Tag Archives: family

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Yoga and snow angels

I lay flat on my back and stare up at the ceiling fan. I am in the fish pose in yoga – my body is flat on the floor, my chest is raised off the floor, propped up and supported by my elbows, and my head is pulled under so that the crown of my head is resting on the floor.

I stare up at the ceiling fan which is white and has five blades. My bedroom ceiling is also white. White on white. And now I know the blood is rushing to my head and circulation has increased. I know this because my mind is wandering into weird territory. The white fan looks like a snow angel – the kind that we made in virgin snow falls when I was a kid. The perfect angel outlines demanded pristine snow. As kids, we intuited that trampled snow would screw up our artistic endeavours, similar to attempting to draw on a well-used piece of paper. Blank slate, or go home.

My ceiling is a perfect blank slate. If only it would snow in my bedroom, I think.  Then I could practice my angels. As a kid, I loved making angels – the rhythmic movement to make wings; feeling so free. But it was the expansive white landscape that I was drawn to, much like the attraction of a brand new pad of white foolscap paper – untouched, unspoiled, un-trampled. The possibilities were endless.

But even the benefits of a steady yoga practice will not allow me to make snow angels on my ceiling.

My mind returns to the present.

My neck is arched and is now aching, so I turn my body over and practice the bow.

The bow pose is not my favourite asana; I’d rather practice the sun salutation or savasana. I am particularly fond of savasana – and quite good at it.

When I first was introduced to yoga when I was in my twenties, I thought savasana (we called it the corpse pose or the sponge) was the answer to all my stress. I practiced savasana until I fell asleep. (True, I had twin babies; do I need to say more?)

Today I meditate daily, so I practice savasana less and less. I would rather sit up and meditate than fall asleep.

In my meditation class, our teacher reminds us that only three things can happen when we meditate: our mind is full of thoughts; our mind lets go of the thoughts and just rests; or we fall asleep. If we fall asleep, it is our body telling us that we are tired. Don’t fight it, she reminds us.

The bow pose is not a pretty pose, not like the mountain pose or the tree pose. Those asanas (or postures) are quite elegant, unlike the bow which is rather awkward. My husband walked into our bedroom once when I was practicing the bow – my torso on the floor as my arms and legs stretched out behind me – up and away – into space.

Whoa! I’m outta here, he announced. Like, after forty some years of marriage bliss, he has never noticed that my arms and legs can contort like that.

Snow angels are fundamentally elegant. When we used to lay in the snow (backsides completely soaked), our torsos were still – limbs like wipers, angled the snow away from our bodies. So simple. So beautiful. The trick is to jump up from the ground without spoiling our masterpiece – jump up without moving our feet (and screwing up the lines of the angel) and then taking a huge leap away from the indentation. The best angels were made by those of us who had patience. One had to think it through or all would be lost.

My husband would have made awful snow angels. I instinctively know this to be true. He has no patience. In fact, I bet he was the spoil sport who announced he was going home if the others were going to make snow angels. I can just see him now: If we aren’t going to throw snowballs or play hockey, I’m outta here.

I decide while I practice the twist, that is harsh. Of course, I am also practicing my breathing because yoga is all about the breath, and between holding my breaths (while in the gap) I reflect on forty years of marriage. (Just so you know, one is supposed to let go of all thoughts while in the gap; not reflect on marriage.)

We live in a small house, so we get under each other’s feet sometimes; or under each other’s skin, more accurately.

It didn’t matter where one lived as a kid, whether the back yard or front yard was postage stamp-sized or an acre of land, one could always find a blank slate to make angels. As kids, we were drawn to nature: intuitively, we felt the connection. When we created our snow angels, our bodies were connected to the ground and our gaze was on the sky, the clouds, the horizon. We looked up into the heavens; our beings felt so alive. Expansive.

I wonder if little kids make snow angels today. I wonder if kids even play outside today. I hardly ever see children outside in the snow in our neighbourhood. I should know: I am outside clearing snow nearly every day throughout winter. And I am certainly not aware of any children playing outside.

We are often the only two people on the street clearing snow from the driveway and sidewalks. It’s a quiet and very peaceful time; Zen-like.

One winter when we went to Portugal for a holiday, I had a difficult time hiring a kid on the street to clean our driveway of snow while we were away. When I asked if they would like to make some extra cash, they shrugged their shoulders and said, not really.

While in Portugal I noticed parents and grandparents and children walking together in groups, arm in arm, like Laverne and Shirley. Why don’t we walk arm in arm with our families here in Canada, I used to think? They do in England as I remember my mother and father and our aunts and uncles would sidle up and hook their arms into one another’s whenever we went walking. Which was often. I think it’s obligatory to walk there. Arm in arm. Very enlightened, I used to think. How can anyone hold a grudge or argue with a loved one when they are holding each other up – supporting each other; maintaining each other; sustaining each other?

My yoga practice sustains me. Without it I would be forced into a gym class; worse, an aerobics class. Or step class. Whew, it’s been many, many years since I have taken a step class. I used to like the loud, throbbing music…it motivated me to swing my arms higher and my step wider. Dance class, too. Loved it. Still like to dance in my room when I am all alone.

Now I prefer the solitude of my yoga practice in my home – a class is too distracting for me. For me, yoga is personal; solitary; meditative.

My cobra pose is steady – I am staring up at the white on white again. I breathe three long breaths – that’s about fifteen to twenty seconds for each pose; repeat three more times.

Sixty thousand thoughts a day; that’s how many thoughts we are supposedly filling our minds with. Sixty thousand? I’m not a mathematician, but I think that is almost a thought every second and a half. If I have one long thought (or one long convoluted story that runs through my mind) does that count as multiple thoughts? Or just one long convoluted thought?

When I breathe and count to fifteen or twenty to hold a pose, does counting to twenty count as twenty thoughts?

When I choose to change poses, how many thoughts does that make? One thought or multiple thoughts?

Once again I turn onto my back and begin to lift one leg straight up, and I rotate my foot in small circles; after a minute, I lift my other leg and begin to rotate the other foot. First clockwise and then the other direction, counterclockwise. My ankles say thank you. When you walk more than an hour every day, ankles, feet and legs need to be strong and sturdy. And it doesn’t hurt to throw in a few back exercise poses, too. Thanks to yoga, I am planning on walking every day of the rest of my life.

As I rotate my ankle counterclockwise, I see my mother’s leg outstretched while she lay flat on her bed in the long-term care facility where she once lived. I had walked into her room for a visit one day, and there she was, exercising her ankles in the air. At the time I was so impressed with her ability and determination to stay flexible, even as she wrestled with dementia. Then, her brain was like a locked filing cabinet that she no longer could access.  But somehow she retrieved an old file labelled “yoga” and a thought to keep her ankles strong.

My mother used to practice yoga when I was just a young kid. I often came home from school and would find her flat on the living room floor in front of the television set watching her favourite show, Yoga With Kareen Zebroff.

My mother liked Kareen’s show so much that she ordered her yoga instruction book through the mail. The book “The ABC of Yoga” cost $4.50 retail. How do I know that fact? Because my mother gave me her yoga book when I was a young mother in my late twenties. I have used my mom’s yoga instruction book nearly every day for forty years or so. It’s a coil bound book which lays flat and is perfectly suited for easy reading (even when my body is upside down).

The author’s dedication inside this book reads: To my mother, who started me on the Royal Path of Yoga.

The author of the book thanked her mother in a dedication; I thank my mother who started me on the Royal Path of Yoga, also. And so the circle continues.

My mind needs to rest. Yoga usually is a meditative exercise but today I am filled with so many disparate thoughts – a jumble of them. My blank slate is not so blank; it’s well-trampled.

It’s also very quiet and peaceful in my bedroom, I think. Was I just meditating? Or sleeping? I can’t tell the difference at the moment. I think my head was down, therefore, I must have been dozing. Or dreaming. I do know that my cheeks are wet with tears.

I stare up at the ceiling. Gosh, that fan looks exactly like a snow angel!

Migratory geese and lessons

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There is a small park along the shores of Lake Huron just outside my city – a park in between the city and its bedroom community. The park is a public park although there are many days one can visit and be completely alone.

When we were a young family, my sister and her children, my mother, my father and my aunt and uncle would convoy our long journey – twenty minutes in the car – to this park where we would set up a mini-kitchen on wheels, barbecue and briquets, lawn chairs, badminton net, coolers, and fold-away picnic tables. If we could find a shady treed area, we settled in. Back then the trees were not so tall and protective (many young saplings), so we would erect the large umbrellas that we had borrowed from our home’s backyard.

On other occasions in the summer and fall, we would set up our tents and trailer and camp for a few days or more. A short walk in our flip-flops and bathing suits, the blue waters beckoned. Long days on the beach; evenings spent around a bonfire. Idyllic.

These are true gifts that we pass on to our children.

My mother died one year ago and I find myself these last few days in an in-between state – between grief and contentment. Between letting go and holding close.

A year before she fell and was hospitalized, my mother gave me a scrapbook that she had made. The scrapbook reflected my life from childhood through the decades: baby, graduation, wedding, pregnancy, my children as babies, their childhood, their graduation, a son’s wedding; she had included newspaper clippings from when I had opened two stores. This simple, unadorned scrapbook reflects a life-time ago. A life before dementia.

In one of the old photographs, my father and my two sons are holding hammers, wearing hard hats when the three of them knocked down a doorway in our home. My boys are four, maybe five, years old – their hammers are yellow.

Today one of my sons (after university and working) is now a carpenter, too. He went back to learn the trade a year after my dad died. Papa would have been pleased.

My son framed a copy of this photo and hung it on the wall of his apartment; beside the photo, he hung his papa’s tweed cap on a large brass hook.

Many of the photos show our family celebrating holidays – paper streamers crisscrossing the ceiling; Christmas cards hung on simple white string; tables laden with Christmas crackers and noise-makers. And always present in my childhood photos sit an older couple who rented the upstairs apartment of my parents’ old house.

I remember that my mother always invited them for holiday gatherings and Sunday roast beef dinners. My mother was kind and thoughtful. Even as a young child I instinctively knew that my mother was compassionate – I believe the seeds were planted then, in me. I saw it in all of her actions.

When the couple grew older and older, and one by one disappeared from our family gatherings (and the photographs), I have keen memories that it was my mother who took meals to them on a tray with pink flowers. Sometimes I would trail after her up the stairs to see what mysteries lay in this apartment (that we were told was off-limits).

Once I followed her into the bedroom and found my mother consoling the wife. I was too surprised to see an adult crying in plain view to ask any questions. Later, the ambulance arrived and I did not see our tenant again.

Another snapshot captures my family dancing – chairs and furniture pulled back against the wall to make room for a dance floor. My mother and father, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin, my sister and me…all of us dancing with joy and abandonment. Arms flailing, bodies gyrating, Christmas red and green paper hats still on our heads.

We danced a lot in our house when we were growing up. We used to dance before the war, during the war and after, according to my mother. We danced our sorrows away, she would say. My aunt used to win dance competitions in their home town in England; years later, she and my mother would dress up in their fancy frocks (that spun when they twirled) most Saturday nights. We would be heart-broken because we were left behind.

One time when my mother lived in a long-term care residence, we picked her up and brought her to the cottage that we rented on Lake Huron. My sister and I (as my mother and her sister) love to dance and we often turn up the music and let loose while preparing our evening meal. While our mother stayed at the cottage with us, she required a lot of care and attention, but every afternoon at four, we cranked up the music and danced. One on each side of her, holding her upright, we sashayed, cha-cha’ed, line-danced with our mother. If we had let go, she would have crumpled to the floor.

The neighbour photographed the three of us attempting the Electric Slide – not even dementia could steal that piece of joy from my mother as she swayed in perfect tempo. She has her sunglasses on, and her head is thrown back with laughter. In the photo she looks younger than her age (90); she looks happy. I make a note to myself to include that photo in my scrapbook.

My mother insisted that she wasn’t very smart in school, that her brothers and sisters were the brains of her family. But when I find an old Bible of hers and I open it, I find an inscription in blue ink: To Gwen, for perfect attendance.

My daughter-in-law was standing beside me when I opened the book, and we looked at each other and our eyes welled up. I gave the Bible to her and my son as I know they will honour my gift. It is evident in their home and in the well-worn items that they still cherish that pieces of the past mean something to them: an old vintage chair that we gave them when they were in university many years ago; another old floral chair that was her grandmother’s – both chairs made the final cut when they moved from rentals into their first newly-bought home.

I sense and see traces of my parents in everything, in all, like wisps…

I text my sister, It’s time, and the two of us drive to the green park that is along the shores of Lake Huron, the same park where we have spent so many seasons of our lives, and where now my father’s and my mother’s ashes are strewn. Some under the pines; some flung out in the blue waters of Lake Huron.

We get out of the car and we are silent. We walk under the pines and stand still. We have each wrapped ourselves in our mother’s shawls (one pink, the other peach); it is a damp day but a mild one.

We stand still and breathe in the traces of fall and winter, and after a few minutes we return to the warmth of the car where we have decided to meditate.

Twenty minutes later my cell phone app chimes that our meditation time is up, so we decide to walk along the paved road that trails the lake’s shoreline. As we turn the bend of the road, we sight hundreds of Canadian Geese along the water’s edge.

Many steps later and we sight first, a solitary Snow Goose, then  Canvasbacks wading alongside the Canadian Geese. The further we walk, there are more geese. It’s migratory time. (The Snow Goose is clearly lost.)

The geese are hard-wired to set off to far-away places in the spring and in the fall. These birds will follow their instincts, the sun, the moon and the stars; they will ride the air currents that flow above the winds and the waves.

There is a time and a season for all things. A time for balance. A time for harmony and Oneness.

Joy and laughter; sadness and sorrow. I am learning that the two states are not exclusive of each other. They are interconnected.

I look around at the geese perfectly aligned along the shore lines of Lake Huron’s blue waters – a blue that always takes my breath away.

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Occasionally we stop and share my binoculars to study the birds, the sky and the water; we snap some photos.

And then we continue walking along the path that trails along the shoreline of Lake Huron.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Joy and tchotchkes

Joy, gratitude, bliss.

All are interconnected.

We live in a small house and raised twin boys in it. When it was time to move to a bigger house, we looked around our cottage in the city and announced that we were already living in our retirement home – the very same small home that we have called our cottage since our babies were born. So we stayed put.

Like many people I have surrounded myself with things that give me joy. When I walk into any room in our home, I am blissfully happy and content – just by looking at the photographs of trips we’ve taken or art bought from local street vendors, furniture that I have found at auction sales and have refinished or restored, and objects such as vintage vases that I fill weekly with the flowers that my husband buys at the local market every Saturday. (When my son got married, I gave him one piece of advice only: Buy flowers for your wife – often.)

I have learned that when I enter a room filled with items that I cherish, a calmness and tranquility comes over me and soon afterwards I feel a rush of gratitude. That gratitude leads to bliss. I feel a loving energy in every room of our home. My awareness and mindfulness of that loving energy leads to more gratitude – our home becomes a true haven for our family because that energy supports us and comforts us. But it begins with the awareness of where I am.

So when my sister told me about this life-changing book about cleaning that she had just read, I was skeptical.

We were sitting at a table in a favourite restaurant enjoying burgers and beers when she announced that her whole way of cleaning had changed her life and given her back…joy!

I raised an eyebrow. My husband burst out laughing and spilled his beer. My sister was not a clean and clutter-free kind of gal. Nope! I got that gene from my mother, not her.

“The Life-changing Magic of Tidying Up (the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing) by Marie Kondo has helped me not only clean house and declutter, but it has opened my mind and my spirit,” she announced.

Well, even though I was pretty sure that I could not learn anything new about cleaning house, she got me at the “open mind” part of her statement.  But once I had thought that I was pretty sure that I couldn’t learn anything new about cleaning house, then… well, I just contradicted all of my intentions for 2015 about how an open mind can free up our creativity and potential for growth and expansion.

So I borrowed the book and opened it to peruse the chapter titles…

Really I was just fooling myself. I was not being open-minded: I was looking for evidence! Evidence that I already did all this decluttering, organizing stuff; evidence that I already cleaned house in a superior manner; evidence that I did not need this book. (Damn it, my house already gives me joy.)

The chapter entitled Komono: Keep things because you love them – not “just because” caught my eye. Synchronicity, again.

My mom died nearly one year ago and so lately it has occurred to me that I should be sorting through the boxes of tchotchkes from her home. My mom had a lot of tchotchkes around the house because unlike Marie Kondo (the author of said-mentioned book) my mother saved anything and everything that people gave her – books, key chains, greeting cards, postcards, statues from travels, salt and pepper mementos. Like many grandmothers, she had saved useless Christmas gifts that the kids had given her when they were preschool age…some school projects were now torn or dried out;  while some items were just plain hideous. (Did I help my kids buy these items? Was I high that shopping trip?) Her dressers were filled with unopened boxes of gloves, scarves, and woolen hats that she had never worn, but kept in their original packaging. And boxes…that were empty. She saved those, too. For some reason, I was now the keeper of this stuff.

Well, I am not a knickknacky type of collector. In fact, up until a couple of years ago when I deliberately made the intention that I would not judge people by the crap that they collected (Ha! A lot of judgment in that statement, huh? My meditation teacher would not be happy with my lack of growth.), I could not walk by a front garden full of gnomes and plastic flowers without cringing. Now with all my growth (ha!) I can walk by such gardens and just smile. Whatever floats your boat, right?

Well, it is time to release my mother’s tchotchkes, according to the KonMari technique (author’s name spelled backwards) and this particular chapter on mementos will tell me how to do it, joyfully (apparently).

Take everything out of the boxes and place them on the floor. Now, one at a time, pick up the items and hold them, and only if they give you joy or pleasure, return them into the box to be kept. The rest, my friends, will go to the charity shop or the trash. Well, that’s the difficult part. Who wants to give a shiny, three-inch plastic flower-pot that wiggles when you pick it up to the trash can? Did my mother like this flower-pot? Did she pick it up and laugh? Or, did someone dear to her give it to her? (My sister denies it was her.) Nevertheless, this pink plastic flower-pot is in perfect condition. Plastic just doesn’t die!

In the spirit of the KonMari technique, and because my sister nags me every day, I am going to give it a try. I am going to release the flower-pot that wiggles!

Thanks to the author, I realize now that my mother’s possessions did not give me joy – I was only storing them out of guilt. I feel such freedom. Plus, my closets are now spacious.

Decluttering or simplifying our home, according to the author, is the first step to simplifying our life. When we clear away stuff, we free ourselves. Apparently her technique works as once she teaches clients how to organize their homes, her clients continue to practice her techniques – they live clutter-free forever. More significantly, they learn to release old habits and old thoughts, as well as letting go of stuff.

To me, that sounds pretty spiritual. Letting go of things that no longer work for me; letting go of ideas and thoughts that do not serve me or support me; simplifying life so that I can pay attention to what does serve me – my family, my friends, my home, my garden, my volunteer work. A simplified life frees me to spend more time doing things that give me joy, activities that increase my creativity, that expand my awareness and support my growth.

When I catch a glimpse of the red cardinal in our cobalt blue bird bath, I feel joy.  When I have more time to just sit with a hot tea in my hands, watching the autumn leaves fall from the maple tree at the corner of our yard, I am grateful for the simplicity of my daily life. My life is simple because I have chosen this life. I choose to be mindful of what gives me joy. And letting go of chaos and clutter are life-changing choices, also.

As young people we don’t understand why our parents give away their possessions, or why our parents refuse birthday gifts or return them later. As young people we spend a lot of time collecting stuff, not refusing it or giving it away. But as we grow older, as we grow in self-awareness, it becomes unnecessary to keep collecting, to keep buying…and for those who are ill or dying, they learn very quickly that it is not stuff they want, it is precious time that they crave now: Time to spend with loved ones, time to spend doing whatever inspires joy, and time to reflect on a life well-lived.

Often I repeat something that I learned many years ago…something that I heard again when I took a palliative course two years ago: When we are dying, we never cry out that we wished we had spent more time at work or more time making money to buy more things. Because when we are dying, we are just grateful for the love that surrounds us. In the end, love is the only thing that matters.

On my window sill over the kitchen sink I have a few beloved tokens: three Buddhas with their hands stretched out in loving kindness and generosity, my mother’s ring (which I wear with love always), my gratitude stone, and a tiny porcelain teapot, pink roses on the front, and inside the teapot are two tiny mice, each holding a cup of tea. The tiny, difficult-to-read inscription says,  Mother and Daughter.

This tchotchke gives me joy. All of the other stuff, I let go.

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Gifts from our Parents

P1040282During a difficult and challenging time in my life I began to write morning pages as an exercise to shine the light on my emotions and my stress.  (Morning pages writing exercise is from Julie Cameron’s book, The Artist’s Way.)

Morning pages is pretty simple: get up in the morning, and start writing three pages. The only rule is not to edit your writing. Let it flow.

According to author Julie Cameron, the mere act of writing three pages helps unblock our unconscious emotions and allows us to understand what is holding us back. To be honest, I go in fits and starts. Just when I make the writing exercise a habit (30 days), I go AWOL. (The smell of coffee lures me to a comfy chair; my yoga and meditation practice takes priority; my husband wants to go for a long walk by the river. Oh, the many temptations. Everything, but writing!)

But there is good news from this procrastinator: Some writing is better than no writing. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

But this I know: When I write morning pages consistently for a few weeks at a time, I always learn something new about myself. So many insights and self-awareness. And that is the point of the exercise.  (And, of course, to practise writing.)

When I was a little girl, our family often spent the summers camping in a tent.  Many mornings my father would rouse us from our comfortable, warm sleeping bags and insist that we trek down to the beach to watch the sun rise. We’re talking dawn, people. When you are very young, rising before dawn is not really your number one goal in life. Staying up late around the campfire, roasting marshmallows? Yes. Sitting on the beach in the dark before the sun comes up? Not so much.

But over the many years (My father has gone now; my mother was in a long-term nursing facility until recently. She died a few months ago.), I look back on those memorable moments on the beach with awe and deep gratitude. How lucky am I? My father gave us such a gift – nature transforms a navy blue sky into a golden, red glow each morning – a miracle to witness! My father honoured and savoured such moments. In his own indomitable way he shared with us all the beauty that he knew, instead of the ugly things that he had witnessed in his lifetime.

Sunrises, sunsets, camping in the woods, eating dinner on the beach (hot food kept warm in newspapers), standing in line to peer into a telescope to see a solar eclipse, jumping into the family sedan to drive to a better location to see a rainbow. While writing morning pages, I am flooded with memories of family outings, all outdoors. To this day, my sister and I relish nature in all its glory – we both often quote John Muir, “Nature is my Church.” For us, nature is the way (the portal) to our spirituality.

In retrospect, I often think of the many gifts that our parents gave us and I am always humbled that my father’s simple act of introducing nature transformed us.  It matters to me that the words and affection that he couldn’t show then, I now understand that his deeds and actions clearly reflected love. Only a loving father would share a sunrise or a sunset with his daughters. Only a loving father would recognize that nature (in all its beauty) would open our hearts and our minds to joy.

Gifts. In the beginning of a writing exercise, I didn’t intend to write about gifts, or my father, but that’s why this morning pages exercise is so powerful – it leads to self-discovery, themes, repetition, and insight. Oh, yes. It leads to answers to the great question, “What do I want?”

I want for nothing. I have what I need. I have so many gifts. Now, I just want to share them. As my parents did.

Just love. Just presence. Just acceptance.

Pink alliumsOnce again I am convinced that our loving energy is felt by someone with a dementia-related disease or Alzheimer’s. Even when our loved ones do not recognize us, they recognize the love….the loving energy that we bring to the relationship.

My friend told me that when she visits her mother in a long-term care facility that her mother does not know her name. She wasn’t certain if her mother even was aware that she was her daughter. But in spite of that challenge, my friend visits her mother often and has memorable visits each time.

I wanted to hear more. “Well, I often take her gifts – small items that are pretty, or soft, or glitter – you know, girly things!” Yes, I know. My sister and I searched high and low for pink stuff for my mom – pink flowers, pink vases, pink cards, pink clothing, pink nightgowns…even, books!

So, a pillow adorned with sequins, a soft blanket, a cozy afghan with multi-coloured stripes, these are the kinds of things that her mother loved to receive. And when she received them, she would tell her daughter, “Just put it on that chair so that I can see it as soon as I open my eyes each morning.”

Oh, how lovely! Yes, that is a gift that is very much appreciated.

How could her mother not be aware of the love and thoughtfulness of those gifts to her? Yes, I am certain that her mother can feel the love.

When my mother had a roommate in the hospital (another woman with Alzheimer’s), the roommate’s adult daughter said to me one time that she and other family members often crawled into their mother’s bed and snuggled up to her while she dropped off to sleep.

The woman told me that one time the granddaughter crawled into her grandma’s bed and asked her, “Grandma, do you know who I am?” Her grandma replied, “No, I don’t know you…but I can feel the love.”

Loving energy! It’s a real thing!

I wrote the following when I first began to blog last fall, a few months before my mother died; I am re-blogging it.

What if?
What if…when I visited my loved one, I had no ulterior motive, no hidden agenda and no expectations, except to be with my loved one?
What if…when I visited my loved one, I went with love; nothing else, just love?
What if…when I visited my loved one, I walked through the door, and said, “I’m here for you. You are not alone.”? Just that.
What if…when I visited my loved one, I said, “I’m sorry that you are ill, but know that you are not alone.”?
What if…when I visited my loved one, I left resentment, anger, guilt, anguish, stress and grief, outside? And instead, I carried into the room – peace, forgiveness (for yourself and for your loved one), kindness and compassion?
What if…when I visited my loved one, my presence…”healed” (in just a small way) their heart?
What if…when I visited my loved one, my presence mattered?
What if…when I visited my loved one, my presence (just by being me) kept them tethered to the present – this moment?
What if…when I visited my loved one, she (he) understands that I bring positive energy? And if not intellectually, what if intuitively, perceptually or spiritually they “feel” my loving energy? What if she does not know my name, but recognizes love?
What if…when I visited my loved one, I opened my eyes and recognized a face of joy, delight, pleasure and love?
What if…when I visited my loved one, I opened my heart?
What if?

Life stories and memories – gifts!

 

 

 

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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