in memoriam

In one of the stars, I shall be living. In one of them, I shall be laughing.
And so it will be as if all the stars were laughing when you look at the sky at night.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery  The Little Prince

three goodbyes in one year’s time

A year ago, our humble little condo floor was covered in small, washable rugs and we had a cat- scratched sea foam 50’s era sectional in the living room. It smelled like a mix of old dog and pee, and we didn’t care. Our geriatric cattle dog Emma was still making her way in the world, despite having no control of her bladder and a limited ability to walk further than a few blocks. She still had a spark in her eyes, though, and we were glad to have her around. A year ago, we spent a good portion of every Sunday drinking tea at our elderly friend June’s house. We spent hours and hours listening to stories about The Great Depression, hidden places to find booze during prohibition in Seattle, and sailing the Puget Sound. June enjoyed spinning a yarn with her stories and loved nothing more than an engaged friend or two who were willing to make a pot of tea and sit with her. A year ago, I was waking up early every Monday to dash off to yoga class, but not before hearing the phone ring and chatting briefly with Reen’s mom Patsy who called like clockwork at 7:00 am. Patsy had a gift for gossip and a wickedly good sense of humor that I cherished. Even in a few minutes on the phone, she created a connection that many people can’t craft in hours.

Funny how so many things can change in one year; the absence of a canine companion, the adjustment of furniture, the shift in Sunday schedules and the silence of the phone on Monday mornings, to name a few. One year passed, and three beings who meant so much to our days and weeks are gone. One year passed, and we aren’t the same people we were before.

Emma died at home this spring and we were fortunate to be there to hold her paws and kiss her sweet fur as she breathed her last breath. Patsy died in the same hospital she retired from as a psychiatric nurse so many years ago. She suffered a brief but painful decline at the end of summer, leaving us with the scent of fallen leaves as we departed New England for Seattle with tear soaked cheeks. Our dear tea companion June died just a few weeks ago while her husband and I held her hands and talked her into her next adventure. We were lucky enough to have the opportunity to read June her favorite Truman Capote story A Christmas Memory the day before she died. I like to think it brought her comfort. It certainly brought that to us.

heart stretching, soul expanding, life altering grief

2012 was a year of major losses and a year that taught me more about love and of spiritual connection than any I have had so far. Even my dealings with cancer could not prepare me for the heart expanding experience of sitting vigil with our beloved dog and with two women who taught me in immense ways about love, faith and friendship. Even nine years of experience working in grief support with a hospice agency did not prepare me fully for the immensity of my own grief and the ways I would be physically, mentally and spiritually stretched by these losses. That’s the thing about grief, though. Every loss is unique. Every person is unique. Every situation…unique.

One of the many ways my yoga practice has helped me in the past year (aside from my little bits of midnight asana and meditation in the confined space between the hospital bed and the radiator) was to recognize that it doesn’t help to judge any experience or any thing or any one as fundamentally good or intrinsically bad (and yes- I need to remind myself of this often). Sometimes things are just the way they are. And the one thing that can be counted on, thank goodness, is that every experience, thing, and person not only can, but will change.

So, here’s to a new year of experiences and connections, losses and gains. As much as I love new beginnings, I also love pausing to think about how I’ve been blessed and transformed by the souls in my life; living and deceased. Right now, I light three candles and pause for Emma, Patsy and June. These three remarkable souls brightened my life and reminded me in equal measure to listen from the heart, to laugh from the belly, and to get up from time to time to shake it out and play.

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are you there, God? it’s me…

In memory of Patsy, who lived, loved, laughed and graced the world with a generous heart.

How to find God when nobody’s looking

I’m not a religious person. Not in a structured way, at least. Organized religion sort of freaks me out and makes me wince- most likely because I wasn’t raised going to church and because the first time I remember setting foot in a church, it was as a young teen. I think I was fourteen years old when I sat in an old stone church next to my mom for the memorial service of my brother’s best friend Billy who died of leukemia. Between moments of glaring at my mother for blowing her nose in public (I was a terrible, terrible child), I rolled my eyes at the words of the priest. Seriously, I thought, this is nonsense. Billy is gone, and now the priest is asking for us to give ourselves over to the “Lord”, too? Whatever (did I say it was the 80’s?). I was not going to give anything over to anyone– this “Lord” already had my grandpa and now he had Billy. He sure didn’t need my ass. Consequently, I went on with my angry teenage years having insignificant associations with religion (going to forbidding youth group meetings with a friend, hanging out with pot smoking Mormon missionaries with another friend, and perusing the “New Age” sections at the far corner of the used book store).

Organized religion confused me. God, on the other hand, was someone who I connected with. I can remember pretty regular occasions when I would step outside to stare at the night sky, thinking that stars had to have something to do with heaven or the divine or God or something miraculous, and I would talk out loud. I don’t know that this was prayer- it was more like a one-sided conversation with someone I knew wouldn’t interrupt or judge. It felt safe and sweet, and if I kept this all to myself, nobody could tell me anything about my version of God that would taint my own image. I didn’t want to be confined by anyone else’s ideals and I certainly didn’t want to be told what to do or how to think (still don’t, in case anyone’s wondering).

Although church felt like foreign territory to me, God didn’t feel like a stranger. We didn’t necessarily discuss God or faith outright in my home growing up, but I remember distinctly sitting with my mom as she read Bible stories or singing Sunday school songs for long stretches of road inside the family van. I ended up knowing as many songs as some of my Christian friends, in fact. And I think these times helped me to understand a relationship to something larger than myself or the material world. They informed my way of connecting to people, places, and things.

I found my connection to God most often in nature. Nobody told me to look there, but I had a sense that this was the right place (I have to admit that I may have also been influenced by Laura Ingalls Wilder…). Even now, I feel harmony when I’m outside noticing the small miracles that occur in the natural world. Maybe it’s because I’m less distracted and my mind isn’t racing, and maybe it’s because I’m most at peace away from the confines of a structure (another reason I’m put off from attending church).

Stop trying so hard…

My current image of God has shifted some, and in many ways expanded. I’ve softened and grown and I’m more willing to accept that I don’t have the answers. I suspect that there are few who do, in fact. And that idea comforts me somehow. I’m willing to be open to the unknown and to seek miracles or meaning in the small things. And that helps. Especially when things are difficult.

I have opened to a more fluid image of the sacred, and this has allowed my own compassion to expand and my own meaning of faith to be more of a working one. I can find the sacred in everything from the early morning chickadees at the bird feeder as much as I can watching the interaction between a homeless man and his dog. I can also recognize that my own actions are sacred- a good reminder as a human being. And when I remember this, I wake up a little more and notice things that were previously hidden. Hafiz puts it best:

Now is the time to remember that all you do is sacred.

In Patanjali’s second limb of yoga, the concept of Ishvara Pranidhana (devotion and, ultimately, surrender to God/the Divine) speaks directly to the practice of devotion in order to cultivate awareness. Devotion, in other words, allows the individual to be more awake and aware, experiencing the most subtle levels of living. I like this concept so much- mostly because it reminds me that I am connected to everything and that everything is a part of this whole. Even the things I cringe at or judge. A good reminder when some idiot (a divine idiot, but an idiot just the same) cuts me off in traffic or blows cigarette smoke in my face as I’m walking down the street. These, too, are sacred. It’s not possible to separate them (remind me of this at election time).

Hail Mary’s, Mantras, and Metaphor

Most recently, I found myself looking for God in the hospital where someone I love very much was dying and struggling with pain. I was in the stark hospital room with my partner, taking turns sleeping so that we could be present if anything happened that needed our attention. I was drinking hospital coffee like a mad woman in an attempt to stay awake and gazing at the bed praying for peace, comfort, and healing- whatever that might mean. I stared at our loved one’s rosary beads, read Catholic prayers and poetry aloud, and practiced every calming technique I could think of to sooth my fears (and coffee jitters). I attempted to memorize the Hail Mary, thinking that this prayer could be my mantra and the ultimate gift to my devout friend. What I found, though, was that all of my prayers turned into grasping, and that the most helpful thing that I could do for myself and for my sweet friend was to live my yoga and surrender.

By “surrender”, I don’t mean that I gave up or stopped paying attention. I stopped trying so hard to control the situation. I surrendered to the moment and to my lack of control of it. Letting go allowed me to see everything in a more generous way and it allowed me to be more present for my loved one. The more I grasped and looked for God, the more I stressed out about not being in control. The more I let go, the more open I was to the Divine, and the more I felt connected and engaged in the experience. Sort of like those Chinese finger traps where the harder the person pulls, the stronger the grasp.  The trap only releases when the person softens and stops pulling. A beautiful metaphor.

Just like the trap, my practice of yoga has helped me to notice the times I try too hard in my life (on and off the mat). Sitting in a chair in a tight space between the hospital bed and the radiator was the perfect place to practice living my yoga- to connect to my breath and to surrender. Stop trying so hard and just love, I reminded myself. Everything else comes into place. No balancing required.

Our loved one died the next day. The ultimate act of surrender.

Driving to the airport after a week of memorial and Catholic rituals (and a few whiskey sours), we stopped at a roadside shrine with the Virgin Mary standing regally in the center of a cavernous stone structure. I was reminded about the force of history and the power of faith and devotion. After standing in awe for several minutes, we lit candles in memory and focused on this image of a woman who has represented grace, love and strength from adversity for centuries. My eyes filled with tears, and I recited the Hail Mary in my head, thinking about surrender. We had a long journey toward home ahead, and yet in the act of surrendering, I felt a sense of arrival.

how a wild rescue dog taught me about love


faint echo of you
remains everywhere I go
I miss you, old girl

Last Monday at 10:20 am, we said goodbye forever to our sweet old girl Emma. It was a tender and painful day, especially since we had spent the past 15 years making sure Emma knew she was loved regardless of her quirky and neurotic cattle dog ways. And Emma gave us more in return than we could have ever expected.

Emma came to our world in the form of a skinny and skittish coyote-looking rescue dog who was frightened of everything. Emma whimpered and yelped far more than she ever barked and she fulfilled her herding duties by nipping at the heels and backsides of the children in our lives. She was a dog on a mission, and that quickly turned out to be chasing as many balls and sticks as possible and making sure that when we left the house, the garbage and cupboards were given a thorough examination, leaving piles of trash and torn up containers in her work zone. When we were with her, Emma made sure that she was either near us or watching us as much as possible, and up until her last breath, she offered a gentle and trusting presence to our lives.

With Emma’s death, I’ve lost one of my greatest teachers of unconditional love, trust, and the value of free-spirited play. Emma has taught me more about the significance of letting go and the importance of cultivating patience than any spiritual guide could have, and even in her absence, I can feel the pull of her teachings in our tiny little home. I recognize the spaces of time that I filled by kissing, loving, feeding, cleaning, and being with her and her pile of toys sits as a reminder that the floor is as good a place as any to work out unwanted frustrations or negative energy. Just grab a plush toy and shake it wildly and in just a few moments, all worry melts into nonsense and the world seems to be a better place.

So, today, in honor of our sweetest and most wildly unique Emma dog, we will take our time and soak in every moment. The bright blooms of spring and the vigorous flight of the birds in our yard seem to echo our bursting hearts. Every tender moment a reminder to love fully and to live in a way that matters.