrangeas; in the many tones of bronze and browns of the Diablo Ninebark’s leaf (chartreuse in the sunlight); in the various dark and light shades of rocks, stones and pebbles; at the American Goldfinches who visit my cobalt blue bird bath every day. The yellow and the blue. Bliss. And I confess that it is in those moments, I do not draw. I just sit.

Song Sparrow Nuthatch

While staring up and wondering how one would capture the blue sky behind the cloud formations, my senses are heightened: I can smell the viburnum, the earthiness of the soil and the mulch; I can hear the rustling of the frequent winged visitors in their new home within the euonymus that grows on our fence. I notice tiny, white feathers drifting down from the clouds – not feathers, but white seed fluffs from the trees that grow in the north part of the city then fill our skies here in another part of the city each early summer. I tell myself that when I learn to paint with watercolours, I will paint white feathers, not fluff pods. Although fluff balls or seed pods are intricately beautiful, too.

I take pleasure in everything:  A stained and broken jug that sits in the garden shed – new life as a still-life. When closed, the outdoor umbrella is a lesson in “folds.” I like drawing folds and drape-y fabrics. I like drawing shawls draped over a couch, pillows, and blankets.

I drew my foot once. And my hands. When I completed the sketch, I was struck how old my hands looked. But beautiful. Worn, but worthy. (I had never noticed that before.)

Suddenly I have realized that I have spheres throughout my house – not rectangles or squares. My preference or leaning for soft, rounded edges is clear. I think that explains why I find angles and perspectives more difficult. Now I inform my husband that I am not a straight angled kinda gal. What does that mean? he asks. I meander, I reply.

Since I am a beginner, I sometimes find myself in the middle of a drawing and feel overwhelmed – too many uneven objects (and my shading and tones are too naive), too crammed (and I have run out of page space), too many angles…ah! perspectives.

I am recognizing that a busy streetscape might be too ambitious for a beginner. So I am learning another important lesson: discernment and patience. So my eye has become a telescope – scrutinizing the macro, adjusting my lens to capture the micro: an ornate doorway, arches supported by columns, moldings, cornices, and decorative motifs. I must sacrifice drawing the building (or streetscape) and focus my attention to the smaller details.

Discernment – how to judge well. That’s a lesson worth learning, along with draw with looser movements (don’t be so uptight), visualize your completed creation (before you begin); be carefree, not careful; do-overs are a good thing (and so are erasers); and do not tear out pages of spoiled or disappointing sketches. Own them.

When I close my sketch book for another day, I feel expansive, creative, and fulfilled. I feel restful.

The little things. The little moments. They are not so little…Jon Kabat-Zinn

It is the little things that matter and enrich our lives. A simple Diablo Ninebark leaf. It’s not so little. Learning how to draw. It’s not so little.

 

 

 

 

You are amazing!

You are amazing!

When I open the card, it reads You are amazing!

My husband and I just celebrated another anniversary and we exchanged cards. And even though it’s been a few days since I received his card, I am still enjoying the afterglow. Ha!

Because a funny thing has happened since he gave me the card – I feel really amazing!

When he enjoyed the simple tomato sauce on his pasta that I had made last evening, I tell him well, I am amazing!

When I screwed something up during the day, and then fix it later, he says well, you are amazing. We laugh over the screw-up.

When I discover a box of half-eaten ice cream in the freezer, we both exclaim hey, I am amazing!

So while I am walking along the river this morning, trying not to leave rivers of sweat on the sidewalk (because it is so humid today), I remind myself well, sweat or not, I am amazing!

Hmmm. Apparently compliments – in writing – have a lasting effect. But only if we pay attention and give the words awareness. Because it is in the reflection of the words, I realize that we are all amazing beings.

I think I am onto something here. I think we should begin to tell other people how amazing they are. Maybe we could distribute little cards – business cards – that just say, “You are amazing!”

We all know amazing people – my hairdresser who juggles a job and four children (whenever I see her she is smiling) – she is amazing! She has the funniest stories to tell about her children; I sit in her chair and belly laugh throughout the whole visit.

The woman who owns the tailor shop where I take my pants to be hemmed – we always have a nice chat. She is from Scotland and has interesting stories. We share a love of birds and birdsong – she reminds me to Google warblers and nightingales. I think she is amazing!

My neighbours on either side of our house – one is blind in one eye, and always tells me interesting facts about the weather, birds, squirrels and raccoons. He grew up on a farm where he watched the changing sky and birds come and go;  his weather predictions are so spot on – I have no need to turn to the weather forecast on television.  So is the family on the other side of our house – they are raising two children; their daughter has special needs. They are all amazing!

When I watch the personal support workers at the residence where I volunteer, I know they are amazing…their acts of kindness go above and beyond their daily routines. I once sat in a room with a resident and heard a personal support worker singing You Are My Sunshine to a resident who has Alzheimer’s. When I went into the hallway to see who was singing (and who the lucky resident was) I found them walking arm in arm. She is amazing (as is the resident)!

And I think my husband is pretty amazing – after all, he gave me the card. Ha.

No kidding…it takes attention and awareness to see the beauty within each of us. We have to begin to look beneath the superficial, to listen to the words and intonations, to become more insightful and understanding of others. In short, we have to stop and spend some time with people, instead of rushing by them without a glance. When we begin to spend our time enjoying people and their stories, that’s when we begin to live in the moment. And we’ll surely begin to see how each of us matters, how we are all interconnected, and that we are all  awesome.

In Neale Donald Walsch’s Communion With God he writes:

“Which snowflake is the most magnificent? Is it possible that they are all magnificent – and that, celebrating their magnificence together they create an awesome display?  They melt into each other, and in the Oneness. Yet they never go away. They never disappear. They never cease to be. Simply they change form. And not just once, but several times: from solid to liquid, from liquid to vapour, from the seen to the unseen, to rise again, and then again to return in new displays of breathtaking beauty and wonder. This is Life, nourishing Life.”

Let’s begin to appreciate one another for the simple pleasures and the simple gifts that we all hold. Whether we are loving parents or grandparents, creative artists, kind neighbours, inspiring teachers, helpful volunteers, cheerful postal workers, supportive counsellors… oh, the list is just endless…we all are unique, beautiful and amazing in what we do and who we are.

Let’s shout it out: You are amazing!