Category Archives: Life

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.

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.

 

 

 

Daily walk – old churches, road work, and fake tulips

From the moment we leave our house for our daily walk along the river, I am assaulted by the songs of cardinals. Within a couple of blocks, the robins and the sparrows join the chorus, and I am thankful for the naked trees so that I can stop occasionally and spot them. The trees’ spring attire is not quite ready to wear, so the bare branches allow me easy viewing.

The cardinal throws his head back when he sings, as do the sparrows. I am reminded of yoga’s lion pose which relieves tension in the face, and is considered a quick beauty treatment. Is the cardinal vain? Or just happy? The colour of raw sienna – a gorgeous red-brown would make me vain and happy, too.

A cardinal family (there are four of them) endure all four seasons in my backyard; like squirrels, they are territorial. Once squirrels have set up house, they’re in for a long-term lease. It took me many summers of chasing squirrels from my flower beds; the pesky rodents constantly digging up the spring bulbs, and messing with my equilibrium before I conceded that they owned the garden, not me. I waved the white flag many years ago. (I wanted my equilibrium back.) Cardinals give me joy, not loss of equilibrium.

A few blocks into our walk and we pass a rather beautiful old church that after many years of neglect and emptiness was sold to some lucky homeowner. Slowly over the past two or three years, we have noticed new windows on one side of the church and on the manse’s side walls. Other than some shiny new eave troughs, and maybe new soffits, the house still looks neglected and empty.

Last week when I walked by the church I mentioned to my husband that I would like to see inside the church – I’m curious and would like a sneak peek. My husband laughed since we never see anyone around the building after all these years (and daily walks).

Strangely enough, my intention came true the very next morning: the double side doors (a second entrance or exit) were wide open. The stone wall that surrounded the doors had been knocked out to allow for a new set of bigger, black steel doors.

But since we were staring into a huge gape in the wall we were privy to the interior. With curiosity (or nosiness) both of us gawk into the hall which was once either the nave or sanctuary, and it is now empty, except for two beat-up old trucks. Yes, you read that correctly – trucks are now sitting in the church’s sanctuary.

I’m disappointed. Serendipity or not, trucks were not my intention.

Our walk takes a meander today as our usual route is disturbed – the perennial road work has begun. Some people think of spring bulbs in April; we think of road work. Our end of the city has been in the midst of a bigger plan for many years now.

After we navigate the dug up, sand-covered road, we reminisce of the past summer when our road was torn up for six long months, and the dust that settled in our house (in spite of closed windows) was thick. On Fridays at six (when the road crew ceased work for the weekend) I would run around dusting and cleaning my window sills and table surfaces and I would fling open all the windows. Breathe. Just breathe.

We spent the summer talking to the men and women who worked on the road, and watched as other neighbours spent their days yelling at them. We shook our heads at the futility of anger. Road work is like cement – it settles in for the long haul.

Road work is cyclical – every thirty some years the work that is completed (today) will need to be replicated. Apparently there is no guarantee for sewer pipes.

I remember when they did our roads over thirty years ago because my sons were toddlers, fascinated by the heavy machines. Each day I dressed them in their warm jackets and hats, and put them in the twin buggy that my parents bought us when we learned we were having twins. My parents ordered that double pram from England; they were so proud of that pram and used to argue over who would push our sons – Nanny or Papa? Our sons didn’t care; road work and heavy machinery beat grandparents any day!

We would approach the empty holes in the road and park the buggy in a safe, out-of-the-way spot, and hunker down for the morning – our sons would lean over the side of the pram as if they wanted to join in the dirt, waving to the men (sorry, no women working the machines back then). The men waved back, shouting at the boys which only made my sons try harder to escape the confines of the seat.

Afterwards, we would walk to the library where we would carefully choose books on diggers, excavators, bulldozers, and backhoes. The bulldozers were a favourite. Richard Scarry’s Book of Cars, Trucks and Things and Busy, Busy World were borrowed so many times that the librarians just handed them over to me when I arrived.

So to this day I smile when I see the bulldozers arrive and wonder if young moms and dads and children in tow still wander over to the huge pits in the road to watch the great machines in action.

After we have detoured because of road blocks, we walk by a house with stained-glassed windows, one designed with an inlaid cross in its’ centre. It’s quite beautiful, and I am surprised that I have never noticed the cross before today.

Yellow forsythia, in full bloom, surrounds the home, and carefully planned yellow daffodils are planted in the foreground. I marvel at the perfect match as I am acutely aware of how difficult it is to plan colour schemes in our gardens – our gardens have a mind of their own and colour palettes are not of their design.

Some of the daffodil blooms are unopened, and their little heads bow as if in prayer. The religious symbol that shines above them is inspiring the plant life, I notice.

Soon we walk past the long-term care home where my father lived his last three months. We have passed this home for over thirty years, every day, so it seemed right that my father would live there in his final days when he became palliative. I no longer avoid the building (like I used to).

We pass residents from the home most days: we smile, we stop and chat, we help someone return to the lobby. In the past we have joined staff searching for residents who went on a walkabout; we yell the resident’s name over and over, running up and down the street. Eventually everyone is found; perhaps for a brief time those residents are happy. Sometimes lost is a good state.

Over the years, the residents disappear, and new ones take their places – that’s a lesson we all learn when we volunteer at a long-term care home. Life is transient and fleeting, so I counter that with mindfulness and awareness. It’s how I find equilibrium in my life. And acceptance.

Soon we pass a dilapidated, old wreck of a house where a peculiar-looking woman works in her garden most days.  I can hear my mother’s voice in my head, It doesn’t cost a penny to spruce up the house. Sweep or rake, either will fix things up. From the rundown state of the house, the owner cannot hear my mother’s voice.

I call the owner eccentric because she is often dressed out of season, and rather bizarrely: shorts and boots in the winter; long, sloppy pants in the summer, that drag in the soil. And always a huge, rather ugly hat. Like the house, her hat is in decline. Her face is weather-beaten and she is very thin, so my husband thinks she should spend some of her money on food, and not on her garden, because she is always planting little green things (which seem to never sprout or grow).

And she often plants fake, dollar store tulips in her garden, too, among the real green things. I am rather fascinated by her garden techniques – freshly-dug garden beds every week, where the only things that seem to survive are the whirly-gigs that she plants among the green things (that do not).

And each spring her dollar store tulips that she planted in the fall (I know, fake tulips do not act like spring bulbs) become sodden messes of blanched yellows and reds in the winter. The snow and wind are brutal – fake or not, tulips cannot survive Canadian winters.

See, even the tulips are fleeting. Whatever creative urge possessed her to plant fake tulips has now died. Creative urges do that; die, that is.

I’ve returned home and now the narratives that existed in my head when I walked are gone – only vestiges of them remain when I type up this post.

Thoughts are fleeting.

Road work is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation and a viewfinder

viewfinderI cut out a rectangular shaped box in the middle of the piece of cardboard and look through my “viewfinder.” The angles of the table are now easier to sketch. When I look through the small box, I can perceive the smaller picture and the relationships of the table within the small opening. I’m less distracted from the images that the cardboard blots out. Now I can close one eye, and like a monocular, focus on a small part of the bigger whole.

I think meditation works like a viewfinder. They are both tools to enhance our lives. One allows me to draw more accurately, to hone my attention skills while sketching. The other allows me to concentrate and pay attention to the present moment. Both tools render clarity and focus. Both make things simple and transparent. Both eliminate clutter.

Since Christmas I have been lost in a number of nesting projects – clearing out old unfinished stuff that has cluttered up the corners of our bedroom, and projects that have tumbled about in my head. Nesting and resting. It’s one of the reasons that I enjoy the winter months so much, as I get a huge delight in disposing of the yellow sticky-notes (my to-do list) that line my computer screen: Shutterfly album for son, done. Old photos scanned and uploaded, done. Library wall of books dusted, done. New blind for the kitchen window, done. New sketching pen purchased, done. Watercolours purchased, done. How-to watercolour YouTube videos  watched incessantly,  done. Dining room table now a temporary art studio, done.

Writing, not done. EBook about meditation, mindfulness, dementia and me, not done.

Makeshift artist's studio

Makeshift artist’s studio

The irony doesn’t escape me: lost in projects, losing focus. (My viewfinder’s not working.)

Over the holidays I spent a few days writing about dementia and mindfulness, and because I had no plan (no organized thoughts about an eBook), I sat down and began in the middle. But disorganization unsettles me; I feel uneasy when I see disorder. It’s a trait that I have possessed since I was a child and I own it. Order, neatness and cleanliness are a good thing in my book.

Eventually my struggles with writing led me to abandon the eBook. The middle was too weird for me – I kept asking the Universe for a beginning. My intention had become: A plan! A plan (the middle isn’t working for me)!

As humans, we sure complicate things. Instead of perceiving life as it is, accepting the Now, our minds search for something greater. In my case, I went searching for answers – for a plan, one that had a beginning, middle and an end.

So for the past couple of weeks, in spite of meditating and sitting in silence, and instead of accepting the sacred in the present moment, I kept searching.

When we do it right, there is a simplicity in mindfulness: when we see the grace in each moment – in peace or unease – then we are practicing mindfulness, complete acceptance of what is. The simplicity is in the awareness.

But I ignored those moments, I chose to struggle and complicate them:

I would meet people and we would begin a discussion on Alzheimer’s, dementia, and mindfulness, and instead of acknowledging the signs and the synchronicity – the repetition and constancy –  I dismissed them. I would take long, solitary walks and soon my head would fill with memories of my father standing on the counter (how I had to find a ladder to help him down); how my father jumped out of a moving car one morning and I still ignored the signs of his illness; how my father refused to go outside (when it was he who taught us to appreciate a sunrise, while camping); and memories of my mother sobbing over the washroom sink because she couldn’t turn the taps off. All of these memories and more would continue to assault me when I found myself in stillness. Thoughts and narratives inundated me – all about dementia, mindfulness and me.

And yet, I still didn’t see the connections. Instead, I found myself wishing that the thoughts of dementia and memories would move over so that a plan of a new eBook could enter! The plan, the plan…I need a plan!

We complicate things.

The moment’s simplicity eluded me, and I continued on the quest for answers:

Why do these narratives of mindfulness and dementia keep intruding into my thoughts and meditations? Why can’t I organize my thoughts into a plan with a beginning? Why would I want to write another eBook about dementia? Why is meditation not working for me? Why am I so filled with thoughts when my meditation should be about letting go? Why can’t I let go?

Begin at the beginning. Hold the viewfinder up and see.

Immanuel Kant once said,  “We see things not as they are, but as we are.”

When we struggle, life is a struggle. When we embrace life’s flow, life flows.

My meditations had been quite clear all along, transparent even.  The whispers were getting louder and more insistent, but always constant. It’s not monkey mind and clutter. Well, it is. But there’s a message within those thoughts – the thoughts are the message:  Write the thoughts down. That’s the plan.

I let go and finally sat still. And I listened to the silence behind the silence and that’s when I sensed that everything  – my writing, my lack of writing, my projects, my painting, my thoughts about dementia, mindfulness, meditation and me –  was interconnected, including my resistance. And that in spite of my intention to be in the flow – I had been swimming upstream.

My resistance had created diversions and distractions to prevent me from writing.  My resistance had shown up as nesting. Nesting was comfortable and safe. My projects were my attempts to clear out the clutter; or more accurately, to stop the narratives. Because I am afraid of the narratives. I am resistant to writing another eBook about dementia.  The truth is I have already written an eBook about that subject and I do not want to do it again. My resistance is actually fear: My fear of having nothing new or fresh to say; my fear that because there is no order in the book, that the book is not worth writing.

But here’s where the magic lies in recognizing the interconnections: Instead of writing, I have been painting, and as a beginner – learning a new craft – I am learning to let go of the need for perfection.  As a beginner, I have a beginner’s mind. I have become open, curious, and willing to experiment and make mistakes. In a state of beginner’s mind,  I am learning to let go…of a plan. I am content with imperfection.

“Meditation doesn’t solve anything, but it helps everything.”   Ethan Nichtern, Buddhist teacher

I’m humbled when these thoughts arise because they remind me that I had the answers and the wisdom within all along.

The viewfinder has changed my perspective. I need to be aware and recognize when I am nesting, and not lost in avoidance or distractions.

Lastly, in allowing myself more creativity in my life, I allowed myself to return to beginner’s mind – a state that I want to transfer to my writing, and other parts of my life.

Through this process I’ve learned to trust myself. The answers are all within. Everything I need flows to me: Nesting, creativity, wisdom, insights. And, yes, resistance. Our greatest lessons come in the disguise of resistance.

Challenges are here to awaken you and even if you’re awakening, life continually gives you challenges and then the awakening accelerates and deepens.             E. Tolle

It’s time to get back to writing an Ebook, in spite of my fears. My fears are no longer hidden under distractions and diversions; my fears are transparent. I will trust that I am to begin…in the middle, and not at the beginning which would feel more comfortable. I will need to trust the process. And I will need to trust myself.

I want to fall into  beginner’s mind when I write.

But first, I need to go for a walk and see the sky. And I don’t need a viewfinder for that.

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

Naked, November trees are great teachers

The maples and sycamores, and the birches and oaks are almost naked; a cluster of withered, yellow leaves still cling to the hardier specimens.

It’s the season of transition. Impermanence.

Most think November is dreary, dull and dead. I do not. I think the month is one of great beauty.

Bare trees reveal their secrets. The birds have lost their hiding spots; the squirrels run hither and thither, scrambling along the branches and limbs like they are possessed. Their frantic motions are a harbinger of winter – of change.

In spring and summer foliage and flowers can distract us from the woody trunk – the true foundation of the tree. I believe that is where all the magic lies. The trunk is the soul of the tree. Everything else is just lipstick.

Trees have always fascinated me, and I am always under their spell. And even though I appreciate their greenery, it is the trunk and the shape of a tree that I find truly beautiful. The gnarled and twisted intricacies of an old oak or willow, the contorted beech trees, the aged maple that has not one, but multiple trunks that formed perfect perching spots for us when we were small.

And don’t get me started about the tree roots which form another world beneath. I have photographed roots that rise from the earth that look like alien planets. In fact, when I develop those photos, I am confused whether I am looking at the top or the bottom of the tree: I turn the photo this way and that, looking for signs of up or down. I frame them anyways, lean them against the living room wall, and when I go by, I reach out and rotate the pictures – upside down or upright, still an intriguing wonder to me.

When we walk along the river, I want to stop and gaze on each of the deciduous trees – often their limbs contort around another, like the yoga pose, the Twist. I am compelled to brush my hand over the trunks – some smooth, some so rough; some peeling, some filled with hideous burls. Hideous burls are worth sketching, are they not?

Bare tree trunks resemble torsos, their limbs reach out, cupped in prayer. And sometimes the torso has multiple arms like Guan Yin, the Chinese Bodhisattva, Goddess of Compassion, Mercy, and Kindness, that I saw in most temples in last year’s visit to China. We could do with more trees like Guan Yin. Better yet, we could do with more reminders of compassion, mercy, and kindness.

Guan Yin?

When you spend as many hours as I do watching the birds, bare trees are a gift. Just this morning I watched a family of black-headed chickadees flit from limb to limb, then fly to my wall of green (the ivy-covered fence) and then perch on the roof of our shed. Eventually they flew off to another barren yonder. In the summer, I can recognize their sounds “Chick-a-dee-dee-dee, chick-a-dee-dee-dee,” but often only glimpse a snatch of white and black. Today I drank a full cup of coffee while I spied on their movements. (You can hop, but you cannot hide.)

Last week, a Downy woodpecker (Downy-s are dinky; Hairy-s are huge.) was attempting to eat supper in his hidey-hole. I can see you, I call out. He ignores me. Supper is tasty. Last month his familiar rat-a-tat could be heard throughout the neighbourhood, but I spent too many minutes searching the leafy branches for his black and white presence. Eventually I gave up. His song was enough.

In my own backyard I tend to two small trees that are dead. Well, I have been informed by a number of people (some are gardeners, some are not) that the trees are dead. By their definition, I should remove them. They see rot and decay; I see life. Dead trees are apartment dwellings for sparrows, finches and chickadees. Dead trees are ornamental and sculptural when covered in snow or hoar frost. Dead trees are the perfect launching pads for squirrels and birds. And fights between the two species. Sketches of dead trees fill my sketch book. Dead trees house ready-made hooks for bird feeders and wind chimes. Oh, did I mention that during the Christmas season we decorate our dead trees?

P1030198

Remove them? What kind of gardener do you think I am? I haven’t met a dead tree that I didn’t fall in love with, yet.

Bare trees form dark silhouettes against the grey autumn and winter skies that resemble looming shapes of plaques and tangles – like a brain with Alzheimer’s disease. That image is forever imprinted in my brain.

Alzheimer’s disease and other dementia s are tragic reminders of impermanence. Of transition.

We are not what we seem; we are more than we seem. That lesson I learned while caring for parents with Alzheimer’s.

In Neale Donald Walsch’s, Communion with God, Walsch writes about impermanence and change:

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? Then they melt into each other, and into 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.

When I cared for parents with Alzheimer’s, I was constantly in stress and my body (and spirit) became broken. I lived in a world of grief (for the past) and worry (about the future).

But throughout that challenging time, I learned to go back to two things that I had practised as a young woman and throughout my life. I began to take them more seriously, with attention and awareness. Meditation and yoga (and eventually Tai Chi) saved me.

More accurately, the steady and constant practice of both yoga and meditation on a daily basis transformed me. Slowly I began to heal my spirit. My mind and body followed. Stillness and silence are great healers. (Qualities that we attribute to the majesty of trees.)

Today I believe that mindfulness (staying present in the Moment throughout the day) and recognizing my emotions and feelings and not trying to divert, distract, or dull them, has opened me to a richer life – one filled with acceptance, non-judgment, creativity, and wisdom. Compassion, love and mercy are part of the whole package.

Meditation has taught me that “I am the sky; my thoughts are just clouds – that come and go.” (All the great meditation, mindfulness, and spiritual thinkers subscribe to that thought; most notedly, Pema Chodron and Thich Nhat Hanh.) We are impermanent. Every minute 300 million cells die within our body. Our bodies are in constant flux, as are our daily lives. As are our thoughts.

We are reminded in meditation to breathe through the nose – breath in, breath out – and yet if we stay focused on the breath, we will begin to notice that each and every breath is different. Sometimes I breathe in 8 seconds and hold, and sometimes I breathe in 10 seconds, and exhale without holding. Sometimes I feel the coolness along the tips of my nostrils, and in the next breath, I notice an itch. Sometimes my belly expands, and sometimes I notice not as much expansion. Each breath is different.

If a fundamental thing such as breathing is different each time, then we begin to recognize that all things are changing. All the time.

The trees teach me about impermanence. They are a daily reminder. They are my cheat sheets. I need cheat sheets – they keep me grounded. (Pun, not intended.)

When I remind myself that my moods are temporary, that a particular challenging issue has me stumped and filled with worry, that a friend is suffering, I turn to the universal truth of impermanence: All things are transient. This, too, shall pass. Today the trees are nude, tomorrow they will be wearing their green dresses. My dark mood will lift. In time the challenging issue will either resolve itself, or I will gain wisdom to see it differently. My friend who is suffering will find relief.

As humans, we will adapt better to living a full and happy life when we let go of the fear of change. We will breathe easier when we learn that within the changes that take place, lies ephemeral beauty. That a decayed and rotting tree will soon nourish the earth. And another tree will be born.

When we perceive change as not right, not wrong, just is…we will teach ourselves to adjust to change, and eventually, to accept change. Acceptance leads us to a happier life. Happier? No. Wrong word. A balanced life. That’s what I strive for. Happiness is fleeting. I desire balance or equanimity.

Naked, November trees remind me of transition: from a rich and verdant existence to one of bare essentials. Like us. Whether we accept it or not, we are all aging. At this very moment. Yes, all of us. By the time you get to the end of this blog, you and I will have lost a billion cells.

Naked, November trees remind me of essential truths: we are all going to die. Everything is impermanent. Many things are inherently beautiful – even the gnarly roots that surround an old, decaying tree.  Awareness and attention are transformative. We are meant to be whole, not perfect.

As my son’s last text reminded me of the importance of “not right, not wrong; just is,” those powerful words inspire me. Acceptance. Reality. Truth.

Besides, I need not worry. Everything will change. In a few seconds, or a day, or weeks. Or years.

I think my trees are teaching me a lesson: Don’t worry. Be happy. Better yet, be balanced.