Category Archives: Family

Thanks to caring for my parents, I choose to see life wearing rose-coloured glasses

Chronicles of a Chronically stressed out Caregiver. Meditations and Mindfulness Changed My Life. Mindfulness, Meditation and Me.

Let’s be honest. When you are sitting with a notepad in your lap, and the only thing on the paper are titles for the eBook (instead of actual writing), you know that you are in avoidance mode.

Damn, again? At my chronically gifted age one would assume that old trait of mine (avoidance) would have been ‘fixed’ years ago, but sadly, the only thing I do better today is actually notice when I am in avoidance. Thank you, mindfulness and meditation.

While writing another eBook, I find myself enjoying longer than normal walks, hours of playing in the dirt (gardening), and sitting on my freshly painted cobalt blue Adirondack that now matches the cobalt blue bird bath, while sketching my amazing garden. (I am entitled to call my garden ‘amazing’ because this little piece of heaven gives me peace and equanimity. And peace and equanimity is amazing.)

My dilemma is what do I give up so that I can write more?

I have plenty of time to do the things I like to do, but I keep adding to my list of “things to do that give me joy, or wisdom, or fill my curiosity” – I keep trying to cram more into my days.

I am so grateful for this time – no matter the season, or the day of the week, or the time of the day – life is good.

I choose to view life with rose-coloured glasses because I can. It’s that simple.

I learned that how we perceive life and how we co-create our lives is our choice, and that lesson I learned when I closed my children’s retail shop so that I could care and support my parents: my father had a dementia (most likely Alzheimer’s) and my mother was showing signs of a dementia-related disease, also. My life spiralled from an exciting one of fun-loving staff and customers, buying trips to the clothing marts, new encounters and learning possibilities every day, to one of stress, resentment, guilt and burn-out.

Instead of embracing each day filled with hope and gratitude, I dreaded each day as I faced endless chores and responsibilities, grief, and sadness.

Chronic stress nearly felled me, but I came through the challenge eventually as a different woman. I went into the experience with blinders on, and I came out wearing rose-coloured glasses.

I say rose-coloured glasses because my experience of caring for our parents changed my life; the experience changed me.

When my father died, both my sister and I felt that his disease, his dying and his death transformed us and gave us many gifts: wisdom, forgiveness, love, compassion, honesty, and Grace.

Wisdom to realize that self-care is integral to a purpose-filled and joy-filled life – we cannot care for another when we do not care for ourselves.

Forgiveness in the many times our parents would tell us stories of their childhood (those are the stories that are often intact when someone has Alzheimer’s) that shone a spotlight on challenging traits (things that they did that pissed us off) or events that happened (that pissed us off).

My mother would throw these (illuminating) stories out to us – the stories were like candy that she lobbed at us. We would excitedly jump up and gather them to our hearts. Those stories gave us meaning and understanding to her life, to our father’s life, and to ours.

Love and compassion grew as we spent so many hours with our parents, as we truly began to understand their lives, the hardships, their sacrifices, and the reasons why all of it was important – family! Our parents do what they do – for us. That knowledge lit something in us, and warmed our hearts.

Honesty grew. In the last days of disease, dying and death, we are our most vulnerable and authentic. Truth matters.

And Grace. There are many times in life that we know that we are surrounded by Grace, but I am always humbled and awed when Grace supports us at the bedside of our loved one who is dying. It is Grace that holds us up and whispers, “lean in” because when our bodies and minds move forward (instead of away), we learn and we expand. We grow.

These lessons have left me with a passion to help and support those who care for loved ones who have a dementia-related disease, to volunteer with residents in a long-term care home, and to advocate for change.

Like the families who have loved ones with dementia, I, too, fought my circumstances so I recognize that none of them accept their reality (they are still fighting with truth), and in my humble opinion, it is this conflict that causes the stress. We are not meant to fight; we are meant to lean in.

So today (Father’s Day) I am writing this blog as a tribute to my father (and my mother) who allowed me the privilege of caring for them – it changed my life.

I get to choose how I define my life (even if I don’t get to choose the crap that happens); I get to choose to live in gratitude, honouring the simple moments – the scent of lilies in the air, the sparrows and starlings squabbling within the hidden recesses of the viburnum, and the sun’s reflections – bands of white dancing to and fro – on the ceiling of the living room.

When we choose to define our lives from the lessons that we learn, we empower ourselves; we begin to trust ourselves, and we begin to recognize that all the answers to life are within us.

All the answers to life are within us. Thank you, Dad (and Mom) for that gem.

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Share the road, people

During my morning walk, I passed a sign this morning that made me pause.

Share the Road

Is not our whole life’s journey about sharing the road?

Perhaps our politicians and world leaders need to take a pause and reflect on the mantra share the road.

As part of a cycling campaign to promote road safety and well-being for everyone – cyclists, motor vehicles, and pedestrians alike – not only do our roads become safer, but our communities and cities evolve when we cooperate and support each other.

When we become aware of the power of these three little words – share the road – their meaning or significance to our world’s health and well-being becomes central to our actions.

We share ourselves with others every day. We share our ideas, our creations, our kindness and compassion, and our love. And we share our energy. If we exude a peaceful or balanced energy, we share a peaceful presence; if we are angry, we share our anger.

Like road rage, toxic energy hurts all of us. Toxic energy lingers and when it settles in for the long stay, real harm occurs within our bodies, and later, spills into our families: our health suffers, as well as our circle of influence. An angry co-worker taints the workplace. An angry parent damages a child.

Many of us read blogs that motivate us to do better – writers share ideas, experience and expertise that teach us, expand us, and push our boundaries. In sharing, bloggers and writers share pieces of themselves in every post, article, column or book. As faithful (and interested) readers, we accumulate and expand our knowledge, our creativity, and our perceptions as we assimilate these new, and sometimes, provoking ideas and thoughts.

A shared idea or expertise is an opportunity to transform another being – that’s a pretty powerful thought.

From my experience, every day when I tune into another how-to paint video posted on-line, I am not only grateful for these gifts, I am truly motivated to share my joy of learning how to watercolour from these talented people. (Check out videos and tutorials on YouTube – watercolour painters, Peter Sheeler, Grahame Booth, Steve Mitchell, and Grant Fuller…the list is endless.)

We  significantly impact others when we share the road.

The verb share, I believe, is an exchange of energy – giving and receiving – an energy that reflects only one part of the bigger whole. One part. Share means partnership or a connection to another part. A connection.

One part. A connection.

What if when we share, we are connecting to another part of the whole – the whole being the Oneness of the universe?

What if when we share, we are connecting to the Oneness – of you and of me? Perhaps that connection to the Oneness of life is why we feel such satisfaction and joy when we do support others?

When I share my ideas or my creativity, I can feel the expansion within; that expansion comes from my inner self which is realizing (in part) my potential. When you share something of value – your ideas, thoughts, creativity, experience, expertise – begin to notice how you feel. Does it give you a sense of well-being, a sense of purpose, or joy? If the answer is yes, you are sharing (connecting) to a greater part of the Universe – you are impacting others, and your soul is loving it which is why it is so satisfying!

For those of us who volunteer, we already are aware of our impact – we share our time with others and benefit greatly from the interactions. Volunteers will tell you that it’s about sharing; sometimes, as volunteers, we feel selfish as we receive so many benefits, more than we give! It’s an exchange of energy that is like nothing else on earth. (And if you are not feeling it, then you are probably in the wrong kind of volunteer work.)

My daughter-in-law and my son are very creative people (art and musically inclined) and they are keen on weaving their careers, their home, and their passions with the care of the earth. Every decision is based on the sustenance and well-being of the environment. They buy in bulk and store beans and legumes, rice and staples in plain, glass jars with screw-top lids. When I offered to plant their front-yard garden with perennials from my garden, they gratefully received my offerings, as long as I allowed for plenty of space for home-grown vegetables. If last year is any example, peppers (all varieties), kale, spinach, cucumbers and squash will find homes in friends, neighbours, and fellow staff members’ kitchens. Old, past their prime shrubs, are pruned, instead of dug out and discarded. Every decision is based on a careful philosophy of reduce, re-use, recycle.

Their shared philosophy of environmental awareness has spilled over to our lives. Here’s the thing: their actions have influenced my own decisions. We are constantly re-thinking purchases: Do I really need this? (Don’t I already have a set of watercolour brushes?) Can I re-use these old shutters or give them to a vintage store? Do I really need to replace my worn cloth napkins?

I no longer buy cases of water bottles or coffee filters (a reusable one is just fine); we’ve reduced our weekly trash bags to one small bag; we’ve reduced our cleaning supplies to only those that are natural or home-made; soaps and shampoos are chemical-free; and we’ve reduced water to minimal usage (alas, my hydrangea are thirsty often).

Small actions, but as I mature, my actions grow, and so does my influence. Small actions are like seeds – they sprout.

Our philosophies impact others every day. I may not embrace everything that my son and his wife do, but their actions have taught me to pause before I act or commit.

We share the road from birth to our last dying moments. Surrounded by family and loved ones when we give birth,  the circle of life continues when our loved ones join us at our final good-bye.

When I sit with a resident who is dying at the long-term care home where I volunteer (and where my mother lived for two and a half years), I share many moments with either family or friends who drop in, or other residents who want to say goodbye.  Staff, and sometimes other volunteers from the palliative volunteer team, join me during our vigil.

And always I walk away from the experience with a humble, but wondrous feeling that I have shared in a transformative moment. In those hours (or days) of sharing, I am humbled by the gifts that the staff, and others, and I share – compassion, kindness, love, generosity, wisdom, and giving. Each of us has this capacity to give and share, even when someone is dying. Perhaps because someone is dying. Even at our most vulnerable, we share.

Even at our most vulnerable, we want to connect. When we share a piece of ourselves, we expose our vulnerabilities – and that is when we are our most honest and authentic. We connect with others because they sense (sometimes at a subconscious level) that we are sharing a piece of our true selves, and their vulnerability recognizes our vulnerability.

One thing I do know: that it is in the gift of sharing this road – that the transformation occurs. It is in the sharing that we meet our greater selves.

In awareness, let us move throughout our day and take note of how much we share the road. We cannot move through our lives without it. We cannot meet our potential without it. We cannot transform without it.

Share the road. Share yourself. And you will find yourself accepting an endless supply of gifts.

If only world leaders could learn this simple act. Just share the road.

 

 

 

Your words, not mine; your stories, not mine.

Sunset over Charlottetown HarbourI am watching my resident sleep. I’ve been sitting beside her for fifteen minutes now, and the staff members assure me that she will be awake shortly. She doesn’t usually nap at this hour, they say.

I don’t mind as I am narrating a story in my head – all quiet moments are gifts of time.

The last couple of weekly visits have changed – the routine of greeting my resident, talking for a few minutes to reassure her of the reason for my visit (I am recording and writing down her life stories and memories), turning on the recorder, and prompting her with a few questions to stimulate her life stories has disappeared.

Lately, during our visits I notice that she is either very drowsy or somewhat confused, and conversations about her family, childhood, school antics or young married life have dried up.

I have had to adapt, and I no longer ask her questions or give her prompts. Only a month ago I had inquired about her grandchildren and she had responded with a lovely story.

But not today.

When she awakes, I have to remind her who I am (Gwen’s daughter – you remember Gwen – she lived across the hall and you shared many cups of tea together) and she smiles her beautiful smile, and although I can read on her face that she is happy to see me, I sense that she no longer remembers Gwen (or me).

So I try again. More confusion.

In my cloth bag I have a copy of her life stories to date, so I retrieve the typed pages which are in a plain, three-ring, navy blue binder. I place the binder in front of her on the lap tray of her wheel chair and open it to the front page. I have learned an 8” by 11” binder is easily held by a senior.

She stares at the page for a very long time, and I am leaning over to close the book when she reads aloud her name and the words, “Life Stories.”

She looks at me and grins, and I urge her to turn the page.

She begins to read her very own, unique stories of her past. Unexpectedly, I note that she is a good reader and am thrilled because I didn’t realize that she still possessed the ability to read. My own mother had difficulty reading when her dementia progressed, and eventually she lost the ability completely.

I remember the October before my mother died in December, she signed a birthday card for my sister that I had purchased for her. I asked her if she would like to sign the card herself, or would she like me to sign it. She answered (as I knew she would), I can do it myself. She spent a few minutes gathering her strength to sign the birthday card to my sister, Sue. Then, she scribbled (almost illegibly): Love, Sue, instead of Love, Mom.

I loved that card. Because her intention (love for my sister, Sue) was so beautifully evident.

I draw my attention to my resident: She is reading aloud her stories…she pauses at the funny parts to look at me and remind me, that happened to me, also. I realize that she is not completely aware that these stories are hers! I keep re-assuring her that they are her stories, and that I only transcribed them. I keep repeating: your words, not mine; your stories, not mine.

When she reads aloud, she re-reads many of the passages and so I lean over and begin to turn the pages, but she stops me, and goes back to the top of the original page to re-read the story. After 45 minutes, we have only read two pages. I begin to panic and worry that we will never get to the end of the book at this rate.

But then I see her face. I begin to really see her face and read her energy. In that moment of being present (truly present) I am aware that she is completely entranced in the story – her story! She is smiling and nodding her head, chuckling (oh, yes, her stories are funny) and then I have an aha moment. My resident is in the moment.  Her moment! She is oblivious to the natural bird sounds outside her window; she is oblivious to the staff who are talking, and pushing carts in the hallway – the noises of life in a long-term care home are a muted constant 24/7.

My resident is in the moment. Time has ceased. Her face tells me that she is a young child again, living a life of scarcity and hardship, but filled with family love, laughter, and richness.

One thing I have learned when transcribing life stories of the residents is that our memories evolve: they don’t change completely, but we, as humans, re-paint them. We brush over the memories that hurt us, or caused us pain. I, too, find that over the years, my hurts and disappointments have been watered down – I have lifted out the colours that no longer serve me.

Like others before her, my resident’s stories have been blended with other experiences and the passage of time, and now understanding and forgiveness is the rich palette that remains. Through the lens of our journey we perceive our parents’ weaknesses, as strengths; their mistakes, as lessons. A gruff father who never spoke of emotions (or feelings) to his daughters becomes the ninety-year old man with Alzheimer’s who never speaks, but utters, I love you to both his daughters whenever they leave the room.

Through him, I learned that disease, dying, and death are powerful teachers. Forgiveness, reconciliation, love and peace are potent change agents. They transform our stories – blending, layering, pulling out colour, until bleeding the stories into one.

Through the process of reminiscing we begin to connect the dots starting with the point of origin to the last dot You Are Here.

These are the insights I have gathered, and these are similar to ones that I hear time and time again from the residents who I sit with. In the telling of our stories, the bad bits get left out and the good bits grow, and we are left with a richness that we had never seen before – colour laid upon colour. A richness that inspires gratitude.

When a resident comes to the end of her life story, I often hear:  I’ve had a good life. Those were wonderful days and I feel lucky to have lived them. I’ve had a good life and I am at peace. I am ready for my final journey. I am content.

Still reading the first few pages after an hour, I eventually tell my resident that I have to leave, and I know that she is disappointed but she closes her book as I promise to leave the binder with her. Yes, I still have lots to read, she informs me, and she adds, it’s a good story.

My intuition tells me that the time has come to end our weekly sessions – she no longer has new stories to tell me. I believe her stories are still there in the recesses of her mind, but they are not accessible as they once were. Like a locked filing cabinet, I no longer hold the key to open it.

When I leave, she grabs my hand and closes her other hand around mine and gently strokes it. Thank you, she whispers. Please visit me again.

I will, I promise.

As I walk through the hallways of the long-term care home, I am reminded once again that the only thing that really matters is our presence. As humans, we all want to know that we matter – that our lives are spent well – whether we are young or old; healthy or not.

And I am reminded that gratitude, above all else, matters, too.

 

 

 

 

 

I’m aglow with hope

Christmas lights

Candles and tea lights, and strings of twinkling white bulbs are aglow in every nook and cranny of our dining room and living room – I want the rooms to sparkle and glow throughout the season. I look forward to that magical hour when the sun sets and darkness falls: it is the bewitching time to turn all the Christmas lights on, and light the candles. (Okay, I’ve switched to battery-run candles and tea lights this year – I nearly set the house on fire last year, but that’s another story.)

There is nothing that fills my heart more than flickering light during the twilight hours of the day. Nothing.

I walk into my living room and dining room and I am transformed into a little girl staring at the Christmas tree lights with wonder and awe; I am a young mother looking at the Christmas tree that my two little boys have decorated with handmade ornaments that won’t break and popcorn garlands that took many evening hours to create; I am an adult child who is staring at the Christmas tree wondering if this will be the last holiday that my mother will be able to come home.  I am a grieving daughter who finds solace and strength in the steadfast holiday traditions – the Christmas tree lights soothe my sorrow and remind me of beauty, joy, wonder and love.

Flickering lights, glowing lights, twinkling lights…represent hope.

My intention is that all of you find hope and love in the glow of the season.

 

 

In remembering my mother, I honour her

Climbing, rambling, shrub roses in shades of old-fashioned pinks; ornamental rose hips; fleshy thorns that prick; Zinnias in a riot of oranges, yellows, pinks and reds; A disarray of messy hollyhocks, sweet Williams, peonies and daisies;

Endless cups of tea – lots of milk (not cream) and two spoons of sugar (oh, what the heck, throw in another teaspoon of sugar) – sickly sweet, all the better: “it’s healing, don’t you know”;

Daily sister chats until her sister died;

The aroma of Sunday roast beef dinner and Yorkshire pudding; Hamburgers on Saturday evening, fried in a pan (not grilled), sprinkled in paprika – loved by grandchildren so much that the recipe was discussed at her funeral;

Bed linens so immaculate and taut to satisfy any drill sergeant’s precision;

Hockey arenas at dawn, early hours to scream at the referees. Grand kids skating, ignoring their grandmother’s hollers and shrieks;

Dancing, always dancing. Even a wheelchair couldn’t hold her still;

Hugs that belied her tiny body – hugs that transformed you.

My mother’s legacy. The ephemera of a life once-lived: Moments not meant to last, but do.

These are the images, the scents, the memories that assault me each of the days since she died two years ago this week.

It’s what remains. Not things, not possessions. Just fleeting remains.

When I am in my own garden, I remember the many hours we spent in her garden: a simple garden, no plan, no design. A riot of colour.

Every time my stove top kettle boils and sings, I think of her – she is running (because I swear she lacked the slow speed dial) into the kitchen insisting that we don’t talk or finish the story until she returns. She never wanted to miss out on a word.

She was a cook in the army during World War II and her kitchen skills (and bed-making skills) were a testimony to the time she served.  My grill-loving husband used to shake his head and wonder how hamburgers, fried in a pan on the stove (no less), could be mouth-watering tasty. Her family dinners were legendary, now continued in my home.

But it’s those times when I am hugged, really hugged – you know what I mean? when someone hugs you so long and so deep, you swear that you are loved, fully loved – that I feel her presence so strongly. Because it is her deep love for her family that remains. That endures still.

Her love was a fierce and protective love. And it transcended family. Kindness and compassion transcend family: the underdog, the less fortunate, the lonely, the isolated, the shut-in and the shut-out.

Compassion and kindness remain. It remains in my sister, our children, and in me.

That, too, is her legacy. Her remains.

The Tao’s principles include cyclical growth and principles of harmony and balance: birth and death; all or none. The balance in life does not exist – unless there is birth, there is no death.

Joy and laughter; sadness and sorrow. I am learning that the two states are not exclusive of each other. They are interconnected …my last year’s post https://thegiftsthatweshare.wordpress.com/2015/12/19/migratory-geese-and-lessons/

I see my mother in everything. My mind says she is gone. She no longer exists. But my heart and spirit (and my body) still see her, smell her, and hear her. Last winter, in a dream, I felt her. She was in the form of a young woman, and I sensed the comfort before she came to me and embraced me in one of her Gwen bear hugs that surrounded you in love. When I awoke, I laughed out loud. Classic Dream 101, I thought. (But here’s the weird thing: my sister dreamt of our mother that very same night and she, too, was enveloped in a Gwen hug.)

On my way home today I watched a flock of swallows form a mumuration-like dance– the swallows swirled above me in endless circles – undulating in the late afternoon sky. I parked the car; mesmerized, I thought of mysteries, sweet mysteries.

I still do not understand the meaning of life or death. I only understand this: my mother’s life mattered: in small ways, in small moments. And that her remains endure.

I no longer grieve her absence as I once did. I rarely cry when I think of her. But I often smile, and laugh out loud. Her presence gives me great joy.

In the hours of the day, I feel her presence and I instinctively know that her life mattered, and when we are gone, our lives will endure, too – in small ways, in small moments.

I see the continuity of life in all. I am beginning to understand…Oneness. (Not with my mind, but with my heart.)

And in these moments throughout my day I pause – to fully accept the Now. I honour those moments.

One cannot be both unhappy and fully present in the Now. Eckhart Tolle

I have learned that to honour my mother I must continue her legacy, simple as it is: Love my family. Serve others. Be kind. Express my love (deep and lasting hugs). And dance with joy and gratitude. Honour her by acknowledging that I’m still here.

The peace and love in my heart will ripple through my circle of influence. Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us of this in Peace is Every Step:

Working for peace in the future is to work for peace in the present moment.

Dementia, dying and death are great teachers. As I remember and honour my mother’s death, I am grateful for that. All gifts.

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“Oh, grandma. Look at all the other grandmas!”

I’m really getting tired of how people react to a long-term care facility. And I’m really getting tired of how people treat someone who has a dementia as if that person no longer mattered.

Family members and visitors (and once in a blue moon, a staff member) will often lean in and whisper to me, “Just shoot me if I ever have to live here. Just shoot me.”

And even though I understand where they are coming from – fear – it still hurts me when I hear the comment. How can we accept our present moment, when we are living in such deep fear?

What do we fear? We fear getting old, aging, illness and disease, losing our memory, losing our physical capabilities, losing control, and dying. Our deepest fear is that no one will take care of us when we cannot take care of ourselves, and that we will spend our last days in a long-term care facility – alone.

But I also believe that we fear that we will no longer matter.

When we constantly judge long-term care facilities, and when we dread the weekly or bi-weekly, or daily visits to them, do we not deny our loved one who lives in the care home dignity and respect?

Are we not (in a not so subtle way) expressing distaste for the space and, therefore,  disrespect for our loved one? Isn’t there an undertone of dread and dismay? “I’m so glad I don’t live here (thank God!) but hey, mom, hope you settle in here nicely!” I can’t help thinking of that line, See ya, wouldn’t wanna be ya!

When I wrote an eBook about my experience of caring for parents with Alzheimer’s, I included a story of my friend who visited her mother in a long-term care home and took her granddaughters to visit. Her one granddaughter grabbed my friend’s leg and hid behind her. She began to shake; she was terrified.

Her other granddaughter stopped dead in her tracks, looked around the spacious, open activity room filled with residents, and clapped her hands. With a big, silly grin on her little face, she exclaimed, “Oh, grandma. Look at all the other grandmas!”

From that moment on, her granddaughter was always excited to visit her great-grandmother.

And I am willing to bet that my friend’s mother (and all of the other residents) looked forward to her visits, too.

When we visit our loved ones with dementia, do we visit with an open mind? Or do we visit with dread? I believe that our loved ones sense our state of expectation (or energy) when we visit. What if they can feel the dread?

When I volunteer at the long-term care home where my mother used to live, I see a lot of unhappy residents. But I am also witness to many beautiful moments of love, laughter, joy, kindness and compassion. These small moments are exquisite.

I see wives, husbands, daughters, sons and grandchildren who visit daily or bi-weekly. I wish I had a dollar for every cup of tea or coffee or cookie that accompanies most visits. Many cups of tea are shared with residents and their loved ones. And here’s the beautiful thing: Many of these same visitors bring extras for other residents. (And staff.)

When I visit some residents and enter their personal rooms, flowers often welcome me – some are elaborate bouquets and others are simple posies. Greeting cards, postcards, posters and photos are pinned to bulletin boards or line the window sills. Handmade quilts or knitted afghans line the bottom of the beds, or are draped over comfortable, cushy bedside chairs.

In a quick glance around the room I can usually spot the family who cares about their loved one’s well-being. Books are piled high; bird feeders that overflow with seed hang outside the windows; walls display framed photos of family life, horses, dogs, ships, farms, landscapes and cityscapes from their home countries, angels, prayers, and life affirmations: Family, Love, Laughter top the list.

I’ve witnessed personal support workers who sneak extra cups of tea (and cookies) to the resident who has a sweet tooth; I’ve witnessed staff lovingly hug residents and rock them as if they were new-born babes. And I’ve leaned against the wall with tears in my eyes while a personal support worker has sung to a distraught or confused resident. (You Are My Sunshine is definitely top of the charts here.)

I have witnessed the residents who have no dementia support those who do. Residents look out for one another, and care for one another. Hugs and pats on the arm are doled out freely and frequently. (My mother who wandered the hallways in her wheelchair would often be returned to her room by another resident, Here, Gwen, you live here. And her dining companions would often greet me to report my mother’s latest skipped meal. You should know, my dear; your mother is not eating properly.)

When you witness the small acts of kindness and compassion, you begin to understand the deeper meaning (or at least the lessons within) of aging, disease, dying and death; you begin to understand that we are all connected – that we are all One. You begin to understand that love makes all the difference.

We are not meant to live forever in our physical body. We are all going to age, and one day, to die.

When we accept this unchangeable fact of life, we can begin to let go of some of our fear.

Instead of announcing that I would rather die than end up here in a long-term care home, why not begin to make life easier for those who do live here. Why not visit more often, not less; visit with love, not fear; visit with anticipation, not dread. If you are disturbed by the management and care of your loved one, visit often so that you can become an advocate. Become better informed: visit the care facilities website, the Ministry of Health’s website, and learn what the basic standards are. Speak up if you have an issue. Learn the names of the staff and begin to advocate for your parent. Attend the care meetings. Become a visible presence in the home. That will make a difference.

But recognize your emotions and discern whether you are fearful of the place because I dislike all facilities, like these; or do you have legitimate complaints about care.

Acceptance is a choice.

We can all open our eyes and choose to see the love, the laughter, and the joy that is still present – within the home, and within our loved one. They still matter.

When we choose to experience the joy in the present moment, disease, aging, and death do not disappear. But we will transform ourselves. Because in spite of the suffering, we choose to experience the wonder and awe in the most simplest of moments. We choose to see the beauty in everything – even in suffering. We choose to see the strength, the resilience, the exquisite vulnerability.

Suffering reminds us of some universal truths: We are not perfect. Nor is our body. We are human. Humans suffer. Life is not just. Life is not always balanced. To be whole, we must accept the good and the bad. Love can make a difference. In the last moments of life, love is the only thing that matters.

Over time I have learned that within us is an invincibility – that no matter how life unfolds, we endure. I’m still here. You’re still here.

That self-knowledge matures us as we recognize that challenges in life will not defeat us. Those same challenges (or crises) may fell us to the ground, but we will get up – sooner or later.

That’s one of the lessons that I have learned on my journey. When I visit the care home (or a hospital), I am reminded that when I first entered these halls so many years ago, I was heart-broken. When we had to make the decision to enter my father into a long-term care home where he lived for a short time before his death, I wept for hours. I was felled.

Now I visit with love and joy. I got up. I am still here.

I have absorbed the wisdom and strength that is offered to me each time I visit. I am not hear to cure anyone or fix anything. My presence is enough. (That’s another lesson that I have learned.)

I am here to just visit. My presence alone validates and honours the residents. My presence alone shares their pain and suffering. My presence alone says You are worthy. I care for you.

Laughter, love, joy and compassion tether us to our spirit. Or, perhaps laughter, love, joy and compassion is our spirit.

I challenge everyone who visits someone in a care home (or a hospital) to let go of their basic fears. Remember the little girl who clapped and exclaimed, “Oh, grandma, look at all the other grandmas!”

 

 

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.