Preparing for the Journey

I drove home to Wisconsin last weekend to celebrate Easter with my family. It’s a bit of hike for just a weekend, about an eight or nine hour drive each way. But, it was important. I needed both to get away to relax and to go see family especially my dad.

Dad turned 91 last month. He’s had a good journey through this life, seen a lot of both sorrow and joys, but largely I think joys have won out, six kids, twelve grandkids, and seven great-grandchildren all surrounded in love.

Things are changing with him now. They have been for several years at least, but now it’s moving faster. Dad is walking away, heading toward the next journey. Dad has dementia. No big surprise these days at 91, still it’s strange to watch, to see him go, and to feel the feelings that go with it.

I went home last weekend knowing it might be the last visit when Dad would know me. What a strange thing to wonder if one’s own father will recognize them. This time he did, though I think for a moment he may have confused me and one of my sisters. She and I look a lot alike so that made sense. Others, with healthy, functioning brains, confuse us as well.

There are a lot of sad stories out there about elderly people left alone in nursing homes with no one to visit them. I never understood that. How could someone leave an elder to die alone? I think I have some perspective now. It’s not necessarily a lack of love, but too much. It takes a lot of strength to be with the person you love when they are no longer there.

This became clear to me when my sister JoAnn, who is the primary caretaker for Dad, got a message from his care facility letting her know that he was having a rough day. We decided to stop by and check things out in person rather than just calling back.

We got there to find Dad confused and frustrated and as is becoming typical, not wearing his hearing aids. He thought some of his belongings were missing and he’d gone into other people’s rooms to find them. He’d come out with other people’s belongings and still believing his things were gone. He argued with us and the staff person, telling us if we didn’t find his missing clothing he’d just go find it himself.

It’s hard for me to imagine what it would be like to feel that unsafe in my home even more bizarre to think that without his hearing aids Dad just saw mouths moving, but couldn’t hear enough to understand the words being said. What would that be like to be in this place where nothing makes sense anymore?

I don’t know, but I can tell you that seeing Dad in that place tore my heart out. I can see why people stop visiting their aging parents when each visit acknowledges the pain and confusion and the reality that there is nothing we can do to make it better other than maybe just being there.

JoAnn was able to put his hearing aids in and work with staff to put away the belongings he’d taken while I just sat with him for a bit to help him calm. Then JoAnn and the staff reassured him by taking a look through his closet and assuring him that everything was there. Dad was calm and maybe a little reassured by the time we left. I came back later in the day to find him still confused and concerned about his belongings, but in a better mood and able to carry on conversation, albeit a strange conversation. At least he trusted me as I assured him that both he and his belongings were safe and cared for.

On Easter we had a family party. Dad was able to join us and proudly shared his little paper bunny basket full of candies with everyone. Most of the afternoon he just smiled at everyone. He did, at one point, introduce a granddaughter to her own father, but at least he knew who both of them were on some level. He just didn’t know they knew each other.

We were all glad that he could join us, but I think we all recognized with sadness that this was probably his last family party. He may live for more years, but he is, at the same time, leaving us. I don’t think any of us know quite what to do with that. I know that each moment of recognition, every hug and kiss means more to me than ever before.

Minnesota now feels a million miles away from home in Wisconsin. Dad can’t hold conversations on the phone anymore. He needs to see faces to be able to connect the sounds and have it make sense. I told him when we parted that I’d write to him. He thanked me and let me know that he wouldn’t write back. Dementia does sometimes encourage honesty, I guess.

I don’t know if I will ever get to really talk with him again. Even if we are someday in the same place together, will he be there?

I don’t know what all this means other than hold your elders close, honor them, love them, comfort them. The journey in this world is hard. Hopefully the spirit world gives comfort someday.

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Honoring the Dead– A Dream

I thought I’d start with dreaming the night before last because of my brainspotting appointment, but apparently I was even more worn than I thought. The dreams didn’t begin until last night. I am strong believer in looking at dreams to learn. For myself, I find that in dreaming is where I put things together that I don’t let myself think in my waking hours. I can learn a lot if I listen to my sleeping self.

I was awoken by a dream last night where a student of mine had committed suicide. In waking life, I don’t know the person, but in the dream world I knew them well. I spoke at their ceremony to a crowd of many, a lot of young people there. I told them, “I am honored to be here, but I don’t want to be a giver of eulogies. I don’t want to see any of you here in this same place as our friend. I want you to remember that the best way to honor those who have passed is to live.”

I was thinking on this dream this morning and pondering how we treat death. I grew up Catholic. The first funeral I remember was of my Uncle Clarence. I must have been six or seven when he died maybe. He was a WWII veteran and his casket was draped with a flag. I remember a solemness and honoring. I knew he was an important man from how he was being honored. I don’t remember any more from there.

A few years later was when I really started seeing dying– my mom, my grandma, my Aunt Florence, my cousin Mary Sue, a classmate Steve, and other older relatives. I also sang in the church choir for our small rural congregation so I sang at funerals. I once counted it out, I’d been to 13 funerals in just a few short years. It’s funny now that I remember it was 13 funerals, but I don’t remember for certain how many years.

In my tradition people are expected a time of mourning, but honestly I don’t know how long it is. I know that shortly after the passing of the person there’s a funeral, a wake, and a burial. All this happens really quickly, just a day or two. All sorts of people shake your hand, maybe share a hug, and say “my sympathies”, a phrase they’d never use in any other part of life. Then everyone moves on and the dead person is gone forever. They’ve moved on to a perfect world called heaven, but how can it be perfect if the love you knew together isn’t there and they can’t reach you and you can’t reach them?

My adult spirituality has been influenced by many forces; Quakers, Hinduism, Buddhism, the Anishanaabe and other Native peoples, a variety of Christian faiths, and of course Atheists.

I learned quite a few years ago that the traditional folks among the Anishanaabe light a fire for four days and nights upon the passing of someone. This a time to honor their lives and the light helps guide their way into the spirit world. I learned more recently that the journey isn’t over at the end of those four days. For a full year people don’t speak of the person. This isn’t a hiding away. This is in respect. As the person travels to the spirit world, when they hear their name they’re called back. We honor them and let them move forward to let their spirits head home. At least that’s the way I understand it. I am a white girl just saying what I think I understand. I welcome those who know to tell me better or to tell me it’s time for me to hush.

I appreciate this. The beings who pass on aren’t whisked away to some pseudo perfect place and they’ve not lost contact with us. Even after that year, maybe even more so after that year, they are still there just on the other side of the river. That year, it isn’t a silencing. It’s a time to gather ourselves. I grew up in a world in which you grieved for some unknown period of time and then you were supposed to accept that the person was gone and move on. There was no more reason to grieve. You could remember on special occasions, but then let it go. Life isn’t that way. Those who’ve impacted us, impact us forever. Even when their bodies are gone their spirits remain and that’s o.k. that’s good. Carry those beings in a good way and honor them by being alive.

Those are my thoughts for the day.

Adventures in Brainspotting

The reason I started this blog, and a reason I often ignore in my writing is that I’ve been a community activist and organizer in one way or another since the 1990’s and it’s worn me down. I don’t know if it’s just been the work and the struggles along the way on my adult path or things from childhood that I just didn’t know how to deal with. I suspect stuff from overall happy childhood that overwhelmed and confused me actually had a lot to do with it. But, my life hasn’t always been the sustainable one that I believe in. It’s still not, but I think I am healing one way or another and I want to be a voice to remind others they can be well too.

I started seeing a counselor again a few months ago. Winters can be hard. I love the briskness and going out in the snow, but the cold makes us all cold even our spirits at some time or another.

I went yesterday for my brainspotting appointment. It’s an amazing form of therapy. I don’t know how much is real and how much is simply conjured by the mind, but it doesn’t really matter as long as it feels real I suppose. It’s a simple technique. The therapist just moves a pointer to a spot that conjures up feeling for the patient watching it. Then with the pointer at that spot and some comforting sounds playing the patient just watches.

I started yesterday with a slideshow of pictures from my childhood. Some were memories, some were actually more memories of pictures that I’ve seen a thousand times in family photo albums. Then, came the memories of funerals and people I’ve known who’ve passed on; my grandma, my mom, friends. I could feel just a light pressure in my chest.

Then I felt the pressure on my arms, like someone gently holding me, and the tension moved to a spot at the top of my head. Now, some of you who’ve read my blog before know that I have epilepsy. I was diagnosed about five or six years ago. My conscious mind was scared then, worried that this power might cause a seizure. But, a voice within me told me I was o.k., that I could go forward. In my mind I began to walk, hiking the miles of roads and trails, feeling the powers of the bear, the buffalo, and even for a moment the wolf around me, seeing the rivers run.

There’s more to that, but that’s enough for now. I came back into myself tired from the journey. My counselor told me that it was unlike others she’s seen. She could tell there was a lot going on in my mind and had a hard time knowing when to step in. She could also feel the temperature in the room change with what I saw.

Like I said, I don’t know what’s technically real or not, but it doesn’t really matter I suppose. Reality is subjective. What matters is the healing, feeling stronger, healthier, knowing where that strength comes from and remembering to honor the source. Those are my thoughts for the morning. Wishing you all a blessed day.

The New Year Update– Spring Edition

In some ways January 1st seems so long ago. But, here in west central Minnesota I can just look out the window and it seems like only yesterday. We’re still knee deep in snow with the promise of a really exciting blizzard in the upcoming day or so. Right now, it’s in the upper 30’s so the snow is melting and rain is coming down. The streets are running with rivers and many Morris residents are busy moving everything in their basements to higher ground and making sure their sump pumps work. I, meanwhile, am being thankful at being a renter without a basement.

So, where things from that list of lofty goals I made back in January. Well, here’s the update.

  1. Writing at least 50 blog posts– I think I better get to work on this one, but I’m not horribly far off. This is number 6 with just 41 more weeks in the year.
  2. Reading/ listening to 50 books — I’m a little behind on this one too, actually about the same amount as I am with writing my blog. I am six books in right now and working on number seven. I must highly recommend “Becoming” by Michelle Obama. What an incredibly inspiring person. I’d also say read “Driving Miss Norma: One Family’s Journey Saying Yes to Living.” It’s a beautiful tale of life in its final moments. “The Education of Will” was quite good too.
  3. Getting back on track with my healthy eating habits– I’m doing ok here now. I did have a really rough time for a few weeks when the majority of my diet was pizza and burgers. I don’t know how much I got depressed because of what I was eating or how much I was eating so poorly because I was depressed. But, I am doing a lot better now and feeling better too.
  4. Running a 10k or 1/2 marathon (I haven’t decided yet, but I know more than 5k and probably not a full)– I’m not starting running until I don’t have to plow through snow drifts to do it.
  5. learn to play guitar– I found someone who teaches guitar, that’s a start. Right?
  6. finish at least 3 or 4 knitting projects– I’ve got 1 done. I actually switched to crochet, but I’m going to count it.
  7. Get Buddy started with his therapy dog training– We started with dog training. Then it got snowed out so many times that I decided to start again in the next class series. He is learning tricks pretty well. Now, if I could just get him to learn not to chew on his human.
  8. Cutting my screen time significantly, especially facebook time– Not perfect, but doing well here. It helps to have my book reading goal. I can’t read and do Facebook at the same time. Spring will help too. I have a commitment to not looking at social media when I am out walking and I love to get out when the weather is nice.

So, that’s where it’s at. While I’m not quite where I aimed to be at this time, I’m feeling pretty good about what I’ve been able to do and am glad that I set goals this year. What about you? Who else set New Year’s goals and where are you at?

Every week I have my students write down two goals for themselves. One is a project goal to remind themselves about what they want to accomplish on the effort that they are working on with their community partner for the semester. The other, and this is maybe the more radical one for college students, is a self care goal. Most of my students are pretty generic in their self care goals. They want to sleep, to eat vegetables, or to study. But, that’s o.k. It’s makes no difference to me if they have some simple goals or even if those goals stay the same all semester. I just want them to write that self care goal every week for 15 weeks. I want them to leave the program thinking that it’s important to take care of themselves as well as to have a direction in the work they choose.

That’s why I put together my New Year’s goals this year and why I am coming back to them now in March to check in and see how I am doing, because I am important enough to take care of. We all are. I hope that you’re finding a good way to care for yourself today.

This Year’s Journey, One Month In

We’re already 27 days into the new year. It’s sometimes amazing how quickly time flies. The holidays are gone. The students are back. And now, everyone is hiding away from the frigid temperatures as we dip into the negative double digits. It seemed like a good day to check in on where I am with my New Year’s resolutions.

Here we are with blog post number 4. That seems a reasonable pace toward my fifty for the year. I don’t know that I’ve written much of anything to inspire myself or others, but I’ve written. Maybe the words of inspiration will come.

Thanks to wonders of audio books, I am on track with my book reading too. This exercise is a reminder of how I have come to multitask. Write and listen to a book. Knit and listen to a book. Do housework or office work or drive or whatever else and listen to a book. I question how well I take in all that I listen too. I have found though that it easier to listen to an audio book than a movie. The good books for the month? “The Education of Will” by Patricia McConnell. I’ve loved Dr. McConnell for a number of years. She’s a wonderful dog trainer. The book is an powerful look at who she is as a person and how her relationship with her dog, Will helped her move through some deep pains. It made a lot of sense. “Driving Miss Norma: One Family’s Journey Saying Yes to Living,” another excellent book. It’s a beautiful story of the end of an elderly woman’s life, how it brought her family together and changed their lives and many others.

Getting back to my healthy eating? Well, it’s a lot better without being surrounded by Christmas cookies.

Running? Nope. But, I have been doing more yoga lately and getting out walking quite a bit.

Guitar? Sometimes I think about picking it up. That counts, right?

I am more than half way on finishing a baby blanket for my first knitting project of the year.

Buddy is doing well with his good canine citizen training which is his first step toward being a therapy dog. It remains questionable whether he will pass the test, but each week gets a little easier. We started the class a few weeks late and his first session was a near total disaster. It was impossible for him to focus with other dogs in the room. The second week he did better, except when practicing stay and come. Then he decided he’d rather go check out the gymnastics equipment on the other end of the gym. And, there was the moment during puppy playtime. Young Buddy is a teenage boy and he was rather smitten with another dog who was several inches taller than him. Suddenly, I had a mess on the floor to clean up! Yep, young Buddy ejaculated across the gym floor. He also pooped in the hallway, but at least we were alone then and I had plenty of poop bags. Last week’s session’s only moment of excitement was coming in to the building. Poor Buddy somehow got his front paw stuck under the heavy entry door for the building. I have never heard a puppy scream like that! Thankfully, there was no significant damage, as confirmed by a classmate who is a vet.

As for cutting my screen time, I think maybe a little, but not all that significantly. Still it seems good. I am happy with the start of the year. Let’s see where it goes.

The New Year

It’s probably been more than 30 years now since my father and I made that trip to Canada. I remember sitting in passenger seat asking Dad about the old days. I wanted to know about his life, about where he’d come from and how he’d become the man he was. He told me stories of my grandfather who I’d never had the good fortune to meet. Grandpa died in 1935 following an appendicitis attack. My father was seven years old and emulated grandpa who was a well respected dairy farmer in the area.

It was in that conversation so many years ago that I asked my dad about what he wanted to do with his life. He told me about wanting to be a dairy farmer like his father had been. He told me about how life had gotten in the way of following his dream. He made choices, choices that were difficult but that he felt were right. He set his dream aside for marriage and children. He chose a full time job off the farm to keep his growing family fed and clothed. He put his family first and though he did crop farming he never got cows.

When I looked into his eyes and saw the sadness of a dream never realized I made a decision that defined my life. I decided in that moment that I would never look back on my life to see I hadn’t fully lived.

That decision has led me to living in eight different towns in three different states, leading community organizing efforts and fighting multinational corporations, traveling on three continents, hiking hundreds of miles, and now working at a university.

It’s been good so far, but recently watching my now aged father and a much younger family member who’s been dealing with major health issues, I’ve been thinking. My life has become rather routine and there is much to do, to see, to learn. It seems a year to write down some of those things that I’d like to have happen as a reminder to myself and a public commitment. So, here it goes. Presuming that I succeed with my efforts, there will undoubtedly be updates throughout the year. I hope you’ll read on and share the experience with me. I wish you the best in the new year! Here’s what I’ll be doing to grow.

  1. Writing at least 50 blog posts (here’s the 1st one!)
  2. Reading/ listening to 50 books ( I’m starting with “The Education of Will” by Patricia McConnell and “38 Nooses” by Scott W. Berg)
  3. Getting back on track with my healthy eating habits
  4. Running a 10k or 1/2 marathon (I haven’t decided yet, but I know more than 5k and probably not a full)
  5. learn to play guitar
  6. finish at least 3 or 4 knitting projects
  7. Get Buddy started with his therapy dog training
  8. Cutting my screen time significantly, especially facebook time

Those are my big goals for the year. My hope is that these will bring me more happiness along with some new skills, improved physical health, knowledge, and some cool projects. I hope you’ll find positive growth in the new year as well. Take good care!

Hardening

Is it becoming hardened to the world?  Is that what’s happened? Is it ok?  Is it a good thing?  Does it need to be addressed?

I went to see the movie “The Hate You Give” a couple weeks ago.  A woman I knew was there with a friend of hers and their teenage kids.  The adults were talking about how one of the kids had absolutely devoured the book and questioning how they’d respond to the movie.  The kids loved the movie. They also seemed to have the power to take it in as both normal and fiction.  I found myself questioning whether I could have done that in the same nonchalant way when I was their age.  I suspect not.  I’m guessing I would have been troubled.  Though I do kind of wonder about their power.  After all, I was busy being troubled by many things as a teenager that I had no words for, but they looked at ease. 

Then I look at myself.  My work hosted a discussion last night on the prevention of sexual violence and sex trafficking.  We had a good room full of people and excellent facilitators.  They shared some powerful research about what’s happening in Minnesota.  I found myself looking about the room at all the students and other community members and wondering “how many here have been affected?” but not really feeling. 

This isn’t new.  I’ve been doing community organizing in one form or another for nearly 30 years now.  There was a time when discussions like that of last night would have sent me off in anger to organize, to take part in a rally, to do something.  Now, sometimes I just sit and reflect and don’t feel the anger or the sadness or maybe I do, it’s just deeper where I don’t see it. 

I still do work.  It looks different.  I spend a lot of time with college students asking them how they’ve been sustaining themselves.  I measure the invitations to get involved in local efforts and choose the ones that I believe will build community while addressing issues of concern. 

You know it does frighten me that I or those teenagers can look at any form of violence and see it as part of the place and time in which we live and not be at least a bit angry, heartbroken, and fearful.  We deserve better.  

Hardening is a form of protecting self, but isn’t softening that as well? How can we be both soft and pliable and strong to face the painful realities? That’s the ongoing question.   I keep working for an answer.