Tag Archives: acceptance

The 7 A’s of Dementia – Apraxia

Whatever you accept completely will take you to peace, including the acceptance that you cannot accept, that you are in resistance… E. Tolle (Stillness Speaks)

Apraxia is the loss of ability to initiate purposeful movement. Individuals with apraxia may also have trouble understanding terms such as back, front, up, down. As a result of these losses, it becomes difficult to do things such as tying shoelaces, doing up buttons and zippers, and any activity involving co-ordination. When we lose our abilities to remember the sequences and patterns of movement, it results in the eventual inability to co-ordinate hand and leg movement necessary for specific activities, such as driving.   Apraxia definition from http://www.alzheimer.ca/en/on/About-dementia/Dementias/what-is-dementia/Seven-A-s-of-dementia

There is a sequence when we complete a task or chore – a natural order. Unfortunately, persons with a dementia lose the ability to remember and to understand the sequence and order of things – they become unable to discern the steps or sequence of a task.

They also are unable to attend to the task because they lack focus. This lack of focus (and lack of understanding the steps or sequence when doing a task) will upset or anger the person with a dementia.  Frustration follows. Often the person will refuse to do the task or interrupt or walk away from the chore while in the middle of it, simply because of their frustration. Frustration sets in because they cannot understand why they cannot do the task or remember how to do it. Often the person with a dementia just wants to “save face,” so they walk away or they begin to exhibit aggression, combativeness, anger, etc. We wrongly assume (especially in the middle and later stages of dementia) that a person with Alzheimer’s doesn’t feel embarrassment when they make mistakes – wrong! They are embarrassed and often will feel shame. They are aware that something is wrong, but they do not recognize what is wrong or how to fix it. Often this is the underlying reason that they become aggressive or angry.

My mother would often rail at us when we tried to help her dress or brush her teeth. She would insist, loudly and persistently, “I can do it myself!” Many times when we took her to the bathroom, she argued that she didn’t need our help, when so many times, she clearly did!

In time we learned to step away  and just allow her space. Often she forgot in the middle of attempting to find her day clothes in the dresser, why she was rummaging through the drawers. She would move away from the dresser (and leave the drawer wide open) and begin to do something else. Other times I would put her jacket on the bed and she would just stare at me. She clearly was unsure of what to do with the jacket.

Or, we would take her into the bathroom and step aside –  she would turn the faucets on, let the water run, and run, and run. Without either brushing her teeth or washing her face, water still gushing, she would turn her wheelchair away from the sink and announce, “I’m ready.” Brain cell damage prevented her from following through these simple tasks. She would be completely unfocused.

Behaviour management strategies should include space and dignity, but unfortunately most staffs are too busy and short-handed to allow this. Instead, they hurry through their daily tasks and residents become anxious.  When we allow the resident with a dementia, time and space (without the sense of urgency), we allow the person to maintain his dignity. When the person with dementia becomes distracted or forgets the task, we simply step in and continue to complete it for them, without any judgment on our part.

When my sister and I cared for our parents, we learned many tricks to ease the day-to-day care. My parents shunned our help and support, especially with the daily tasks such as dressing and bathing. Instead of arguing each day over simple tasks, such as dressing, we tried to simplify things. We learned to arrange clothing items  in the order of getting dressed: underwear (first), top or sweater, pants,  socks; lastly, shoes or slippers placed next to the bed. Otherwise, you will notice that the person with a dementia will attempt to put on socks over the shoes, or simply not wear socks. Or, you might notice that they will put on slippers to go outside. Or, the shoes are on the wrong feet. Or, not wear a coat or warm clothing for cold weather.  We need to understand that someone who has apraxia may recognize the item, but really have no idea what to do with the item. I once gave my mother a Kleenex when she was sneezing, and she took it, stared at it blankly and then threw it up into the air and watched as it fell to the floor. She then continued to stare at it as if she had never seen a Kleenex before. (I remember watching her face with total fascination.)

So how can we help when we recognize our loved one is unsure of completing a task? Calmly (without any judgmental commentary, please) step in and begin to give how-to instructions – one step at a time. Slowly introduce the next step in sequence, but only once the previous step is completed. Keep in mind that persons with dementia can focus better in a calm, quiet space; therefore, distractions, noise, or too much chatter (your running commentary) are not helpful.

“Mom, here is your sweater…put one arm into this sleeve first.”

My mother liked to talk and would often become distracted as soon as a second person came into her room. It didn’t matter if she was drinking her beloved tea, eating a cookie, combing her hair or putting on a warmer sweater. The moment she noticed another person in her room, she reacted. She became curious and completely forgot what she was doing, or she became angry and confused,”Why is that person in my room?”

Before my father died, and while I cared for them both full-time, I once was in a grocery store with my mother, helping her shop. (This was before we realized that she had any dementia.) She did not have a shopping list. (That was a clue, my friends. It takes planning and thought to prepare a grocery list.) When we walked into the store, I explained that we would probably need fruit, vegetables, bread, rolls, and cereal.

Since the fresh produce was in the first aisle that we approached, we began to shop. I asked her what fruit did she want to buy. She didn’t answer. Instead, she perused the fruit bins, picking up item after item. After I realized that we had spent nearly five minutes in the store, and had yet to choose an item, I suggested bananas and peaches. She agreed. We went to the vegetable bins and she just stood there. I suggested a cabbage, some carrots, onions and lettuce. She agreed. This hesitancy continued in each aisle. Finally she announced she would like cereal and that she didn’t need my help, so I left her in the cereal aisle and continued shopping. After ten minutes I realized that she had not met me at the front of the store. I went looking for her and she was still in the cereal aisle – and had yet to make her choice.

Now that I know what I know (when you know better, you do better – Maya Angelou) I know that she wasn’t just fatigued or stressed (and that is why she took so long to make her decisions), but that my mother was showing one of the many early signs of dementia – lack of focus and inability to follow the steps or sequence of a task. She no longer made grocery lists because she couldn’t focus on how to complete them. She couldn’t make a decision, because that was a skill that she had lost.

Not all persons with Alzheimer’s exhibit all the seven A’s of dementia. In fact, without a brain scan, it is difficult to determine which areas of the brain are damaged.  Different areas of the brain cause different symptoms of the disease.

For me, I did not care if my mother exhibited any of the  A’s of dementia, as it only mattered how I reacted to her behaviours.  If I gave my mother her lipstick and she smeared lipstick across her cheek instead of her lips (which she did on multiple occasions), or if I handed her a hairbrush and she used it upside-down, well, I tried not to over-react and correct her actions. (I wanted to! God knows, the first time that she smeared lipstick (bright red!) across her face, I nearly gasped out loud.) Instead, I learned to calmly take the brush out of her hands, re-position it in her hands, and say, “Let’s try combing your hair this way.”

I tell you this story so that caregivers can understand that persons with dementia will exhibit different symptoms, but that these symptoms should not scare us.   Because in understanding their behaviours and the reasons behind their actions, we allow the seeds of compassion to take root. Compassion changes everything.

At the end of the day, when caring for someone who has Alzheimer’s or any dementia-related disease, we all need to let go of our need to control, and we need to let go of our expectations.

We all need to show more kindness and compassion and allow our loved ones to just be – allow them dignity and space.

I believe that compassion, dignity and space will transform our own personal energy because our energy will be based on acceptance. Persons with Alzheimer’s or a dementia-related disease will feel our loving energy, in spite of the disease, and they will understand that they matter to us, disease or not.

The disease may diminish their quality of life, but our actions and our reactions to this disease will determine how we (together) spend our remaining days.

Let our journey with our loved one be one of peace and acceptance, not struggle and judgement.

 

Apraxia definition is taken from http://www.alzheimer.ca/en/on/About-dementia/Dementias/what-is-dementia/Seven-A-s-of-dementia

 

Advertisements

Colours of my meditation

When I walk along the river, I make up names of the colours of the sky and of the river. I often recite the colours aloud to my husband: River city steel-grey blue; Freshly laid cement grey; Cottage on the Lake vintage shutter white; Sparking turquoise gemstone blue; Old driveway past its day, pot-holed grey. Today, my love, is a River city steel-grey blue kind of day, I would announce.

My husband is never very impressed; to date he has not contacted Sherwin-Williams.

What I didn’t confess to him was that I have assigned new colours to things since I was a kid. I can’t help myself.

So you can imagine how I feel (like I have come home) ever since I took up watercolour painting. My morning and evening rituals of watching the dawn skies (and later the sun sets) have me running for the paint palette – all new colours to me. (I swear: If heaven mirrors our thoughts – I am looking forward to skies of alizarin crimsons, cadmium yellows, and ultramarine blues when I die. And note to God: Please throw in a little yellow ochre and raw sienna, for no other reason than…I love those colours!)

Even my meditation and mindfulness practices have deepened – in living technicolour palettes. My mind wanders during meditation: I hear a bird trill and instead of labelling it – sparrow, junco, robin, cardinal – I assign it a colour. The lowly house sparrow is labelled in shades of raw sienna (oh, come on, my favourite colour), a mix of alizarin crimson and ultramarine blue, with just a touch of yellow. Umber, that is. Not too much, or my brown mixture will be the colour of mud.

Once I recognize that I am painting  the bird sounds that are interrupting my meditation, I re-focus on my breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out. Expansion. Release.

It’s so obvious that I am thinking about paint colours and mixtures again. (Blame the birds. They are a chirpin’.)

Breathe in. Breathe out. Expansion. Release.

Because watercolours give me such pleasure (even pronouncing the colours in my head delights me), I find that instead of chastising myself for the numerous round trips that my mind has taken during my meditations, I find myself smiling. Colours just make me happy. And so does meditation. Meditation allows me to access my inner spirit – and my inner spirit is turning cartwheels (I’m fairly certain of this).

I will chalk up my mind’s wanderings to beginner’s mind – one of curiosity and attention. Thankfully, I think my beginner’s mind (thanks to learning a new art) is the opposite of my usual state. That is, I’ve become acutely aware that my mind’s tendency is to label things: Those bare branches look like tangles and plaques of a mind affected by Alzheimer’s disease; that tree mirrors Quan Yin (the statue of compassion); that person resembles Hercule Poirot (the famous Belgium detective of Agatha Christie books); the dog who lives next door is barking madly again – he must have seen a falling leaf. (Ah, judgment of the dog. He barks at everything.)

Oh, the state of beginner’s mind – an open, curiosity to life’s present moments – hasn’t cured me of the habitual 24/7 narration of attaching colours to everything, nor has it cured me of labelling my perceptions. Rather, beginner’s mind has allowed me acceptance of my thoughts, my narrations, my desire to see life in a technicolour, dream coat palette.

And acceptance, I have learned, is key. It is key to a healthy self-awareness, and a healthy self-awareness helps us navigate this journey.

Beginner’s mind (like a child’s mind) reminds me to pay attention to this moment – attention to the breath during meditation (as a touchstone) and attention to our sensations, feelings, and emotions. We miss the point of meditation or mindfulness if we do not realize its’ greatest gifts: attention, awareness, and acceptance (the three A’s).

And by acceptance, I mean that we embrace our mind’s wanderings, judgments, labelling, and stories. During meditation, we note our mind’s wanderings, and then gently bring our attention back to the breath.

Instead of chastising ourselves and becoming frustrated with the meditation session, attaching blame to the session or becoming frustrated with ourselves, we smile (Thich Nhat Hanh) and return to the breath.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

Umbra yellow. Ultramarine blue. If I mix the two colours, will I create a vibrant green? Or turquoise?

Colours again.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

I smile.

 

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

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.

P1060369

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

I seek refuge in mindfulness

This morning, as other mornings, I turn to the skies to align my day. The dawn’s sky is navy blue and red – streaks that look as if a mad painter has swished his brush to and fro with a flourish. And peeking through a pocket or two, sits the robin’s egg blue sky.

It’s beautiful. I close my eyes.

I need to be silent for awhile, worlds are forming in my heart.  Meister Eckhart

I have turned to the dawn’s sky as refuge from the news. I did not stay up late to watch the election results. Instead, I awoke at five as usual and my husband has leaned over and whispered to me, “You are not going to be happy with the election results.”

His words caused me to leap out of bed. Stunned, I watched the CBC news.

I’ve spent my last ten years trying to live a life of simplicity, wholeness, and lovingkindness. I’ve surrounded myself with people who share similar beliefs, values and intentions. We strive to live fully, creatively, in love and compassion. Some of us meditate and live mindfully; some of us pray; and some of us share with John Muir, that Nature is my Church.

And although most of us are not Buddhists, we strive to embody its’ philosophies or tenets: Do no harm; Lovingkindness and generosity; Right resolve, right action, right speech, right concentration, etc.  All philosophies shared with Christianity and other world religions.

So this morning I feel the earth has shifted. I feel that worlds are colliding (in the immortal words of Seinfeld’s beloved character, George).

Everything has changed. Nothing has changed.

We carry on. We continue to be aware – to be mindful of the moments that make up our days, our lives. We continue to laugh, to cry, to support one another, to pray, and to meditate.

But for me, I vow to see more, to see clearly – to remove the rose-coloured glasses that prevented me from seeing and acknowledging the truth – that many suffer. And they suffer deeply.

When I wrote my free ebook on caring for parents with dementia, I offered to the reader that all of us, including those who suffer with Alzheimer’s and other dementia s, want to know that we matter – we all want to be seen, to be heard, and most of all, we want to know that we matter.

For me, this is the lesson that we have been profoundly offered.

My grandma would say when things go wrong it’s a Buddhist gift.  The Provence Cure for the Brokenhearted, Bridget Asher

Let us carry on today with eyes wide open. In awareness, may we really see each other. And let us touch base with the stillness within each of us, that continually guides and steers us to a life of acceptance, love, kindness, compassion and generosity.

I intend to let go of the discord and toxic energy that I felt this morning when I first turned on the television.

Instead, I turn to my strengths: honesty, trust, compassion, curiosity, service, creativity and connections.

All gifts.

The more we accept and expand our own unique gifts, the more we can share and connect with others. And all of this begins with awareness.

When we live in awareness (that is, we begin to pay attention to each moment) we change our perceptions. In mindfulness, we perceive the many acts of grace that surround us.

Acts of grace. Those are the gifts that will transform us.