Spiritual Practice: Aging Well

Aging

I’ve been thinking a lot about aging lately because, well, I am aging. I don’t feel any older inside, but the years keep adding up.

How do we look at aging as a spiritual practice?

I’ve watched my husband wrestle with these questions as he turned sixty-five and the warranty on his body seems to have expired. Suddenly he needs cataract surgery and hearing aids. With his spiritual director, he has come to a “letting go,” and “embracing of,” stance. You gotta understand. My husband is tall, handsome, with a full head of brown hair. He gets flirted with constantly and is often confused as our granddaughters’ father. These aging issues should feel like a personal affront to him, yet he is choosing to let go of what he has no control over and embrace the process of aging, looking for its gifts. And for him, these gifts are well worth the losses of aging.

This attitude seems to be the key in the books I’m reading on aging. Also, growing older does not mean stopping living.

parker plamer

Parker Palmer, in his fantastic book, On the Brink of Everything: Grace, Gravity and Getting Old, writes a series of essays about the aging process. I love this book for his warmth, honesty, and humor. One of my favorite quotes from the book is this:

“Old age is no time to hunker down unless disability demands it. Old is just another word for nothing left to lose, a time of life to take bigger risks on behalf of the common good.” Pg.2

Palmer speaks a lot about the importance of gratitude and the ability, to tell the truth in love, no longer needing to posture or pretend. That is beautiful. He also says we need to embrace everything inside us, our true selves and our shadows, with grace and love. This leads to our wholeness.

falling upward

That reminded me of a book by Richard Rohr, “Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” in which he describes one of the main tasks of the second half of life as sifting through the first half and making sense of it, learning its lessons, facing our shadows.  Rohr says this process is not necessarily about aging but after suffering a loss, any of us can begin this process of facing the difficult truths about ourselves, though some choose not to. As we do, we become wise instead of bitter. Parker agrees, saying these traumas can either break our heart apart or break it open to love more.  (pg. 161)

women rowing

Another book that has helped me is, “Women Rowing North: Navigating Life’s Currents and Flourishing as We Age.” In this book, Mary Pipher uses case studies describing how different women have navigated the aging process. She writes a lot about gratitude and the inner work of aging:

“This may be the most important thing – that we learn to grant ourselves mercy. That we forgive ourselves, that we accept our pain, mistakes, and vulnerability, and somehow manage to love ourselves and our own lives…It is only when we grant ourselves mercy that we can extend mercy to others.” Pg. 158

What I’m learning so far is that aging is about grieving and letting go of the physical losses we can’t control and working hard on the things we can control. Processing our lives, integrating our lessons, and being honest with ourselves about ourselves in grace and love. As we do this difficult inner work it frees us to give back to the world. It allows us, as Parker Palmer says, to “take bigger risks for the common good.”

What are you learning about the process of aging? Are there books you’d like to share?

 

 

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Spiritual Practice: Soul Care

Soul Care

Soul Care

What comes to mind when you think about caring for your soul? In ancient wisdom, the soul is made up of three distinct parts:

  • The Body,
  • The Mind, and
  • The Spirit.

Therefore, caring for the soul must also honor all three parts of who we are.

Wisdom of the Body

The body: We sometimes forget that our body is full of wisdom if we just take the time to listen. Try this: While sitting or lying quietly, let your mind scan your body. If there is any part that draws your attention, really focus on it. Then ask, “What do you need from me?” You’ll be surprised to hear that your body will be quick to tell you. It might just point out the obvious: “I need food, exercise or sex.” But, you might hear something more nuanced, “I need you to step out and take a risk,” “I need you to go see that dermatologist,” “I need more time to play.”

The mind: Sometimes we allow the second half of life to be so filled with caring for the needs of other’s that we forget to care for our own intellectual growth. During the third-third of life, we can be more intentional about this. Studies show that learning new things is important to healthy aging. So, take a class, read a challenging book, try an instrument, cook something you’ve never tried. The fun is in the newness and a learning brain is an awake brain. Awaken to new possibilities.

The Spirit: Contemplative Activist, Parker Palmer once said:

“The soul (spirit) is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”

I love this picture of sitting quietly, waiting for our spirit to appear. Making space for our spirit unfurl is a gift that the third-third of life can give us as we often have the luxury of more time. I highly recommend setting time aside to listen and breathe while expecting to hear. I think people are afraid of silence because with it they must come face to face with themselves. In silence, there is nothing to distract us from our shadow side. Yet, silence is a gift for in it we can see what in us needs healing, we can forgive ourselves and others, we can dream new dreams for the world.

Body, Mind and Spirit, all waiting to speak, we only need to take the time, to be still, and to listen. How do you listen to all three parts of who you are?

Here’s a book I wrote to help you learn how to listen. It’s fiction and it’s fun too!

 

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Spiritual Practice: Grieving

bathing the dying

Grieving is a spiritual practice? I believe it is and it’s one we often try to cut short, but it’s time to reevaluate grieving, it’s time to give it it’s due. I mean, even Jesus wept.

I’ve learned a lot about grief, personally and in my work as a hospice counselor. I guess if I had to summarize what I’ve learned about grief, I would say: White, non-Jewish Americans don’t have the practices in place to support a grieving process that allows the body, mind, and spirit of a person to truly heal after a loss.

Grieving is a beautiful, natural outcome of loss, but we just don’t know how to make space for it in our culture. Let me give some examples of grief I’ve seen in white, non-Jewish families and then compare them to that of other cultures.

I attended a death yesterday of the husband/father of a beautiful family that was quite typical in this way. When the father died, the mother rushed everyone out of the room while the funeral home attendant loaded the body onto a gurney, covered him completely with a blanket and took him out to an awaiting van. It was all very quiet. Then the wife looked at me with a blank expression and asked, “What do we do now?”

Typically, in these kinds of families, what happens next is a flurry of activity. Family and friends are called, the house is cleaned, insurances companies are informed, death certificates are ordered, funeral arrangements made, and the bereft has to make a million small decisions. This process takes about a week, maybe two. Then the funeral comes, an hour of remembrance about the loved one, and that’s it. Now you are expected to go back to work or life — as if your world didn’t just explode.

In a Jewish death, people observe Shiva: the mirrors are covered and people gather to sit with you at your house for a week to offer condolences. Often the dead body is lovingly washed by family. A candle burns in the home and everyone wears a black torn ribbon to symbolize grief. A Jewish friend of mine said when a family experiences a loss, they can turn down social invitations for a year without any bad feelings; I think that is beautiful.

My hospice agency had a Latino family who lost a beloved sister, and when we went to pronounce the death, the house was packed full of friends and family, weeping, wailing and eating together. Death in the Latino community is a communal affair. No one grieves alone. This is true in many other cultures and I believe communal grieving is extremely helpful in allowing the natural process of grief to occur. Grief can receive its full expression and is not cut short.

We need some rituals for our grieving. In the Hebrew Scriptures, grieving is taken seriously. There are psalms called Psalms of Lament and an entire book called Lamentations. Sadly these two sets of scripture have been removed from many modern prayer books. It’s as if we are afraid to give expression to our grief and we choose instead to “suck it up and be strong.” In my opinion, this leads to prolonged/unresolved grief and unhealthy bodies that have to carry unexpressed grief.

broken instrument

Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?

How can we learn to grieve well?

  1. Realize that loss is a natural part of life. Not just death, but any kind of loss: loss of a job, loss of a friend, loss of a pet, loss of your health…
  2. Lament is another name for deep grief. Cultures that lament together heal together. As a culture, we have a lot of things we need to lament together to heal our nation: let’s start with the loss of our national unity, or our failure to end racism or systemic injustice. What would it be like to lament that together? Might that be a starting place for the healing of our nation?
  3. Make room for grief in your life and give yourself permission to grieve. Take naps, wear waterproof mascara, eat chocolate, lower your expectations…
  4. Invite people into your grief so that you don’t have to grieve alone. Friends don’t know what to say to a grieving person but they usually want to help. Let them in on how you’re doing, accept offers of food, chores, and company.
  5. Brainstorm, in advance how you want to respond to grief so that you have some ideas/structures in place to help. There are many grief groups, generally offered by hospitals and hospices; those are important, especially if you don’t have family or friends who understand what you are going through.
  6. Remember that everyone grieves differently. There is no rule book to follow and those unhelpful reminders by others to, “get on with it,” are just that: unhelpful. It’s okay to stand up for your right to grieve in your own way.

We need to create new rituals to allow for grief. What new ways can we allow ourselves to heal through the power of grief? Are there ways that we can facilitate healthy grieving through art, music, or dance? How can religious/spiritual organizations help create these spaces? What can you add to the discussion? I’d love to hear ideas about how we can help each other grieve more freely.

For more spiritual practices check out my newest book, The Retreat: A Tale of Spiritual Awakening.

Photo Credit: Statute , Violin 

Embracing the Mystery: Moving Toward Unity In The Second Half Of Life

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Mysterious Forest in the Pacific Northwest

The goal of the second half of life is to move from “doing” to “being.” I heard that somewhere, probably from my spiritual director. But what does it mean? It does not mean we stop doing things or that we should not enjoy doing things. But our jobs, roles and things we do no longer come to define us.

I was sitting in a small room in Mercy Center with my wise spiritual mentor and a candle burning between us to symbolize the presence of the holy. I was pondering aloud the love and care I get from the “older” saints from my previous organization.

If you’re new to this blog, let me summarize: I worked for a large Christian organization for 30+ years, but I was asked to leave over a difference in theology. It was kind of a big deal. I believe that my rainbow friends should be fully included in the body of Christ and allowed to marry; my employer disagreed and we parted ways. In retrospect, it was best for both of us!

That was almost two years ago. I keep in touch with a few of my friends from those days, the ones that are more like family, but also, there are these “older” saints I mentioned. When I say older, I mean older than I am. Most have retired or are looking at retirement from this organization.

I guess I thought they would be the ones who would try and correct me or “give me a talking to.” But it was the complete opposite. They have not changed towards me at all. They continue to include me in their lives as if nothing had happened, and their love for me remains truly unconditional and sweet. They are like the grandparent who watches their grandchild with love and amusement as the child tries on different personalities in middle school. “Ah, it’s Jacci, isn’t she the cutest thing? I just love her.”

My spiritual director linked these two thoughts for me. As we find our identity in “being” and not “doing” we become more loving and patient with others who are also trying to find their way.

People always quote Richard Rohr to me on this topic. His book Falling Upward speaks to this idea. As we age, we can move closer to unity with Christ, and it puts everything else in its proper perspective. We worry less about who will the next president or if a football star stands for the national anthem. We can trust, listen, love and smile, knowing that others are on their path and I am on mine. It is quite freeing actually.

In full disclosure, I have not read Rohr’s new book, but it is on my short list. I did read this intriguing quote from it though:

“People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know that they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind.” 

So that is my goal. To move toward the mystery and not get bogged down in things I can’t control. I want to love like those older saints who have been so good to me.

How about you? What lessons are you learning as you mature?

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Bathing the Dying: how to care for those experiencing grief and loss

bathing the dying

I work in for a hospice company as the Bereavement Coordinator. This job encompasses my training in both pastoral care marriage and family therapy. Wanna see a family go haywire? Just have a member die. I get to be there when things are falling apart. I get to be a peaceful presence in a less than peaceful environment. I love that.

Most people, when told what I do, reply with something like: “Wow, I could never do that. It would be too depressing.” So far, I’ve found it to be anything but depressing. To me, if feels like holy work. It’s an opportunity to bring the Spirit of Peace to a family negotiating one of the worst experiences of their lives. Now, I’ll admit, I’m still new at this, and thankfully, my agency doesn’t work with dying kids. That might push me past my ability to be a calming presence. But so far, it’s been good.

The other day we were working with a family who lived on the margins. They were poor people, in a downtown weekly motel. This kind of living is one step up from homelessness. Living like this does not endear you to other people and this family had rarely been treated with respect. I happened to open the door of their one-room home and come face to face with a holy moment. Our CNA was washing the hair of the dying woman. Her toothless wasted body was two days from death and yet our CNA was lovingly bathing her, gently washing her hair.

IMG_9607

The beauty of the action stopped me in my tracks, and I finally backed out of the room with the image seared onto my corneas like a Michelangelo painting. Similar images from the life of Christ flooded my vision: The prostitute who anointed Jesus with the tools of her trade: her tears, her perfume, her hair. There was Jesus’ friend, Mary of Bethany, who unknowingly anointed his body for burial with her gift of costly perfume. There were Joseph and Nicodemus, who prepared his body for burial. And finally, the women who went to prepare his body with spices, after the Sabbath, and found him missing.

The Jews knew about preparing a body for burial; they were not afraid of it, but saw it as a loving and holy act, a precious responsibility. The washing of the dead is a ritual of love that most of us unless we work in a funeral home, are totally unfamiliar with. But in many Jewish circles, it is still done. The family prepares the body after death in a ritual called Tahara. The body is washed and wrapped in a plain white cloth, so there will be no attachment to earthly things and no stigma for the poor. For the same reason, the casket is plain, and also must biodegrade so the body can go back into the earth. Then the family and their friends sit “Shiva” for a week of mourning and the bereaved are not expected to attend social events for a year. What wonderful rituals these are to honor the loss of a loved one.

We non-Jews have lost something significant in these rituals. For us, death has become sterilized. We die and our body is removed by men in black suits that come from a mortuary – looking somber. Or worse, if someone dies unexpectedly, like my mother did, and an ambulance is called, a death room can look more like a crime scene with fire trucks, police, flashing lights, and a coroner. We have funerals or memorial services that are over in an hour. If we are lucky, friends bring us food. But after a week or two, we are left alone with our sorrow.

Recently I sat with a man whose wife, his love of sixty years, was dying. Sixty years! How is he supposed to recover from that? He can’t. He won’t. We shouldn’t expect him to. But we can be there to listen to his rage at her loss, to honor his tears, to hear the stories of their wonderful life together. We can be there to bathe the dead, to open a holy space for the Spirit of Peace to come in.

In what ways have you been able to bathe the dying? How has someone bathed you in your times of grief?

Grieving As Transformation

cup

Last week, to honor the one-year anniversary of my mother’s sudden death, and the six-month anniversary of my job loss, I attended a grief workshop.

About twenty of us sat in a circle around a beautiful, multi-tiered display of broken mugs. There were many kinds, colors, and shapes of mugs. Some were merely chipped, some were smashed, and some had no handle. The analogy centered on Psalm 3:12 which says, “I have become like a broken vessel.”

We were told to pick a mug that resembled how we felt, and then we had twenty minutes to spend thinking through some questions we were given about the mug and our grieving process.

The people in the group were all over the map in their grief work: one woman looked like she was still in shock, head bowed, eyes wide, unable to speak. Her husband had died six months ago and he was only in his forties.

One man had lost his wife two years ago, but described his heart as “shattered.” He looked like he was on the verge of a physical heart shattering with the level of pain he was still holding in.

Some had lost grown children, others lost parents who left them orphaned, as only children, with no children of their own for comfort. Each had their own process of grief.

Some were not grieving the death of a loved one, but a divorce or retirement from a beloved profession.

I chose a cup with no handle because losing my mother and my job felt like losing the things I held on to, the things that took a large chunk of my time and made up a large part of my identity.

But as I examined my cup I saw that it was still beautiful, useful and mostly intact. I saw that it could function very well without its handle…life was going on for me and for the most part, my life is very beautiful. I have a wonderful husband and fantastic children and grandchildren. I work, I write, I have a ministry. I am happy.

When we returned from our time of reflection, we talked about our cups. Everyone had found hope in this exercise in some small way. It gave us words for our experience of grief.

At lunch, we put our cups at the foot of the cross in the chapel. Later, when we returned, there was a new display at the center of the room: it contained beautiful, colorful, whole cups. We were each allowed to choose one and take it home. A cup of blessing.

I realized that I have come far in my grieving process. I am letting go. I’m sure there will be times when I continue to be blindsided by grief, but I have come a long way in healing. And the point of this exercise drove home for me that grief can lead us to transformation, to new places of depth, compassion, and growth. (Tweet This)

In one handout adapted from Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy by J. William Worden, Ph.D., it listed four stages of grief which I will briefly sketch here:

    1. To accept the reality of the loss: When someone dies, even if death is expected, there is always a sense that it hasn’t happened. The first task of grieving is to come full face with the reality that the person is dead.
    2. To experience the pain of grief: Many people (and society) try to avoid painful feelings. You must allow yourself to experience and express your feelings, difficult though they may be.
    3. To adjust to an environment in which the deceased is missing: There may be many practical daily affairs you need help and advice with, but there will be a great sense of pride in being able to master these challenges.
    4. To withdraw emotional energy and reinvest it in another relationship: The final task is to effect an emotional withdrawal so that this emotional energy can be used in continuing a productive life.

I learned that each person’s grief is completely unique. It doesn’t really help to compare our grief or expect another to grieve like we do. But, it does help to share the human experience of grief with others who are going through it.

Where are you at in your grief experience? What kind of cracked cup are you and what does God say about it? I’d love to hear about your grief experience so we can hold our cups up together and toast a life of transformation.

 

 

Blindsided! Surviving Grief, Loss, and Disappointment

blindsided

A year later: I’m still in awe of the support and encouragement of our friends during our Blindside!

My mom died a month ago, suddenly, in her sleep, just died. Did I mention it was a shock?

When something shocking happens, it sends us reeling in a way few other things can. In Baz Luhrmann’s famous graduation speech – Everybody’s Free (To Wear Sunscreen,) he says a line that has stuck with me and comes back to me at times like this:

The real troubles in your life are apt to be things that
never crossed your worried mind; the kind that blindsides you at 4pm
on some idle Tuesday.

I’ve been blindsided on a few idle Tuesday’s as I’m sure you have. It might be an unexpected death, losing your job, getting a bad diagnosis from the doctor, or being betrayed by a friend. It “knocks the wind out of you,” “pulls the rug out from under you” or otherwise “smacks you upside the head.” We spend a lot of time trying to find words to describe these experiences.

How do we handle it?

How can others help?

When Mom died, David and I spent the week following trying to find words for how we felt. I might say, “I feel like I’ve been beaten with baseball bats,” or he’d say, “I’m totally fried.” Last week I had an experience that gave me the perfect metaphor for the shock I had experienced.

I was walking around a lake in Chicago, it was a beautiful day and I was noting how the forest around me had taken a beating during their rough winter. The ground was littered with broken branches. Ahead of me, the only other person in sight was a man on a backhoe removing some of the branches from a path. He was working away and since I was a lone woman in the middle of nowhere, I was doing a threat assessment. How fast could I run if he turned out to be a bad guy?

Suddenly, his backhoe hit something, there was a loud “bang” and as I looked up, a spray of some kind of liquid covered his entire torso, including a direct hit to his face. Then, it wasn’t about me anymore, it was about him. I ran up to see if he needed help. I thought maybe he’d just been scalded with boiling water from an overheated engine or something.

He was sputtering and wiping what turned out to be oil, from his face. He looked confused and was just trying to breathe and figure out if he was okay. My presence seemed to help comfort him and he found a hanky and wiped his eyes and face. We talked about what had happened, I described what I had seen and he was able to find a broken hose that had caused the trouble. I left him to it and later, on the way home from my walk, he was driving back in the opposite direction and waved.

It hit me then, that is exactly how I felt when mom died. I was working hard; David and I were loading the car for a trip to visit a student in Chico when I got the call. Suddenly I was stopped in my tracks by a blast of the unexpected. I was confused, sputtering, trying to breathe, and wondering if I would be okay. Many people rushed to us, offering Kleenex and casseroles. And life has forever moved in a different direction.

rembrandt-prodigal-son-detail2

Yep, that’s how it felt for me; I’m wondering what words have been helpful in defining your grief?
And also, how did others help you?

A friend asked me today, “Where did you see God when all this was happening?” My answer was, through people. One friend came right over and sat with me while I filled out papers at the mortuary. Friends brought food, flowers, and wine. One asked what we needed from the store. I said “Milk,” and she brought it right over. We were barraged by lovely cards, Facebook messages, and offers of help. My kids were amazing, giving constant love and support. And for the memorial, I sent out an email to my friends asking them to bring food and never thought about it again. I never even went down into the church’s kitchen area until it was time to eat. Everything had been set up and the tables were laden with food. Yep, my friends were the hands and feet of God to us during our hardest time, and I feel rich indeed.

Now I feel better equipped to respond to others who get blindsided on an idle Tuesday. But everyone’s grief experience is different.

What have you found to be helpful?

 

Second photo from Rembrandt’s Prodigal