Tag Archives: mindfulness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thoughts are fleeting.

Road work is not.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meditation and a viewfinder

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

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

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

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

Makeshift artist's studio

Makeshift artist’s studio

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We complicate things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

Caregiving and Mindfulness: Gifts

overnight, autumn crocus appears

overnight, autumn crocus appeared

There are a lot of articles, blogs, books, videos and websites that focus on those who care for people who have Alzheimer’s and other dementia-related diseases.

And that’s because the role of caregiver is not an easy one. Whether one cares for a person full-time or part-time, the stress is unbelievable.

One of the reasons there is so much content on the Web and support for the caregiver is because many caregivers become ill or undergo life-threatening illnesses themselves, perpetuated by the stress.

From my own personal journey (and watching others care for their parents) I have learned that a great deal of the stress is caused by our non-acceptance of the disease and non-acceptance of our new reality.

For me, mindfulness and acceptance led me to a new awareness of the disease, to a more fulfilling relationship with my parents, and to a new way of dealing with loss and sorrow, as well as aging and death.

Mindfulness led me to loving kindness and compassion for both my parents who had Alzheimer’s, and for myself. I had spent a lot of time beating myself up in the past, and self-compassion completely transformed me.

Mindfulness is really just another word for awareness or paying attention. And most people who do not practice mindfulness or meditation are completely unaware of their underlying emotions and thoughts. Thoughts and emotions are connected – we cannot have negative thoughts without a negative emotion following.

When we live in a hurry-up culture and a culture that emphasizes the ego, most of us are in the dark about how other people feel; most of us don’t pay attention to our own bodies or emotions, let alone another person’s.

The challenge of caring for someone who has a dementia-related disease leaves very little time for the caregiver to dwell on his own emotional state. And that’s a problem.

Because it is in mindfulness or sitting in silence (or meditation) where insights to our real state of mind occur.

Most caregivers spend their day supporting their loved one and managing their symptoms: toileting, bathing, dressing, feeding, laundry, doctor appointments, and management of medicines/prescriptions. Sometimes the person is in a wheelchair or uses a walker or cane so heavy lifting or supporting the individual is necessary throughout the day and night, a physical toil.

Many nights the bed linens will need to be stripped and laundered. And most times, pajamas, too.

If the parent or loved one has ‘sundowning’ (which is fairly common – day and night turned around) then the caregiver will be awakened throughout the night and on “high alert” to listen for the night wanderings. Unfortunately, the person with a dementia-related disease is often agitated at this time and symptoms become more difficult to manage. Ultimately this translates into less sleep for everyone in the household – especially for the person with the disease and for the primary caregiver.

As I wrote in my free-eBook, meals, laundry and housekeeping will need to be attended to throughout the day – meals, snacks, drinks, toileting, personal care; repeat.

The individual will need to have regular medical check-ups, blood work, hospital appointments, and prescription pick-up. Banking and financial matters will be the primary caregiver’s responsibility, along with your loved one’s home maintenance and responsibilities, not to mention your own home’s maintenance and care.

And sadly, most of these tasks will need to be done with cajoling and subtle manipulation so that the individual will oblige. Many persons with Alzheimer’s will be upset with the caregiver, stubborn, angry or resistant and demanding at times as their world is changing too quickly for them to understand and their loss of control is terrifying to them. Many stubborn acts of resistance are due to their fear – that is the only way for them to express their loss of control. Both the person with Alzheimer’s and the caregiver will be emotionally and physically weary.

Caregiving fatigue will often follow and it has many symptoms: fatigue, sleep deprivation, anxiety, stress and depression. And the experts remind us that stress leads to illness (which makes us more stressed).

When our stress levels become so high, we become disinterested in life and we begin to lose hope that this difficult journey will ever end. Did I just write that we begin to lose hope that this difficult journey will ever end? What kind of horrible caregiver am I to think such a thought? Now, I am more stressed.

What if I told you that it is normal to feel some resentment, anger and guilt while caregiving? What if I told you that while doing research over the years, that I have discovered that it is perfectly normal (when stressed to the max and so bone-weary) to have such emotions?

We cannot take care of ourselves and hope to heal if we cannot feel compassion for ourselves and that process begins with recognition and awareness of our thoughts and emotions.

And that is where mindfulness is the key to healing ourselves.

Our anger or resentment or caregiver fatigue is a red flag to remind us that we are off-balance – we need to pay attention to an issue that hasn’t yet been accepted or resolved. (Perhaps you have not accepted that your loved one has this disease, and so you are still fighting it. Or, perhaps you resent the time that it takes to care for someone because it means less time to care for your spouse and children. Or, perhaps you are caring for your spouse, and deep down you are terrified of being left alone.)

If we sit just for a few minutes throughout the day, in silence and in stillness, and ask ourselves a few questions:

Why do I feel this resentment?

Why am I so angry?

Why do I feel guilty?

Why am I trying so hard to be the perfect, supportive caregiver?

Allow yourself to just sit with whatever arises.

With honesty and truthfulness, allow yourself to look at your situation, at your relationship with your loved one, at the disease, and the sorrow and the sadness.

Allow your feelings and your thoughts to come up. We cannot heal if we do not recognize and then accept these emotions that we have been spending so much time trying to hide. We think if we push the emotions down or away (or ignore them) that we will be able to carry on. But the truth is that these emotions (without addressing them) will become toxic and harmful. The truth is these emotions never go away or disappear – they just fester.

Recognition and acceptance of our underlying emotions can (in time) lead to compassion for ourselves, and this self-compassion will lead to forgiving ourselves. When we begin to forgive ourselves with compassion, we will open our hearts to forgiving others. Our compassion will expand towards others, and kindness and love will enter.

It’s a heavy burden to feel guilt and resentment when caring for a loved one. Imagine how freeing it is to allow ourselves recognition, acceptance, and forgiveness of our emotions.

Imagine how healing it is when we accept that we are mourning for our loved one – even though he/she hasn’t died! (Yes, it is normal to grieve before your loved one dies – anticipatory grief.)

It’s okay and normal to mourn the many losses that surround the prognosis of Alzheimer’s disease: our loved one is no longer the person that he was; perhaps our loved one does not remember us; our loved one cannot support himself; our loved one has lost many of his abilities; our relationship has changed – we are the primary carer now (the roles have reversed); we are fearful of the future and what it may bring; our life has been drastically altered; our own health and well-being has suffered; perhaps our family sees less of us because we devote a full day to caregiving; we want our old life back, before Alzheimer’s entered our life. And we are full of sorrow when we see how our loved one suffers. We are heart-broken.

Once we face our fears (and name them aloud), we are able to let go of them, almost as if these thoughts that float around in our subconscious create havoc wherever they land, and once acknowledged – that is we pay attention to them – they begin to shrivel up and slowly dissipate. (Have you ever had ideas and thoughts jumbling around (portmanteau word: a jumble that tumbles) making no sense, and then began to write? Just the process of writing your stream of consciousness helps. As if we pluck these ideas from the interior muddle, and plop them down onto paper and poof! They no longer randomly float in our head. The muddle clears.)

I often think of Pema Chodron, Tibetan Buddhist, who advises us that when we run from the monster in our nightmare, we are terrified…but when we stop and turn around and finally stare the monster down…we find peace. The monster shrinks in size, and when he shrinks, we become more aware of his vulnerability. We begin to feel seeds of compassion for the monster.

When we dwell in our heads with thoughts and fears about… what if?… we are not present. When we wish the difficult journey was over or that it had never happened, we are rejecting the present moment. We are rejecting our reality; we are rejecting life as it unfolds.

Caregiving is a challenge, and there is no denying that fact. But when we cannot accept the prognosis or our reality, the challenge will even be more difficult. Most importantly, our time with our loved one will be fraught with stress and sadness.

Mindfulness or being present or paying attention to the present moment will lead us to a compassion-filled journey. It will allow us to be authentic. We will mourn, yes. We will cry, yes. But those moments will be real. We will not try to deny our sadness. Instead, we will lean into them and just feel them. Allow them space. And it is in that space, that Grace enters. And as Thich Nhat Hanh often reminds us to tell ourselves, “My darling, I am here for you.”

When we allow compassion, love and Grace to enter, our awareness will begin to notice the joy and the love within the sorrowful moment.

While I mourned by my mother’s bedside while she was dying, I watched the sun rise each morning. The magnificent palette of the skies will stay in my memory bank forever, as will the loving and kind gestures of the staff. Those moments are joy and love-filled, side by side with sorrow and tears.

Mindfulness allows for an easier journey because it will be filled with little sacred moments – of laughter, peace and fulfillment, reconciliation and forgiveness. Sorrow and tears, too.

Gifts; all gifts.

 

 

 

A new dawn; a new sunset – book-ends

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sun rise on the way to London

When I arose just after six this morning, my living room was pink. The white sheer window shades allowed the sky’s dawn to enter in all its glory. The pink had saturated the walls and ceiling and when I scrunched my eyes, I am almost certain that even the air was pink.

But the rosy glow didn’t last long, and by the time I turned away from the screen door as I watched the sky’s pink palette, the magic had disappeared in my living room.

I never get tired of the show. It’s the reason I am an early riser.

The sunrise and the sunset of each day are gifts – gifts that bookend each of my days. The simple ritual of breathing in the dawn’s glory, and hours later, breathing out the dusk allows me to make a mental realignment.

A realignment that grounds me. I become centered, focused on living mindfully. My bookends allow me to be present, in awareness: to stop and listen to the sparrows and wrens that live within the branches of the viburnum (that should be pruned, but I don’t want to disturb their homes); to pause when the Harbor Bay bell that hangs from the shed that my father built us twenty years ago, gongs – a gong that resonates so beautifully that no matter who is in the yard, they stop and savour the sound; to kneel beside a resident in the long-term care home where I volunteer, to listen deeply, and witness her story.

The shed that Dad built

The shed that Dad built

harbour-bay-bell

harbor bay bell

My mind is cluttered with thoughts throughout the hours – mindfulness does not eliminate them. But the practice allows me to align them – to at least put some order to them.

I’m aware of the big questions in life: Who am I? What do I want? What is my purpose?

And mindfulness allows me compassion for myself and those thoughts that consume me – never-ending thoughts, like books stuffed in a bookcase – piled high, teetering on chaos.

Mindfulness allows me to peruse the titles: Nature, Family, Aging and Disease, Death, Creativity, Art, Writing, and more. The shelves are crammed.

Mindfulness allows me to be the observer – detached, yet alert. I notice the thoughts that often consume me when I am walking. I write in my head, stories that I discard later or save to paper. I draw in my head. Water and the elements of nature are a never-ending, repetitive meme. What colour is that blue? I must learn how to use watercolours. OMG, is that sky not the most beautiful thing ever? The pink of that canna lily reminds me of the shawl that we bought my mother one Christmas – the same shawl that my sister now wraps around her shoulders during meditation.

The observer within me embraces all of the subtitles: envy, judgment, inadequacy. (I own the series of all of those subtitles.)

But here’s the thing: mindfulness allows me to recognize the two prevailing themes that underline all of my thoughts. Love and fear. Thankfully, this life-transforming strategy opens my heart to self-care and compassion – self-care and compassion lead to gratitude, joy, love and acceptance.

Acceptance means that I recognize the thoughts that I have – of envy, judgment, inadequacy – I recognize the titles, I thumb through a few pages, and then I discard them. Enough. Life is too short to read the book. Instead, I recognize the fear and I just sit with it. I have learned to trust that soon those thoughts will disappear.

Thoughts are transitory; impermanent; illusions.

The joy that I experienced this morning while in the pink glow will return tonight when I experience the sky as the sun disappears.

Tonight. Tomorrow morning. Tomorrow evening.

The jumble of thoughts and all its disorder and chaos will realign itself. I will re-set.

And it is this re-set that reassures me that all is well.  I am. Cluttered mind and all.

Whether I need to re-set multiple times throughout the hours (and that is inevitable), or I simply observe the thoughts, I learn to accept the moment. Whether the books are jumbled or the tomes are straight and orderly – I am content to be in my skin (and in my mind).

I have learned that if I am not content…I wait. My thoughts will dissipate and new ones will replace them.

The library in my mind is ever-changing.

Sunrise, sunset. Bookends. Gifts.

sunset at Canatara

sunset at Canatara

 

Why continue to blog?

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

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

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

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

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

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

I know this without any doubt.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Sketching, mindfulness, and meaning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

sketch of the day

Drawing blue herons is a favourite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Song Sparrow Nuthatch

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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