Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fishing With My Dad

So many of you have responded to my request for prayers for my father who has advanced Alzheimer’s (currently in a temporary place of safety, mostly confused, sometimes distraught, awaiting long term care placement) I wanted to tell you a little about him, so that when you offer prayers or thoughts for Donald House, you will have some sense of the man. I’ve been sitting with what story to tell, and this is the one that comes to mind, so I will trust that.

When I was growing up my family went on camping vacations. Dad hadn’t ever camped as a child but he was eager and handy and, having grown up on a farm, very at home being close to the earth. He built cupboards and rigged up a variety of tarps for a camp kitchen, chopped endless piles of wood, and led my brother and I in spear-making expeditions and spear-throwing contests on the beach. I think he had as much fun as we did. He’d had a truly difficult childhood- filled with poverty and physical abuse. I sometimes think any real child-like fun he had happened when we were children.

What I am remembering right now is the two of us going fishing on those camping trips.

My Dad and I were rarely alone. And, to tell the truth, I wasn’t much into fishing. I saw the mandatory daytime family fishing expeditions as basically a chance to work on my tan and read. But for some reason, I often went out fishing alone with my father at dusk – 7 pm to be exact- when we were camping. He maintained that seven was when the wind went down (and it often did) and the fish and the mosquitoes would both be biting.

After the supper dishes were done, he’d say, “Let’s go Annie!” (My middle birth name is Anne- he was the only person who every called me this.)

We'd take our heavy, old, square-backed freighter canoe with a small trolling motor on the back and head out into the lake. Then we'd find a spot- usually a small bay- drop anchor and, covering ourselves with insect repellent, sit until the sun went down with our lines in the water. I don’t remember us ever catching anything. But I do remember how. . . . comfortable it was, sitting on the lake in silence with my father. Once in awhile the silence would be broken by the sound of loons calling to each other across the water- a strangely mournful cry that always makes my chest ache.

How my father loved being out on the water surrounded by the dense bush of the north, watching the clouds become streaked with changing color as the sun went down and the first stars appeared in the dark blue sky. You could feel the warmth leaving the air as the sun slid beneath the horizon.

Once, sitting quietly, we heard a strange sound- like the breath of an omnipresent mother whispering, “SSSSHHHH. . . .” I looked at my Dad bewildered, and for a moment he too looked confused. Then, suddenly he reeled in his line and told me to do the same.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Rain,” he said.

And sure enough, as I looked toward the east I could see a dark grey thunderhead coming across the tree tops in the distance, bringing with it a curtain of water. We pulled up the anchor and headed for shore trying to outrun the storm. I remember watching it pursuing us, wind churning the waves and rain racing across the lake behind us. I remember Dad laughing and shouting to me, “We’re not going to make it!” And sure enough, the rain caught up with us before we pulled the canoe up onto the beach, soaked and laughing at our own smallness in the face of something as ordinary as a summer storm.

I don’t know why this is the story that comes to mind now. Perhaps it is because my father is experiencing what is called "sundowning"- a state of aggitation that often comes upon those with advanced Alzheimer's at sunset. As I pray for him to know he is loved, to feel safe and calm and a sense of peace, I hold this image- of the two of us sitting in the canoe at dusk fishing- in the hopes that the deep calm and beauty of those times may reach him now.

Thank you all for your prayers- I am deeply touched by both your caring and by the stories of many who have been or are currently going through this or similar things with aging loved ones. It is of course heart-breaking to watch someone we love struggle and suffer so, to lose them a little bit at a time as shared memories disintegrate. But it is hard because we have been blessed to know them, to love and be loved. I am doubly blessed- to have a father I love, who loves me, and to have a community of support that adds their prayers to mine. And for this, I am grateful.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Doing What I Can

As many of you know, my father has Alzheimer’s. He was diagnosed about two years ago and has since managed to remain at home with my mother, tending their home on five acres of land outside of a small town in Northern Ontario. In that time his memory and cognition have declined although, because he has also had mini-strokes that cause aphasia (inability to find a word) it’s sometime difficult to assess his level of understanding. He can be surprisingly lucid in moments.

In the last year, he has taken to wandering, sometimes on foot and sometimes on the riding mower, always with a vague story of needing to get someplace down the road. He’s also become preoccupied with returning to the community where he grew up several hundred miles to the south. This past weekend, for the first time, my mother could not convince him to return to the house and so had to call 911. In his distress what did come to light was that he was frantically trying to return to his childhood home so he could help his mother. She passed away some years ago, but both she and my father were physically abused during my father’s childhood by my grandfather. My father left that house and the abuse at seventeen but my grandmother remained.

My father is now in the hospital and decisions about his care have to be made. Unfortunately, about ten days ago my mother was also diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. She is finding this diagnosis very hard to accept and so is resistant to any level of assisted living for either herself or my father.

So, I am driving to my parents home (several hours north of Toronto) to meet with the social workers, doctors and nurses who have become part of the team assisting my parents. Decisions will have to be made- impossible decisions- and I am grateful for the expertise and compassion of the geriatric team that has been in touch with my parents over the last few years. I have delayed the journey until I felt I might be able to do something useful (as in helping them move and then later preparing their home for sale) because my own on-going health challenges with Myalgic Encephalomyletis (ME or Chronic Fatigue- CF- as it is more commonly known in North America) mean that I cannot stay too long or return frequently. I don’t know how long I will be away or if I will have internet access (or the presence of mind or heart to write a blog or post on Facebook) over the next while- so there will probably be a bit of silence from my end.

I have watched friends traverse this difficult time with parents, and when I was a social worker many years ago I often dealt with finding and providing support services for the aged. But. . . there really is no preparing for being in this position with your own parents. Each person`s right to self-determination is something I value deeply. I do not want to force decisions on either of my parents. . . .and yet, I am the only off-spring involved in making choices they may not be able to make, choices that will hopefully give them daily care and some modicum of safety.

So, I will do the best I can. I will listen to my mother, my father, those with far more experience in situations like this, and I will listen deep within in an effort to determine what is the most compassionate and caring way to proceed. I have no wisdom on how to do this except one step at a time, one breath at a time, with continual prayers for guidance and help.

I keep thinking of a Theodore Roosevelt quote: “Do the best you can with what you have where you are.” Which I suppose, is all we can ever hope to do.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All The Heart Can Hold

It is in times of personal and collective crisis that we find out whether or not our spiritual insights, practises and beliefs really do enable us to open our hearts and stay present with what is. Some moments are better than others, but if we can compassionately observe ourselves and our fellow human beings, we really do learn something about the stunning capacity of the human heart.

For me, the news of the disaster in Japan (and the current efforts to avoid a breakdown of nuclear reactors that could spread radioactivity throughout the area and, of course, eventually the planet) has coincided with a crisis on the personal front. My father has advanced Alzheimer’s, and my mother, who has been his care-giver at home, has just been diagnosed as having Alzheimer’s also. Of course, my challenge re: finding and arranging appropriate care for my parents given my health challenges, their wishes and the means available, is very small in comparison to the scope of the suffering in Japan. And yet, on some level, our experience of loss and uncertainty whether individual or communal has common elements.

In the face of personal or collective difficulties that threaten life, the human mind reaches for explanations and asks, Why did this happen? (which is sometimes just a polite way of asking, Who is to blame?) I have seen it on the internet this week: some claim the quakes are human created, either accidentally caused or deliberately orchestrated; others see them as a punishment or warning from the Earth herself, an argument reminiscent of the belief in the moral retribution of a wrathful of God; still others posit theories about the contributing effects of human choices that create climate change and resonant frequencies on and in the earth. I’m not going to evalate any of these explanations here (although yes, I do think building nuclear reactors on or close to fault lines is not one of our smartest moves,) and I am not suggesting that we should not look for the chain of cause and effect for all kinds of things. (Clearly I support research into the causes of illnesses like Alzheimer’s.) But I am struck by how quickly most of us seek an explanation where none may be available.

Being with what is without closing our hearts to the loss, the grief, the uncertainty, the confusion, the fear (in ourselves or others more directly affected- eg- those searching for loved ones in Japan) is hard. And proposing an explanation- however probable or improbable- is an effort to make it easier. But for the most part, wanting speedy explanations is an attempt to move away from being with what is. I understand the impulse. We can only do what we can do. And, given my day, my health, my circumstances, my fortitude of this moment, I may or may not be able to continuously sustain an open-hearted prayer, an inner stillness that lets me be with what is happening. I may need a skilful distraction, hopefully one that connects me to awareness of the joy and beauty of life (like watching the children in the playground playing) before I can go back to holding those who are suffering in my heart’s awareness, whether it is my parents or the people in Japan, before I can do what needs to be done- place a call to the social worker or speak patiently to my mother in her confusion, or contact a relief agency to make a contribution toward aid efforts in Japan.

We have to replenish our own reserves to be of assistance in a sustainable way. But I think we need to be careful not to offer or reach for or accept pat explanations (political or spiritual) in place of real compassion. I am thinking here of reading posts like, “All is well and all is as it should be.”

All is well? For whom? For the mother who is desperately searching for her child beneath a pile of rubble? For the father who has watched his family drown and be swept away? For the men who are making repairs on a reactor knowing their exposure to radiation will shorten their lives, willingly taking the risk in the hopes of protecting their communities? Yes, of course, if you believe as I do on some essential level that our well-being is connected to something larger within and around us, there is always a kind of “wellness." But this provides little comfort to those whose lives have been torn asunder, and offering such a statement in the midst of dire circumstances does not seem to honour the real pain and suffering that some are experiencing.

Similarly saying that things are as they “should” be (for my parents or the situation in Japan) seems to be an attempt to move away from awareness of our common vulnerabilities and sorrows. Hinting at some moral imperative or pre-determined plan or purpose, the word "should" claims to know what is, for us mere mortals, unknowable. And I understand why we reach for such things. Not knowing is difficult particularly when the stakes are high. But- things are as they should be? How about- things are as they are. Can I be with this?

And here is where we get to practise what is needed and discover something truly amazing about how we are made. We are built for compassion. Yes, I know we are capable of insensitivity, cruelty and greed, susceptible to fear and bad choices. But we are built for compassion in a way that the mind barely grasps. How do I know this? Because I experience it in myself and in others. I am seeing it in the many stories of mutual assistance amongst those most directly effected in Japan. I hear it in the voice of the skilled health-care providers who are helping me with my parents. We really do have the capacity to be with situations and information that is heart-breakingly painful, that is about loss and destruction and suffering. We can hold the world in our hearts, we can follow the impulse to help, and we can do this without comforting platitudes or explanations, without knowing why something happened or how it will unfold.

We discover this capacity within ourselves by practising it, by grounding ourselves in the details of life, in our bodies, in the earth beneath us, in our communities of care, in doing what needs to be done to take care of those who need our help. We discover it by following our breath and praying however we pray- whether that is in a structured form from some tradition or simply in a willingness to focus on our hearts, feel what arises and hold those who are suffering with each breath. We do it by offering what material aid we are able to offer and choosing to be with those who are suffering in our awareness, sending our love and a silent, “You are not alone.” We do it by allowing a larger Heart to hold us- the Heart of community, of the Mystery, God, Life itself- when we are too tired and discouraged to do it alone.

There are of course no deals to be made. Will our prayers make everything work out as we want? Will it restore my parents’ memories or the homes and lives in Japan? It is impossible, on some level, not to want this, not to think the power of our prayers must be evidenced by results we want. But our perspective is limited, our noses are very close to the ground of being human. Yes, I do think prayer has an impact, but the how and why of that remains a mystery also. I pray in my way without knowing why something has happened, without reassurance that my prayers will result in life as I want it, but with a willingness to be with what is. And I discover the infinite capacity of the Heart that lives within me to bear what is, to be compassionate, to feel both joy and sorrow simultaneously, to laugh and cry, to see beauty amidst loss, to discover again and again the gift of being an embodied soul- a fully human being.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Tending the World, Caring for the Self

Last week on Facebook someone commented that I must have Alzheimer’s. It’s a testament to my age and intermittent memory lapses that the first thing I did was reread my previous posts, certain that outrageous typos must have prompted this diagnosis. Of course, that wasn’t it at all, and when I sent the person a message asking what he meant I received replies full of vitriol, accusing me of distracting people with things that did not matter (like personal concerns about how to be whole and healthy and offer who and what we are to the world) while “the world is on fire” and on the brink of Armageddon. I attempted a little dialogue, but he had no real interest in conversation.

I knew there was certainly something off about these messages, and not just because I am particularly sensitive to someone using the term Alzheimer’s as a pejorative which does not honour the real struggle of folks like my father who are living with this horrible disease. But there was also something to consider, something I have struggled with my whole life: When there are real problems in the world- problems of environmental destruction, massive social injustice and suffering- how do we decide how and when and to what degree to use our personal resources (time, money, energy) for our own individual well-being?

In the church of my youth the slogan was “Live Love” and the emphasis was on living our faith by alleviating suffering in the world. I did international work for social justice for years. It is only recently that I understood fully the flaw in the way I had been taught to approach my responsibility in the world- hard work was demanded in Every. . . Single. . . Moment. Small victories could only be celebrated fleetingly, because there was so much more to do, so many others who were suffering. It was perpetually exhausting and disheartening.

I can honestly say that when I get close to people who share the undertone of my early training- those who are, with complete sincerity and more than a little desperation, continually articulating all that remains unresolved in the world- I sometimes feel like hiding. I know I cannot go back to this kind of constant striving and trying, to the bottomless pit of real need that dwarfs any advances and joys with the knowledge of how much is left undone.

On the other hand, I do not want to simple focus inward and forget the world. I cringe when I hear someone say, “Those folks must have chosen to be born into or have drawn to themselves this poverty or violence or injustice because their souls needed certain lessons.” Not only does this claim to know something we cannot know and show a stunning lack of compassion, but it is a very convenient and self-serving point of view for those of us with more freedom and resources. Furthermore it completely ignores both the physical and metaphysical truth of our inter-beingness. Poverty, violence and suffering in one aspect of our community, in one place on the globe, will and does effect on us all. Our interests are interwoven even as our lives are inter-dependent.

There are no easy one-size-fits-all answers on discerning how we do both our inner work and decide where and how it is appropriate for us to respond to and participate in the world. But there are three things I know that help me navigate the on-going challenge of being both an individuated soul and a participant in a larger wholeness:

The first thing is, I no longer expect the tension between inner and outer work to be resolved. I consciously bring the tension of this consideration into questions around how I spend my time, energy and money. It is a creative tension that is not always comfortable. Sometimes it makes my heart ache because I want to be able to do more or because I have over-extended myself. And I’m okay with that, okay with my heart sometimes aching for both the world and my own humanness.

The second thing I know is, to the degree we are unwilling to be with our inner world and listen to the messages of psyche/soul, we are a danger to others and the outer world. There are serious consequences to not being able or willing to listen deep within: we agree to things we do not want to do, making promises we do not have the resources to fulfill; we cannot recognize that which feeds our heart and soul, and so often becoming exhausted and resentful; we cannot discern and speak the truth because we are out of touch with the truth within; we are reactive and so limited in our response to the world’s needs; we project aspects of self we reject outward and do not see others or the world clearly. As a result we end up trying to do good, badly, despite our best intentions.

And finally, the tension between personal needs/desires and the needs of the world is most easily held in community. It is in community that I realize that it is not only impossible for me to do it all, it is also not necessary or desirable. Community- whether a circle of friends or something larger- is where I can be gently challenged when I am living in a way that is individually or collectively unsustainable, a place where I can be supported in my efforts to find my way of offering compassion and care to myself, others and the world.

When we continue to deepen our understanding of who we are- our strengths, limitations, motives, needs and deepest desires- we can give what is sustainable for us to give because we discover what enlivens us and utilizes the gifts we have to offer. This is best done with an appreciation for what is most needed in the world so we can shape what we have to offer into a meaningful and effective contribution.

Building and participating in community, we each spin and hold one thread, interweaving it in the tapestry we are co-creating. And together we weave the world into a sacred wholeness, again and again. This is both our responsibility and our joy.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011


Last weekend a group of women gathered in British Columbia for the Wild and Wise Women’s Retreat. Although I could not attend, one of the organizers, Christa Thompson, asked me to write a blessing for the gathering. Below is the piece that came as I sat in meditation- my invocation to the Divine Feminine for the circle of women at the retreat, and for the world. In the shamanic tradition when we speak of the "children" of Grandmother Earth we are speaking of all her children- small two-leggeds, grown men and women, the water, earth, air, four-leggeds, winged-ones, plants. . . . nothing and no one left out.

As I reread and tweak the blessing I wrote (never give a writer a chance to rewrite or edit :-) I realize that it mirrors my deep faith in the power of cultivating deep intimacy with our heart-response to things like the destructive polluting of the planet. There is, of course, a need for problem-solving research and decision making, but substantial shifts in perspective and sustainable change come from allowing the wild wisdom within to be ignited by deep intimacy with our hearts, each other and the world.

I call on the Spirit of the Divine Feminine to bless us.

May we know the wildness and the wisdom that is our birthright.

There is a wildness in us

that is not content with small changes, half-measures, muted joys or polite tears.

There is a wildness in us that wants to dance with Dzunuk’wa,

Wild Woman of the Woods in the Pacific Northwest,

bathed in the silver light and blue shadows of the full moon,

gathering energy from our mother the earth to do what needs to be done.

There is a wildness in us that wants to ride like Durga and Kali,

into the fray, unafraid and fierce,

destroying the illusions of control that allow human beings

to defile the very wilderness that sustains their hearts and souls

and balances their minds and bodies.

There is wildness in us fuelled by a sorrow too big to bear in silence

that wants to wail at the destruction of the earth and the harming of her children,

that wants to rend our clothing and stand on the steps of the legislature

-thousands of women standing shoulder to shoulder, garments torn, wailing-

until the law makers act to protect the body and heart of every mother and child.

There is a place in us where wisdom and wildness dance together,

the place where Kwan-Yin speaks the true name of the sacred

that lives in every tree and flower,

every heart and mind, every stone and bit of blood and bone.

The place where we know what we know and will not pretend otherwise.

The place where Lilith says, “Hell No!”

when she is told she must obey unjust laws,

must be quiet, must subjugate her being to another’s priorities,

to “practical considerations,” or “economic realities.”

She is the Maiden warrior who stands for the heart that dares to dream in colour for herself and her sisters and brothers.

She is the protective Mother who stands between her children- all the children of Grandmother Earth- and the destructive power of the dominator culture.

She is the fierce Crone, the one who cannot be seduced or intimidated into being silent, the one who speaks the truth and calls on the hearts of all men and women to remember what they know, what they love, what they are.

Sacred Feminine Fire, ignite our wildness and our wisdom, so we may live all of who and what we are, loyal to the truth, unafraid of the fire, willing and able to dream a new world.

Oriah Mountain Dreamer (c) 2011