Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The First Step to Embracing Change is Letting Go

The highlight of the TV season this winter for me will be the return of Downton Abbey on PBS. To prepare the way, UNC-TV has been re-running the first season episodes. When I returned home on Sunday from a jolly Christmas celebration in Asheville with many members of my family, I was happy to snuggle into my comfortable recliner and spend an hour and a half back in the early nineteen hundred’s with the upstairs and downstairs folk who people the mansion. In one scene two of the senior staff are having a conversation about the housekeeper’s decision not to accept a proposal of marriage from a man she had turned down once before when she was young. Now he is a widower and has proposed again, but she has decided to decline.

“I’ve changed,” she says. “I’m not that farm girl any more.”
The butler responds, “What would be the point of living if we don’t let life change us.”

I’ve had an episodic Christmas season so far this year as I made plans reflexively based on an earlier me, and then had to keep changing them as nearly every day unforeseen circumstances derailed the hoped for pre-Christmas preparation. I had planned to make several gifts, do some cooking and baking of traditional holiday food, decorate the house; in short, I was going to replicate at least some of the old family traditions. Last week, I had a liberating moment when I just let go of it all. I spent a little time asking myself what would actually be possible and what was necessary for my own contentment. I decided that “nothing” was the answer to both questions. The half-done presents will be finished for other occasions in the future, and the presence of my children and their spouses, my grandchildren (some with spouses) and my great-grandchildren was all I needed to be content.

By letting go of the preparation for traditions of Christmases Past, I made time and space for several holiday gatherings before Christmas and a more leisurely preparation for the family members staying here in my guesthouse. I also had time to help and support several friends facing unexpected problems and to get my annual Christmas letter in the mail. On Saturday morning, I listened at leisure to the Lessons and Carols from King’s College in Cambridge, England; that service has been my Yuletide church since my husband Bill died.

My holiday celebrations this year included Hanukkah, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and some of us will be together for New Year’s Day. Because I let go, it has been easy for me to be part of these gatherings without any quivering sense of responsibility for the outcomes.  I was a listener and an observer, and whenever it was easy, I was a participant.

My grandson Miles and his wife Polly drove me home on Christmas evening from the overnight stay in Asheville where we gathered on Saturday afternoon and moved back and forth between two houses. We picked up my dog Nigel from his visit with a household that includes three other poodles and drove through soft darkness to my carport, well lit with my LED ropes. I savored a bowl of hot oxtail soup, the gift of a neighbor, delivered the day before. I was wrapped in the aura of comfort and contentment and contemplated the joys of the past 30 hours.

In my mind’s eye, I saw the faces, remembered funny comments, heard again the sounds of the baby and the small children and relished the easy interaction among generations. With the passage of time my children and their chosen spouses had become parents and aunts and uncles. My grandchildren are cousins to each other and four of them have chosen spouses. So many traits run through the mix reminding me of Bill and seeing some reflections of myself. But I also see the less familiar interests, personality quirks and particular graces brought to this rich mix through marriage.

I can recognize so clearly now how life has changed me. There was a time I could not have let go of my plans, but would have worked late into many nights and been exhausted on Christmas Day and quite possibly down with a cold by New Year’s. The last ten years have brought the most change as grief, illness and my slow, but determined recovery have deepened my spiritual journey and re-ordered my priorities. It’s comfortable for me to be the watcher, storing up the pictures and impressions and small joys to ponder in my heart during the winter. It is a great relief to have others creating the magic of Christmas and to have Polly sing the prayer of gratitude for light while she is lighting the candles on the Menorah. Bill and I shared many dreams and he lived long enough to fulfill most of them. Now I am grateful that I have lived long enough to see the generations flourish as they now dream their dreams, make choices, and let themselves be changed by life.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Hanukkah, Solstice, Christmas: Let Your Light Shine

Glenside Methodist church is ablaze with candles, the only source of light. The soft chatter of the congregation during the prelude subsides as the children’s choir files in silently. They stand in two neat rows near the altar, which is decorated with bright red poinsettias and fragrant boughs of pine. The organist sounds a single note to give the pitch and their high voices sing “How far is it to Bethlehem?” The answer comes antiphonally in the deeper tones of the adult choir waiting in the vestibule, “Not very far.” The questions and answers of the carol start the narrative that will be revealed in hymns, anthems and readings.

This was the annual Candlemas in the church of my childhood. The service was held on the Sunday afternoon before Christmas, beginning as darkness fell. It was the essence of Christmas to me as I grew from the children’s choir to sing with the youth and eventually the adults. Annually it marked the start of our family celebration. In those childhood days I knew nothing about Solstice or Hanukkah, or the customs involving bonfires, torches and candlelight prevalent in northern hemisphere countries throughout history. During my freshman year in a Catholic college, I took a course in the history of Europe. For the first time, I learned about the process of folding the traditional observances of other religions and cultures into the celebration of Christian Holy Days during the early spread of the Holy Roman Empire.

Just a few years before my husband Bill died, we spent a week in colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, to be there for the Festival of Lights that began a month-long revelry in celebration of the season. We had gotten a promotional offer from our timeshare company to spend an off-season week in Williamsburg —for a mere $200—in a brand new facility, located at the edge of the restoration area. When we left our luxurious apartment, complete with an indoor hot tub and a fireplace, we walked back into the 18th Century in ten minutes. As night drew nigh on the day of the Festival it was very dark. We had been given a booklet with the history of such festivals along with a program for the opening night and a description of the often-bawdy revelries that would be available in various venues during our stay.

But nothing could prepare us for the excitement and wonder as candles were lit in every window of every building by costumed staff, while musicians strolled through the streets playing bagpipes. We had gone early and found seats on a bench close to the prepared bonfire which had firecrackers mixed in with the logs and kindling. The flames lit up the night, and a band began to play colonial era Christmas music. For centuries humankind had been lighting up the night of the Solstice with fires and torches to woo the sun back to the northern sky in time for the spring planting. In that moment in Williamsburg I believed I could feel what they must have felt as the flames leapt up toward the sky on those long, cold, winter nights.

In suburban America the darkness of winter is muted by the extravagant well-lit panoramas on rooftops and front yards, while the cities are lit from dusk to dawn with commercial displays and security lights. I live in a dark place with no streetlights and little or no ambient glow. On a clear night I can see the Milky Way. My Christmas lights had gradually faded as tiny bulbs failed, so this year I commissioned my grandson Miles to get me new white lights. The ones he brought are LED ropes. My daughter-in-law Tammy wrapped them around the upright supports of the carport roof and along my flower boxes. They’re on a timer and give me my own little festival of lights every evening.

Tonight is the first night of Hanukkah, another Festival of Lights, which Robin, Tammy and I will be celebrating with Miles and his wife Polly. Tomorrow is Solstice, which I plan to celebrate with Nigel on a night walk around my front yard in response to a beautiful card from a friend that asked me to join him  “in singing up our Mother Sun at Solstice, for how she moves, spiraling through everything.” During our Christmas season, I will be in the presence of 19 members of my family. I will hold my newest great-grandson and watch the others play. I will listen to the adults as they talk and laugh and share their opinions. They will be my bonfires to light up any dark corners in my life.

So let us light our candles and our LED ropes and sing to the sun to celebrate the moment of turning. Let us lift every voice and sing our hymns and carols and songs. Let us play the music that gives us joy. In the spirit of the season, let us deepen our faith with whatever liturgy or practice helps us do that. Let us stand for peace and justice and love, and let us give thanks for what is good in each of our lives.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Nigel and the Down Days

“Donna Jean, I think you should get a dog after I’m gone,” Bill said during the long summer of his dying. He went on to tell me he had read that people live longer if they have a pet. They walk more, are less lonely, feel more secure, and have something to take care of. At that point in my life there was not much appeal in the thought of something else to take care of. In his last days, he brought it up again and said,” Please promise me you’ll get a dog after I die.”

“Anything I promise you now will be like a sacred vow. So I don’t want to promise that, but I will promise you that I’ll give it serious consideration.”

And so, in the  depths of my illness following the death of my husband of fifty years, as I abided in a state of sadness, I started thinking about a dog. I already knew it had to be small and because of my mild allergy to dog dander, it had to be one of the several breeds that do not shed. Although I didn’t feel like I fit the miniature poodle stereotype, I had come to appreciate them during many visits with my friend Dana and her poodles. As a breed, they are smart, easy to train, playful and devoted. In the winter of 2005, I wrote in my journal that I was ready for a dog and I hoped the universe would beam me down a miniature poodle.

Dana put me in touch with the breeder where she had gotten one of her dogs, and some five months later I got an email from “Poodle Heaven” announcing five puppies were available. By the time I was able to talk with the breeder, there was only one dog left. I knew the universe had spoken, and he was my dog. “I’ll take him,” I said with no reservations. As instructed I went to the post office the next day and sent a money order. When I saw Nigel a week later, it was love at first sight for us both.

Taking on a puppy while I was still sick was daunting, but I followed the method laid out by the Monks of New Skete. I also welcomed the proffered help of my friend Mary, who is a dog agility trainer when she’s not busy being a university professor. I was quite sure that as an older dog owner, I needed a well-trained companion. I got so much more. Not only is he smart, he also has that doggy intuition that tells him when I am unhappy or not feeling well. He stays close and becomes very calm. He has the bark of a bigger dog, and warns me if anyone is moving around outside. I like taking care of him, and in return he takes care of me.

 As Bill predicted I do get out and walk no matter what the weather (unless it’s below freezing) because Nigel needs the exercise too. We have a daily playtime inside which adds to my flexibility. I throw his favorite toys and he fetches them. In nice weather if we play outside, he’ll often break into his exuberant flying run, making big circles around me, drawing me into his boundless joy.

It would be a disservice to you, my readers, if I created an impression that I have old age all figured out. I don’t live a Pollyanna life, incessantly playing the glad game and feeling good about everything. Down days, or parts of days, come along fairly often. I can easily feel overwhelmed, and struggle with my two personal burdens: feeling that I need to be doing my part as a neighbor and citizen, and a sense of obligation to show up for local events, church services or parties. Even though I no longer have the desire to be active outside my home, I struggle with the feeling that I am shirking some kind of a duty.

Although I realized several years ago that the way to live expansively with contracting resources is to do less, the choices that entails are often difficult. I spent much of my life as an activist and although I am temperamentally well suited to a home-centered life, my knee-jerk reaction is to say yes even when my heart is saying no. My mother’s rule was that when you were feeling down you should do something for someone who is in worse shape than you are. That’s no longer much help for me, because it simply piles on more obligation. So how do I handle the down days? Meditation helps a great deal. Sometimes talking it over with my son Robin or one of my close friends will give me a better outlook. Listening to music, working a crossword puzzle, baking cookies, knitting or sewing are all things that can help restore my good spirits. Naming my blessings is another way to shift my focus from sadness to gratitude.

But the truth is usually it is Nigel who breaks the down cycle. Without him around, I might not go out for a walk on such a day, especially if low spirits are accompanied by low energy, which is often the case. If it is time for a walk, Nigel lets me know. When I am at the computer, he comes and bumps my hand off the keys. If I am morosely staring out the window, he’ll go to a spot on the carpet where he sits with his eyes glued to the door—I have dubbed it the waiting spot. I invariably feel better after a walk.  But if the doldrums are deep and abide with me still, I’ll return to my recliner, nurse my sadness and build a misery heap out of whatever’s bothering me. Then Nigel will hop up into my lap with most of his body upright against my chest. He’ll turn his face up to mine and fix my gaze with his dark brown eyes and I can imagine he’s thinking, “Don’t be sad, Donna Jean.”

In those moments I turn my thoughts to Bill and silently thank him for urging me to share my single life with a dog.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Meditation: Concern about My Immune System Led the Way

During my years of grief and illness, I was plagued by anxiety. Every small concern made me anxious. Even when my cognitive process could readily dismiss the fear scenario, the feelings persisted. The marvelous doctor of infectious diseases who cared for me during my battle with MAI told me that the mycobacterium that causes the disease is found everywhere in soil and water, but usually falls victim to our immune systems. She went on to say that when she finds the disease in some one with my demographic, she typically also discovers a compromised lung and a depressed immune system. In my case, the lung compromise was from an earlier bout of aspiration pneumonia, and the doctor believed my immune system was depressed from years of broken sleep (as I cared for my husband Bill), followed by the stress of grief.

In my worst period of sickness and drug side effects, the phone rang one morning and the cheery voice of my friend Lynn babbled on excitedly about the Jon-Kabat Zinn Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which she had just completed.  She concluded her words of praise by saying, “It’s also supposed to improve your immune system.” That got my attention and I accepted her offer to visit me and explain more about MBSR and to share a meditation time with me.

Back in the turbulent sixties when young people were trying everything, I was particularly disturbed by the various cults that made the news. Transcendental Meditation and Hare Krishna, among others, seemed to be based on mind control and were very scary to me. In my fragile state as I waited for Lynn to arrive, those memories fueled my anxiety about Jon Kabat-Zinn and his stress reduction program.

I was raised in a religion-centric home by a mother who examined everything through a spiritual microscope. I was greatly enriched by the exposure she gave me to that dimension of life, but I also arrived at adulthood with many unsettled questions about faith and doctrine. Spending my freshman year in a Catholic college, where I was assigned a room on the top floor of the convent, exacerbated the confusion I felt. As a sophomore I transferred to a Methodist College, where I felt more at home. There I took some philosophy courses, majored in psychology and reveled in late night dorm discussions of belief and altruism. Heady times, those college years!

In Quaker Meetings I had learned how to use the silence to still my mind and become centered in the worship. During my many years of association with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), I was able to sort out the issues left from my childhood and come to a place of comfort in regard to faith and practice. In my forties I started to go to yoga classes, which often began with a short period of silent meditation. For me it was like an extension of the Quaker silence.

But thirty years later, in the dark days of solitude, sickness and uncertainty about my future, I was truly afraid to commit to any spooky kind of cult-oriented activity and worried that the Kabat-Zinn program might compromise my faith. So I ordered his book, Full-Catastrophe Living. One thing I have learned about myself is that my fears or anxieties are most active in the absence of factual information. If I take the time to learn more about something I fear, the negative feelings usually dissipate. I also ordered The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hahn, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, who now lives and works in France. I met him once when he visited the AFSC office, where I was working and had been deeply impressed by his presence. Reading those two books allayed my concerns and allowed me to see that there would be no conflict between daily meditation and my own faith.

Lynn visited me several times, sharing her own experiences, and as a result I signed up for the eight-week MBSR class that was offered in Asheville. The discipline of meditation at the heart of the program is based on using your own breath as your focus. The program also uses yoga, relaxation, and group discussions on topics related to dealing with stress, illness and adversity. It gave me the tools I needed to make a full recovery and beyond. An added bonus is that my spiritual understandings have broadened and deepened as my curiosity led me to read or listen to CD’s about many other traditions of meditation, including centering prayer. I have come to a fuller acceptance of the importance of living life mindfully in the present moment. I have also read about the scientific examination of blood pressure, breathing, heart rate and brain activity, which shows the cumulative effect on the body from a daily meditation.

Each day as I settle into my own meditation, I begin by naming those people in my life who are especially important to me as well as friends who are sick or in distress. In Quaker parlance, I hold them in the light and then I turn my focus to my breathing. I have a particular chair that helps me sit with a straight back, and there is enough room for my dog Nigel to snuggle in beside me. He neither moves nor twitches until he the timer chimes after thirty minutes.

When I ponder who I am now and who I was in those days of anguish and anxiety, I almost can’t believe the change. I do still worry about things; I do get knocked off my center; I am in need of a quiet life uncluttered both in my house and in my mind. However, now I have a way to get centered again and deal with life’s vicissitudes.

As for my immune system, my healthcare providers tell me that it is now fairly robust. I haven’t been sick since I recovered from MAI—that is, no colds, flu, respiratory or stomach infections. Although I have to deal with low energy, creaky joints and other aspects of aging, most of the time I have a sense of well-being, especially just after Nigel and I finish our morning meditation.