Thursday, October 31, 2013

Becoming Spirit

I see you becoming spirit, a little bit at a time. Over the past few weeks and months, my sweet ancient Bridget cat, your physical presence has been diminishing. I’ve seen it happening for awhile now. I’m so sad that you are fading away, soon to be gone from my life. We’ve been together for 18 wonderful years. I know that existence is impermanent and it’s time for you to go, but that doesn’t make it any easier right now. I’ve had such a lovely journey with you and I wish it never had to end.

You will always be a part of me. The silky smooth feel of your long dark fur, your sweet soft meow with just a hint of a Southern drawl, and the frisky spring in your step in your younger days are permanently etched in my brain. Images of you sprinting lithely up the front steps of our log house in the country, curled up next to Goldie under the firewood pile on chilly evenings, and dashing into the house with a live bird in your mouth (and me chasing wildly after you) are memories that I’ll carry with me as long as I live. Your dear little spirit will always live in my heart. Your gentle sweetness evokes memories from the deep parts of my mind, as though you’re a reincarnation of my mother. You’re one of the sweetest animals who ever lived. The lightness in your gait and fluffy coat when you were young and healthy gave you the appearance of a graceful little ballerina with whiskers.  
You were my teacher and comforter when I was younger. During times of stress when I was a thirty something career woman, I’d sometimes come home fussy and uptight after a busy, frustrating day at work. I’d pick you up and cradle you baby style in my arms, and your deep, strong purr would vibrate against my chest, calming me. Your warm body would relax me. I would gaze into your wise eyes that seemed to say, let it go, Mommy, it’s alright. We’re together and everything’s okay. You always made me feel better, and I’d find the strength to go back to my workplace and face the stress again the next day. During my pagan years, I used to call you my witch cat. You seemed to come from some other deeply spiritual space and time. You are an ancient soul. You’ve brought joy, peace, companionship, and love to my life for almost two decades.

Lately you’ve lost weight and slept more, and secluded yourself behind a bookcase. Your appetite has waned, even for the Fancy Feast Savory Salmon that you’ve loved so much over the years. You’ve stopped carrying your favorite stuffed toy around the house. You’re barely five pounds. The cancer is taking you away, inch by inch. It will take your little body, but it can never take away your eternal spirit.
You were meant to be my cat. After the first time I saw you as a stray at a storage facility in Newberry, I knew I had to go back and get you and bring you home. Patti Gordon, your vet at the All Cats Clinic, says half jokingly that what cats want is good food, a safe place to live, and to be left alone. But you and I both know that we’ve shared a very deep friendship. Even though I’ve complained at times about the coughed up hairballs, missed litter box accidents as you’ve grown old, and the little tumbleweeds of cat hair that blow across the living room floor when the ceiling fans are turned on, I have loved you dearly. I would gladly clean it up all over again.

As you’ve grown increasingly old and I’ve matured, we’ve traded roles. I’ve become your comforter. Medications, prescription diets, and trips to the vet have become routine. I brush your coat daily since you’re no longer able to groom. I’m retired from my full time job now, and I’m grateful to have more time to cuddle you, scratch you in the places you love, and tell you that I love you. I want to remember every detail of your being. I stroke your lucky yellow left hind foot and the bright white star on your throat. I hold you in my arms baby style, look into your green eyes and tell you that we’re together and everything will be okay. I will be with you until the very end. Although your illness is stressful, I find ways to cope. I burn incense, play New Age music, drink Starbucks, and call a friend.
I had been so hopeful when you rallied after the course of antibiotics and pain meds. Maybe it’s just an infection, I thought. My heart sank at the follow-up visit when the vet said the tumor is no longer infected but it is still cancer. She talked at great length about risky surgeries with little possibility of a successful outcome, batteries of tests with no clear purpose, and radiation therapy. I believe that you would not want me to make you suffer through all that. On the other hand, I guilt trip myself by wondering if there are things I could have done to prevent your cancer. Then I remind myself that you’ve had a fine, long life and I’ve taken very good care of you.  

I want to write this chapter while you’re here with me, instead of waiting to construct a melancholy eulogy after you’re gone. I’ve written too many sad stories and obituaries for pets and other family members in the past few years. I want my story to be more than simply a tale of depression. I want to write about the good times, the meaning of life, and all the beauty in my world. You’re such a dainty little princess, yet courageous and strong. I’m so glad that being your Mommy has been a part of my life. You’re curled up beside me in our red leather recliner even as I write this, your warm silky body tucked in next to me. You make your contented lilting chirping sound, so familiar, when I gently rub your head. You bump your head against my hand for more. We are together for now. I want to enjoy every moment I have with you. The present moment is all we have together, my beloved, sweet-natured Bridget Widget. You were named Bridget after a pagan goddess, and you are truly a Goddess. You have made my life richer for many years, and I am so glad you’ve been a member of my family. I want to take a hundred photographs of you. I want to always remember the feeling of your fine soft silky coat on my fingertips when I touch you. I want to give you a million kisses and smell the clean scent of your fur. I celebrate you, my Princess!

Monday, October 1, 2012

Synchronicity


The young dog jumped up and strained at the end of her leash, tail wagging so fast it was almost a blur. Her friendly beagle face smiled up at me as I walked past the outdoor table where her owner and a couple of friends were chatting over their Sunday morning coffee. I smiled down at the beagle and went inside the coffee shop. 

I got my latte and sank into an easy chair to enjoy it. As I finished my drink, I heard a crash and the unmistakable sound of dishes breaking outside. I glanced out the window. The exuberant young beagle had apparently knocked over a small metal table, causing the mugs and saucers on top of it to fly off and smash on the sidewalk. A college student led the beagle by her leash away from the broken glass while her boyfriend stooped to pick up the pieces. Another friend who was sitting at their table came inside the coffee shop to tell the owner about the mishap.

The beagle stood next to her owner with her head down and her tail between her legs. I’ve always been a rescuer and a comforter of the crestfallen. I remembered that I had a dog biscuit in my purse that someone had given me the previous day at an art fair. One of the artists, obviously a dog lover, was giving away the home baked canine treats in little zip lock baggies that also contained a business card with information about the artist’s website. I had intended to gift my own dog with the treat, but forgot about it by the time I got home.

So I went outside to the dog’s owner and asked if I could give her dog a treat. What’s her name, I asked. Lily, the college student replied. I bent to stroke the beagle’s head and tell her she was beautiful. Her face reminded me so much of other beagles in my past. Some of those memories are fond, a few are sad, and others are bittersweet.  I handed the biscuit to the owner and explained to her how I got it. She and her friend smiled and thanked me. 

As I walked back to my car, I thought about synchronicity.  Beagles have come and gone from my life, as well as a blue heeler dog named Lily. But nothing is ever really gone. Whatever is lost comes back around in another form. An artist gave me a dog biscuit, and I met a beagle named Lily who needed to be given a treat. It worked out perfectly. One moment of our lives flows into the next, today becomes tomorrow, and tomorrow becomes the day after. We can trust that our needs will be met and that whatever comes along, it will all be okay. All beings are a part of the whole. Everything works together in the long run to create our highest good, and in spite of a few sad memories and broken coffee mugs, it’s all wonderful.  

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Goodbye to Curious

I found the ancient pink tattered Easter bunny among your things a couple of years after you died. He was barely recognizable, with no ears, eyes, or other distinguishable features, and barely any fur left. You said when you got him as a gift one Easter morning in the early 1960s that his facial expression made him look curious, and so you gave him that name. Curious was your favorite toy, but he was so much more than a toy to you. You tucked him into bed with you every night until you went off to college, and then he went with you. I never saw much of Curious after that, but I was not surprised to discover him stored in a box after you were gone. You always clung to the important things, my sweet, sensitive, sentimental girl. Letting go is one of the hardest things for humans, and you found it especially difficult. I think you found it easier to let go of life itself than to endure the endless cycle of changes life forces us to face. Even after Curious became shabby and worn and sad to look at, you kept him and never let him go.

Curious was cute and cuddly in his earlier days. He filled a huge void in your young life, in a home where there was sometimes little affection or joy. He gave you comfort and companionship. He was your confidant and knew all of your thoughts and dreams. He waited patiently and silently for you on your pillow every day while you were at school.

I also found an old plush blue Easter bunny among your things. I didn't recall ever having met this bunny while you were alive, so I was not sure when you got him. He was tattered also, and no longer in good enough condition to donate to Goodwill. You and I loved our stuffed animals when we were growing up, especially our Easter bunnies. The Velveteen Rabbit was one of our favorite childhood reads.

I was tempted to keep both the blue rabbit and Curious forever, wrapping them in a cloth or tissue paper and tucking them into a closet or drawer. It took me a long time to realize that I need to let go of your childhood toys, you, and all the sad memories. I need to let you remain in the past and move forward, if I am going to have a future. I've been mired in grief and sadness at times for almost five years since you died, and maybe even to some extent ever since our Mama left us almost fifty years ago. My recent inability to cope with my feelings and reach out for help almost led to the end of my sanity, my career, and my life as I know it. I need to release the sadness and work like crazy on bringing more happiness into my life.

I built a little fire in the copper pit on our back patio, and gently placed Curious and the blue bunny in the flames. Smoke curled up towards the bright summer sky as the fire consumed them, releasing their essence into the universe. I hope somewhere your beloved stuffed animals will find your spirit and cuddle with you again. You were my sister and my closest relative in the world. Although you will still always be my sister, I must now also find sisterhood among the living. Maybe I will see you again in another life. I wish you joy, peace, and happiness where ever you are.




Sunday, January 8, 2012

Seeing God

We gather in a circle of folding chairs in the church fellowship hall. The title of today's seminar is "How Do You See God?" Our moderator asks the twenty or so participants to spend about ten minutes writing our own description of God. After the time limit is up, he asks us to share what we've written with the group. I share that I have often felt as though I cannot see God and I feel alone in the universe. I wonder if I somehow landed on the wrong planet, and I don't understand why I can't find my way home. I confess that when people ask me where I'm from, I tell them I'm from Pleiadies. If someone asks me where it's located, I jokingly reply that it's about an hour west of Louisville. This breaks the ice and soothes my discomfort about feeling alienated from the world.

I explain that I see God most clearly as the Goddess, like Quan Yin in the Buddhist tradition. This Goddess is known as "she who hears the cries of the world". I love the feminine, nurturing aspect of the divine. It comforts me. I grew up in a family with an overabundance of yang energy, and the Goddess creates balance for me when my world feels out of kilter. She is compassionate and kind. In my nursing career, I have sometimes experienced a side of the feminine personality that is not so nice. Nurses can be mean-spirited, petty, and unsupportive towards one another. This makes me sad. It is wonderful when I find a kindred spirit at work with whom I can share my joys and sorrows. The Goddess is always there, like lyrics from a Sinead O'Connor song, to mother me and see me through. This is an important aspect of my spirituality.

At the close of the seminar, I share that I've been touched by the wide spectrum of participants' feelings about the concept of God, ranging from sadness, fear, doubt, longing, anger, joy, comfort, and love. I point out that God is important to all of us, even if we experience God as being absent. I tell the group that I believe we are all a part of God. Another woman says she wishes this group could meet every week. A man says he appreciated the joy of not hearing intellectual bullshit in the group. Our discussion has been sincere and heartfelt. We leave feeling a little closer to one another.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Tribes

I sit silently in the peaceful sunlit sanctuary. It is Sunday morning, and I've come early to place a bouquet of flowers in the church for the Sunday service. Nobody else has arrived yet. It is the first time I've been alone in this space since I joined the Presbyterian church. I slip off my Birkenstocks, cross my legs half-lotus style, and settle down on the padded pew, relaxing in the solitude. I've brought a book with me today, in anticipation of having a few quiet moments alone before the service. I'm reading Thich Nhat Hahn's "Going Home: Jesus and Buddha as Brothers". I open my book and begin reading. A passage from the page I'm reading speaks to me.

Thich Nhat Hahn writes that our ancestors are alive within us and they have never died. They are still in us. He says that we need only to come back to ourselves by practicing mindful breathing to touch them.

I thought of a synchronous event that happened just the day before. During my weekend errands, I had stopped by Lily's Alteration Shop to have a new blouse hemmed. While I stood on a platform in the shop waiting for the little Chinese seamstress to pin up my hem, I caught a glimpse of my face in the full length mirror. Just for a moment I saw myself as a part of a clan, a beloved drop of the sacred pool of my family. I noticed my fair creamy Scots-Irish skin with bronze undertones, freckled from the Florida sun. I saw my maternal grandmother Sadie's small nose and my mother Iris' copper hair. I saw the people from whom I came reflected back at me in the mirror. I smiled to them. I felt disconnected from my mother's family for much of my childhood and well into my adult years. I realize now that whether or not I knew those people well or was close to them, I still belong to them and have always been a part of their tribe.

I take a deep breath and in my mind's eye, I visualize my mother and her mother, as I've seen them so many times in our family photos, and I feel just a little less detached from them than I have in the past. Although they are strangers and ghosts to me in many ways, I realize that they lived their lives the best way they could, and they would have been more connected to me if only they could have found a way. I know that there will always be times when I feel insecure, frightened, and alone, but I am part of a spiritual community of people where I am valued and loved. I open my eyes and gaze around the sanctuary as the members of our beloved community begin to gather for today's service, and I smile to this tribe as well.   
   

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Dear Mama

Dear Mama,

I wish I could show you this photograph. It’s a snapshot of me with Elizabeth Lynne, the daughter of your cousin Helen, and your nephew Greg, the son of your older brother Orin. This picture of the three of us was taken at a college basketball game in Orlando a couple of months ago.

I’d love for you to see this photo, just to let you know that the three of us are doing okay. We're middle-aged now. We were just little kids the last time you saw us, back in the 1960s. I’d like to believe that you would be proud of the three of us. I wonder if you ever thought about a time in the future when the kids in your family would be all grown up, and how our lives might be.

After I lost you when I was four years old, I lost most of your family, too. I was cut off from them for many years. I felt a bit like a grape on a vine plucked from a cluster, tossed on the ground, and left to wither alone. It wasn’t until I was almost forty that your kinfolk came trickling back into my life, one by one, and I started going back to Pikeville to visit after more than three decades.

I can’t remember much about my relationship with you. My memories of you are like wispy glimpses or blips on a screen, almost subliminal. My family photographs of you bring to mind so many questions that will never be answered. I remember your silk kimono and the lovely fragrance of your Persian Wood talcum powder. I recall curling up with you for afternoon naps in our house on St. Regis Drive, and playing in the backyard while you pinned linens on the clothesline on sunny days. I remember riding with you in your Chevrolet to pick up Carolyn in the afternoons at the elementary school. You drove with the window rolled down, smoking Winston cigarettes. You used to take me grocery shopping with you at the Jitney Jungle. When I've heard cousin Martha's voice on the phone, it sounds so much like yours. In her photographs, she resembles you, too.

I have a few belongings you left behind. They are my most beloved treasures. Your possessions help me feel a little closer to you. Your handwritten letters to my grandparents, the little satin ring pillow from your wedding, your Pikeville High School class ring, and a couple of your watercolor paintings are among those precious things. I have your Towle Candlelight silver flatware and your Early American dining room chairs. I also have a few pieces of your Poppy Trail china. To the best of my knowledge, I have everything that is left in the world of your personal effects.

I need to tell you that it is difficult for me to understand how you could ever leave me. I know your health was frail and married life didn’t turn out the way you wanted it to be. Maybe motherhood wasn’t so great for you either. Your departure wounded me in a way that can never quite be healed. Sometimes I am still a motherless child adrift in the world without the anchor of a mother’s unconditional love. I never learned some of the things that a girl needs her mother to teach her, like how to cook and clean, for instance. As odd as it may seem, I'm just now learning how to mop floors and dust, after having depended on housekeepers for many years. Now that I'm nearing retirement and a cleaning service is less affordable, I'm having to figure out, for the first time in my life, how to keep the house clean. And let's don't even talk about my lack of culinary skills!

Your firstborn, my big sister Carolyn, passed away in 2007. Cousin Jeff left the following year, in 2008. Cousin Diane died last year, in 2010. Aunt Ruth and Aunt Lois are also gone, as well as several of the others you loved. I keep in touch with Janey, Greg, David, and Jennifer, as well as Edgar and Reed. Charles lived until 2005. Immediately after his funeral, I drove across town to your grave to tell you that he had died. I kissed your tombstone and told you that I love you.

I hope you're in a good place. Sometimes I wonder sometimes if you can see me. I wonder if I would have made different decisions about my life if you had lived. There was a time when I had a mother, but it seems so long ago and far away, like a fairy tale about an enchanted life. I do not know what it would have been like to grow up with you. I am a continuation of you. I try to live my life as best I can and make positive contributions to the world. I promise I'll stay in relationship with your people, my people. I hope this is comforting to you. And I hope more than anything that someday, somehow, and somewhere in the universe, I will get to see you again.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Roads

I look around at the countryside as I steer my silver Toyota along the winding county roads on my late afternoon commute home from work. I want to really look, with intention, seeing it all, taking in the familiar landmarks. I have been driving these roads most of my adult life while earning a living providing a health ministry of sorts to prisoners. Soon I will no longer be driving this route, as I've made a decision to transfer to another practice site. I don't think these rural roads will ever be a regular part of my work life again.

Along the route, I notice the humble country church that advertises "Free Clothes" for poor folks on its small marquee sign every year before Christmas and Easter. I cross the ancient concrete bridge over the New River, on the border between Bradford and Union counties. I see the rustic wooden A-frame house, nestled in the woods, that I used to covet in my younger years. The almost-stately red brick farmhouse, with its rooftop spire and surrounding rolling acerage catches my eye, reminding me of a Kentucky thoroughbred horse farm. I see the old Florida cracker house, with its peeling exterior paint and rusty tin roof, on the main drag in the little town of Brooker. I glance over at the replica of a green and yellow John Deere tractor in the fenced backyard of a day care center where children are playing. It makes me smile.

I think about how much my world has changed since I first began making this daily drive. I started traveling these roads before the internet, and before I learned yoga, watercolor painting, and how to grow bamboo. It was before I had ever owned a home, before I made some not-so-great decisions that I'd rather not recall, and before I discovered delights such as Lindor white truffles and Kendall Jackson chardonnay. It was before Maui, Cancun, and Montreal. It was before I met and married my beloved Jack. It was before I discovered, embraced, and later rejected the Unitarian Universalist faith. It was before I learned to practice meditation and before I lost my sister. It was before several fur children came along, spent their lives with me, and then left - Happy, Goldie, Blondie, Pixie, Lily, and Paco. It was before dental crowns, graying hair, achy joints, and melanoma. It was before Starbucks, cell phones, and hybrid cars.

When I began traveling these roads, my future seemed full of possibilities, vast and limitless. More than twenty years later, now that I am in my fifties, I realize now that my life will not go on forever, and I will someday become part of eternity and go where ever my grandmother, my mother, and my other post-incarnate loved ones have gone. There's a line in one of my favorite Goddess chants that goes "We all come from the Goddess, and to her we shall return, like drops of rain flowing to the ocean." I am a drop of water in the sea of life. I realize now that I am not separate from anything or anyone. I exist only as part of the whole, even though I have not felt that way for a large portion of my life. I have often felt like I am a space alien and I do not fit in or belong here. Feeling like an outsider has sometimes created painful difficulties and divides in my relationships and my work over the years.

In my mind's eye I see my younger self just beginning her career when she first started traveling these roads. She was about thirty, with a lot of ambition and an advanced college degree. She was newly-divorced, angry, and intense. My mature self wants to give her a hug. I want to enfold her gently in my arms and tell her that she is good and she is loved. I want to let her know that she belongs and she is not alone in this world. I want to assure my younger self that she will find the love of her life, that she will earn a good living, and that she will discover ways to make her life meaningful. I wish I could tell her that although there will be difficult times, she is strong enough to cope with anything that life may bring. I want to tell her to take it easy, breathe deeply, and trust the universe and the process of life. I see her as though I am watching an actor on a movie screen, or like an out-of-body experience where I am hovering somewhere in the atmosphere near her. I cannot make eye contact with her or see her face to face.

I hope that someday there will be an elder self, who has seen her career through to completion and no longer travels down any roads to work. I think my older self will see my young and middle-aged selves in her mind's eye and wish that she could give them both a hug and tell them that everything will turn out all right. Maiden, mother, and crone are the parts of the sacred Triple Goddess as well as three stages in a woman's life. Maybe in my crone wisdom years, I'll find a way to view my younger selves face to face, seeing my parents, grandparents, and all of our ancestors in their eyes, with deep awareness that we are all timeless beings with no birth and no death, always flowing to and from the ocean, and traveling together along the winding roads of the universe.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Paco is the Future

I am discovering that a part of adjusting to growing older involves having to learn to accept an ever increasing number of losses. So many deaths have occured around me within the last few years. Losses seem to be occurring at an accelerating pace now that I am in my fifties. Within the past five years I've said lost my dad, my sister, my aunt Anne, my aunt Gale, my cousins Jeff and Diane, my old graduate school classmate Ginger, several beloved pets, my mother-in-law, and now my neighbor Lorenzo.

Lorenzo lived across the street from me for almost ten years. He was one of the first neighbors I met shortly after I bought my house just south of the University of Florida campus near Bivens Lake. We were fairly close in age. He was an artist, visionary, and dreamer in a big way. I enjoyed hearing him talk about liberal politics, art, nature, and his family roots in Bolivia. Born Larry, he came to embrace his Hispanic identity and changed his name as an adult to Lorenzo. He had conflicted relationships with his siblings and friends. Lorenzo had a girlfriend for awhile, whom he met in a substance abuse treatment program. She moved in with him, and even brought along her sister and younger brother. They seemed like a happy clan for a few years, and then one by one they drifted away, the girlfriend being the last to go. Lorenzo was raising two daughters by former marriages. One left home to get married right after her high school graduation. The other girl stayed home while attending a local college, but eventually she, too, met a guy and moved away to Nashville with him.

Lorenzo lived in a big ramshackle two story house with wood siding. Over the years, the house fell into poor repair, with the roof leaking and weeds taking over the entire yard. Lorenzo didn't seem to care. I heard from other neighbors that he was ill. He became more and more reclusive, seldom venturing out. One day his siblings came and started cleaning pickup truckloads of trash out of the house. His kitty Paco, whom Lorenzo had taken in several years ago after Paco was abandoned by some university students, had been eating at our house with our cats for awhile, as Lorenzo had become a little casual about putting out kibbles for him.

One day I came home and found Paco, waiting for his dinner as usual on our front step, with a huge gaping wound on his neck. I examined him and was disturbed to see his muscle exposed through the long tender gash. He had apparently tangled with some critter, maybe a possum or racoon, and suffered a nasty bite. I wanted to help but wasn't sure what approach to take, with Lorenzo being ill.

Rather than knocking on Lorenzo's door, I decided to drop his daughter an email asking if she wanted me to take Paco to a vet. I was stunned by her reply. She said her father had passed away two weeks prior, and she thought that I had agreed that Paco could live with me. In my ideal world, some member of their family would have contacted me shortly after Lorenzo's death. But reality isn't ideal, and things didn't happen according to my expectations. As I mature, I am finally realizing that life is like that sometimes. I emailed her back with my condolences and an assurance that I would take care of the cat.

A few weeks after antibiotics and daily wound care, Paco's neck is healed. He still hangs around across the street most of the time at Lorenzo's vacant house, but comes over to our place faithfully twice a day to eat. It seems to me that Lorenzo's ghost still hovers near, and I can see him in my mind's eye going for walks along our street, with his glassy blue eyes and mop of graying Einstein-like hair. Maybe he is having difficulty leaving this world. Lorenzo once told me that creatures shouldn't be buried after death because it ties them to a specific place and their spirit can't roam freely. A Google search for his obituary revealed that his remains were left to the Neptune Society for cremation. Nevertheless, I think it will still be awhile before he moves on fully to the next realm.   

I'm learning that I must grieve each loss and move on. I cannot live in a world of the past, as this contributes to depression. I must greet each new day and look forward to the possibilities that it brings. I must have more beginnings than endings. Nurturing my relationship, keeping in touch with friends, meeting new people, doing something creative, and being of service to others keeps me engaged with the world and connected to life. Some days when my mood is low, I don't feel like I'm doing anybody any good. My hope that I can make things beautiful and help others gives me reasons to get out of bed in the morning. Making a difference gives my life meaning. Lorenzo is gone, and so his kitty has now joined our family, and I am happy for the opportunity to care for this cat and make a difference for him. Paco is the future.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

End of Auburn

Our big red pickup truck rolls westward over the bridge crossing the Chattahoochee River near the state borders of Georgia and Alabama. We drive on towards the town of Auburn, where you earned your living as a university librarian for twenty five years. As we pull into town, Jack suggests that we go straight to the storage facility before checking into our hotel. All of your worldly goods have been kept in storage there ever since you died a little over two years ago.

This is our second trip to the storage unit. Jack and I came to Auburn last May with Uncle Jim and Aunt Gale. We brought home your desk and some paintings, and Aunt Gale kept a couple of dolls from your collection. I was too overwhelmed to deal with the rest of it during that trip. I remembered the storage unit as being about the size of a two car garage, with furniture and boxes of personal effects stacked up to the ceiling. Upon our arrival this trip, I was relieved to see that the volume of stuff that had filled your old Victorian house in Opelika for almost twenty years was a little less than I had thought.

We begin loading the lighter pieces of furniture into the back of the truck, including your wicker arch shelves, Danish modern dinette, and a night stand or two. When our truck is full, we make the first of what will be many trips over the next couple of days to Goodwill. Their workers help us unload the goods. We check into the Holiday Inn, freshen up a bit, and then go out to a Mexican place for burritos and a glass of wine. After dinner, we head back to the hotel and relax in the jacuzzi tub.

The next morning we get up early, and put on t-shirts and jeans. At the storage facility, I start sorting through dozens of boxes filled with towels and tablecloths, pots and pans, Christmas ornaments, stainless flatware, and paperback novels. I glance around the storage unit and realize that this room contains all that is left of your existence. It makes me a little sad.

Jack works on arranging the heavier pieces of furniture to make them more accessible for the thrift store workers who are coming for pick-up. Two guys arrive in a large truck with a hydraulic lift. They are happy to receive your floral upholstered sofa sleeper, the mahogany 1980's style coffee table, and that blue velvet arm chair you loved so much. Into their truck goes the oak bed frame Uncle Jim bought you when you moved to Lexington to work on your masters degree at the University of Kentucky, and a large chest of drawers. A dining room table and matching chairs also go into the truck. I'm a little sad to part with your beloved Lane cedar chest, but there's no space for it in our house, so off to the thrift store it goes. I hope it finds a good home.

After the thrift store truck has gone, Jack and I continue to sort through the storage unit. Your sewing machine, an old typewriter, luggage, and several large bags of clothing all go into our pickup. I unfold your favorite pairs of jeans, dresses, and pretty sweaters. I decide to save only a scarf for myself. Your old patent leather clutch purse that was all the rage in 1971 makes me smile. I decide to pass it all along to others who may need clothing and a vintage handbag more than I do.

I look, a little wistfully, through a box filled with some of your favorite childhood books. I remember how you loved Pipi Longstocking and On the Banks of Plum Creek. I'm tempted to keep the books, but then decide pass them along to Goodwill so that other children can enjoy them as much as you did.

I unwrap the colorful folk art paintings of Aunt Jemima Self-Rising Flour and Planters Roasted Peanuts that you liked so much. They adorned your kitchen walls and made you happy, but they also absorbed so much negative karma over the years of your marriage that it hurts me to look at them. Seeing those pictures brings back memories of the two of you standing in the kitchen screaming at one another. I decide to give them to Goodwill so that they can find their way to new homes where they will make other people happy.

We work all day, sorting through seemingly endless boxes of papers, tossing out old bank statements, tax returns, and correspondence. I save some of your birthday cards and old letters from friends and family. Jack and I decide to bring home your beautiful Blue Willow wedding china. I save your photo albums, high school yearbooks, and several pieces of art. I keep your Bible and an unabridged dictionary. We find a blender and several other items we can use at our house. I find one very special treasure, the little white satin ring pillow from our parents wedding. It has the words "Iris and Charles, August 21, 1947" embroidered on it. I am so happy to have it. I find a 1960s modern style lamp, from our house in Myrtle Grove, and I load it into the truck. It has good vibes.

There is not enough room in our truck to bring home the big white wooden bookcase that was in the bedroom we shared as little girls in our house on St. Regis Drive. Sadly, we also have no room for our Grandaddy's rocking chair. I call the minister at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Auburn. She says we can drop those items off at the church and promises to give them a good home. I also give her your flower pot decorated with pretty painted irises, your little ceramic dog bank for her grandson, and your Robert Frost poetry book for the church library.

I look around at familiar landmarks as we drive through this quaint little college town. I wave goodbye to the library. At the cemetery, I place a bouquet of silk tulips on your grave, as well as two little ceramic angels I found carefully wrapped in tissue paper in a box with some other figurines.

I will miss traveling the long peaceful country roads across west Georgia, seeing signs along the way for towns with amusing names like "Ty Ty" and "Cussetta". I'll also miss stopping at the Merritt Pecan Company in Weston, Georgia for pecan divinity and cashew brittle. I'll miss the miles of crop fields, farm houses, pecan groves, and red clay hills. I will miss stopping for coffee at the Starbucks in Tifton, just off I-75.

The storage unit is empty and our goal accomplished. We begin our trip back home to Florida. You named me as the executor of your estate in an unsigned Will, written before your marriage, that I found in your safe deposit box right after you died. I'll never know whether you still wanted me to take care of your belongings after all those years since you never updated the Will, but your almost ex-husband agreed to drop off the key to the storage unit for me at a lawyer's office. You were my sister, and I am happy to do this in honor of your memory. I traveled to Auburn so many times over the years to spend Thanksgivings, Christmases, and summer vacations with you. I don't know when I will come to Auburn again, as you are no longer there and your soul is somewhere else in the universe. So this is the end of my travels to Auburn for awhile, as I no longer have ties to the area. But I promise you that someday I'll come back and put flowers on your grave again.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Googling Ginger

Dear Ginger,

I just learned about your death today, even though you've been gone for more than a year. Now that I am nearing the end of my government career, I spend quite a bit of time daydreaming about the possibility of opening up a small part time private counseling practice after I retire. Today I thought about the psychotherapy practice you started after we finished graduate school. I decided to "Google" you to look for information about your work on the internet. But when your name popped up with a link to Legacy.com, I realized at once that you were gone.

I was already familiar with the Legacy.com website. My sister's obituary was posted there after she died in December, 2007. Your passing was almost a year to the day after hers. I'm sure you recall meeting Carolyn when she came to Gainesville for Christmas one year. I have old photos of us celebrating the holiday at your place. You and my big sister were a lot alike in some ways.

You and I became fast friends after we met as graduate students in Psychology. We took all of the same classes. I remember late night study sessions at Perkins Pancake House, and the two of us as 30-something divorced gals, sipping wine at Friday evening happy hour in a local night club, hoping to meet some handsome eligible guys. I learned how to read Tarot cards from you. I can still see us sitting cross-legged on the living room carpet in your condo so many times, seeking spiritual guidance and insight from your Rider-Waite deck. Those were happy times for me, and I valued our friendship. I remember riding to St. Augustine Beach in your old Mustang, our hair blowing wildly in the wind because it didn't have an air conditioner, and stopping at the Dairy Queen to cool off with a dipped cone. You loved having fun.

I saw you for the last time about ten years ago, on a Saturday afternoon before Easter. You waved to me from across the sidewalk at Thornebrook Village shopping center. You were heading into the chocolate shop, apparently to buy some Easter treats for friends. You were always generous and loved giving gifts. One of our professors once said that you possessed personality traits that tend to be pleasing to people. You were deeply touched by his remark. Two of the gifts you gave me are still among my favorite pieces of art and have hung on the walls of my home for many years. You brought them back from a summer vacation you took to visit your sister Joy in Colombia.

I waved back at you that afternoon, and you came over to the table where my friend Glenda and I were having lunch at an outdoor cafe. I introduced the two of you, and you sat down at our table to chat. That's when you told me about your private practice. You handed me your business card, and we told each other we would keep in touch. You were reaching out, and had moved beyond the anger and pain that had ended our friendship. I wanted to put up a protective wall and keep you at arm's length, even though years had passed, and not risk being hurt again. I hadn't yet learned never to throw anyone away. I sent you a Christmas card the following year, and you didn't respond. I never followed up.

Both you and my sister could push my buttons and wound the vulnerable place in my soul deeply beyond all my strength to cope. I don't even remember what our quarrel was about that hurt me so badly I didn't feel that I could continue being your friend, even though I had been in touch with you almost every day for over two years. Pressures were mounting as we neared the completion of our masters program, and maybe we took our stresses and strains out on each other. Maybe there was more to it than that. You left a message on my answering machine at the end of our last semester, congratulating the both of us on passing our comprehensive exams. We hadn't spoken in a couple of months. You were reaching out, but I was sensitive and my heart just hurt too much to reach back. I didn't return your call.

I am sorry that I didn't reconnect with you. You're a beautiful soul. I'd like to be friends with you again in some future lifetime. I learned that you'd had at least one other troubled friendship. Another therapist in the local mental health community told me in 2006 that you and she had broken off communication after a tumultous time, and were no longer in touch with one another. I realized then that the problem between us wasn't all me.

I read on Legacy.com that you died of cancer at the York Hospice House. I hope it was a good death, in that beautiful hospice center, free from suffering, surrounded by loved ones and caring people to ease your transition into the next life. I remembered your abnormal Pap smear, and I vaguely recall something about a spot on your chest x-ray that was diagnosed as a benign nodule at the time. When I read your obit today, I wondered if the seeds of the cancer that took you were already planted way back when. I think we knew each other well on some some levels, yet still remained strangers to one another in other ways. I learned a lot from you, Ginger girl. Especially today. You just taught me the paramount importance of healing broken friendships while there is still time. I thank you for that lesson, my dear.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Changes

My high school science teacher, Mr. Charles Bennett, once said that the amount in which a person changes from the first grade to adolescence is equal to the amount of change you'll experience every decade of your life. I was incredulous and found this difficult to believe when I was sixteen. At that stage of my life, I thought I was blossoming into the kind of adult I was going to become and would maintain a steady course on a straight path throughout all my days. I could never have imagined all the changes that my life would bring.

After graduation, a whole new world opened up for me, as it does for most young women, in college, work, relationships, and self-exploration. By the age of 30, I had started a career, returned to graduate school to pursue another career, been married and divorced after seven years of matrimony, and had started to deeply examine my faith, world view, and relationships with friends and family. During my 30s and 40s, I tried out a variety of different paths. I lived in a log cabin on a farm with a small herd of polled Hereford beef cattle and Nubian milk goats. I read Sufi poems, Jungian psychology, and feminist literature. I had come from a conservative fundamentalist Kentucky family, and in some ways I felt like I didn't belong anymore.

As I approached the age of 50, I discovered that I didn't feel so far removed from my Appalachian roots after all. In a Buddhist meditation group last year, I realized that I'd forgiven the hurts and disappointments of my past. I learned to see my parents as people who were just doing the best they could, and I realized that I am a continuation of them. My past is a guide post but not a hitching post, and I create my world anew every day as I go along. That's my philosophy at my current stage of development.

I really couldn't have imagined how the world would change technologically as the decades unfold. In the 1990s, I was delighted by car phones, cordless phones, and cell phones. The new millenium brought online banking, laptop computers, and so many wonderful things that make my life easier. I think about my grandmother back home in the hills of eastern Kentucky. She cooked without a microwave oven for a family of five. She never could have envisioned the internet, email, or Skype. She wrote me letters by hand, licked a stamp, and sent them by snail mail. I sill have all of her letters. I think about how humans will live in the future, like Star Trek, probably traveling to other planets and taking it for granted. They will think the way I've lived is primitive. Their kids will laugh when they learn in school about fossil fueled cars, antibiotics, dental fillings, and how we couldn't control earthquakes and the economy. When I look at my grandmother's old flax spinning wheel, passed down from HER grandmother, I am glad that those days are over. Spinning looks like incredibly hard work. Life will probably be easier in the future but more complex in ways I can't even imagine. When I was Christmas shopping in Best Buy last month, I was astounded that I knew so little about state of the art electronic equipment! The technology changes so rapidly that I can't keep up with it all anymore. I feel as though I'm becoming a dinosaur. Like my high school teacher said, I've changed and my world has changed tremendously each decade. It will be exciting to see where my 60s take me, and beyond.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Close Encounter of the Cardinal Kind

Just before noon I opened the front door, thinking that it might be time to let my calico cat, Alice, back into the house. She had gone outside on a mission earlier that morning. Alice customarily returns home after exploring the environment and waits patiently, curled up on the stepping stones that lead up to the house, for her humans to let her back inside the comfy, air conditioned indoor space.

In addition to Alice relaxing in her usual location, I was surprised to find a not-so-relaxed little fluffy bundle on the doorstep. A small brownish baby bird stared up at me with the most intense expression on its young face, beady eyes concerned and unblinking. She sang a persistent rhythmic "chirp, chirp, chirp" as she peered up at me. My first thought was one of relief that Alice nor any other neighborhood cat had tried to snap up the little feathered morsel. My second thought was that I had to find a way to return this youngster to her parents.

My third thought was that I had no idea how to accomplish this task. As one experienced bird watcher blogged, finding a helpless and seemingly forlorn baby bird on the ground can cause even the most hardened cynic to have fits of compassion. As a pet lover and a nurse, my caretaking instincts immediately took over. I gently scooped the little one up in both hands and carried her into the house.

I grabbed a little wicker basket and placed the baby inside it. She hopped up and perched on the edge of the basket, persistently chirping out her concerns. She seemed to have very definite ideas about how the world should be, and I felt frustrated that I didn't know how to fix things for her at that moment. She could flap her little wings but she seemed to be too young to fly. She didn't appear to have any injuries.

I took a deep breath while the little singer continued cheeping her distress, and tried to consider what options might be available. My friend who teaches in the wildlife ecology program at the local university had recently emailed me stating that she would be away on a Buddhist retreat for the entire month. I called her office neverthless, and the department secretary gave me the phone number for a wildlife rescue agency. I quickly dialed their number, and my heart sank when I was transferred to their voice mail. I left my name and number, and hung up.

I logged on to my laptop and emailed a few folks, including my spouse, about the situation. Almost immediately the phone rang, and Jack was calling from his office to suggest that I contact the Wild Birds Unlimited store. I hadn't thought of that. I hung up and looked up their number. I got a nice young salesman on the line, and he gave me the cell phone number of a wildlife rehabilitation specialist. I thanked him and promptly dialed the cell phone number, as the baby bird continued to watch me with her intense little gaze.

A kind and knowledgeable woman answered the cell phone. I explained my situation. She said to make a little nest in the basket and hang it in a tree outside so that hopefully the parents would find the baby. She suggested feeding it a little lunch meat or cat food with tweezers. My hopes soared as I took in this information. I found a pair of tweezers and retrieved some honey baked ham from the fridge. It didn't take long for the little feathered bundle to convince me that she didn't want even the smallest bits of shredded ham. Her tiny beak snapped shut in a determined way, reminding me of human toddlers pursing their lips to refuse green peas. I got out a can of Fancy Feast Savor Salmon catfood and pulled open the pop top. It took me a few tries to figure out how to pinch up a small amount of the wet ground cat food between the tweezer tines. I offered the little baby a bite. Bingo! Her beak opened wide and I gently dropped the salmon into her waiting throat. My baby hungrily accepted several bites of the cat food.

I thought she might be a wren due to the brownish tint of her feathers, but the rehabilitation specialist told me that cardinal babies start off brown as camouflage and grow their red feathers later. Finding out that my baby was a cardinal made me smile, since cardinals are my very favorite birds.

After feeding the baby, I took the basket out back and hung it in a tree near our bird feeder. I sat down in the backyard garden where we often spend time watching nature, and waited. The baby continued to cheep away, but no parents arrived. My heart sank. A million possibilities ran through my mind. What if a thunderstorm comes up? What if the parents have been killed or for whatever reason have abandoned this little fledgling too soon? Is this youngster going to survive?

Eventually the wildlife rescue center returned my call. I told the agent all of the events of the day. She said that the baby needed to be returned to the front yard, because the nest was apparently in front where I found the chick rather than out back, even though the parents probably regularly visit our backyard feeder. I went out back and retrieved the basket, stopping once again in the kitchen to give the little one a cat food snack. Then out the front door we went.

I had just hooked the basket's handle over a low tree branch when I caught a glimpse of a olive-colored female cardinal perched on the fence bordering our property. Yeah! Maybe that's the mother, I thought. Now we're closer to the nest and on the right track. I went back inside the house.

An hour or so later, when I went out to take our dog for his daily late afternoon walk, I peeked through the branches and was disappointed to see that the little one was still sitting on the edge of the substitute bird nest basket. I began to worry that the baby might be alone all night. I decided to bring the little bird back in and feed her again after returning from doggie walking. The dog and I took off down the street.

Jack got home from work shortly after the dog and I got back in from our walk. I invited him to come out with me and retrieve the little one from the front yard. When we looked together through the brush at the tree limb, the basket was empty! We could hear the cardinals tweeting in the trees above us, and I saw one of the adults make a low swoop around towards the back yard, in the direction of our feeder. Placing the baby closer to the nest apparently helped reunite the family. Success!

I wondered what the cardinal parents thought about their little one coming home smelling like salmon, and whether the baby was able to tell her parents about her adventure inside the walls of the human nest that day. Even though I probably won't be able to distinguish her from other members of her species, I hope the little cardinal grows up beautiful and happy and comes to visit us often at our feeder.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Happy Memories of the Fourth of July

It is the 1960s. We all pile into my grandfather's big white Chevrolet sedan and head out for our annual July 4th family gathering. Our destination is my family's cabin on Lake Cumberland in Eastern Kentucky.

As we drive along, we sing old familiar Christian hymns, such as "We Are Climbing Jacob's Ladder", "Love Lifted Me", and "The Church in the Wildwood". I learned these songs in the Disciples of Christ church where my grandfather is the minister. I'm in the back seat, sitting between my sister and my grandmother, singing harmony. I love these comforting hymns. I know all of the words by heart.

We turn off the main highway. The Chevy lumbers along down the curvy narrow gravel road leading to the cabin. The gravel makes a crunching sound under the wheels. We pull up into the clearing in front of our cabin. My sister and I, clad in shorts and flip flop sandals, jump out of the car and run into the cabin, letting the screen door bang shut behind us. We are happy to be in this serene and rustic place.

The grown-ups unload the trunk of the car. My grandmother starts preparing fried chicken and biscuits in the cabin's small kitchen. My sister grabs a pail, and she and I head out with our Aunt Leafie to pick blackberries for dessert along the gravel road. My dad spots a deer sprinting quietly through the woods.

My uncle Joe goes out to some pick tomatoes he's been growing in a small garden behind the cabin. My grandfather puts on a straw hat and strolls down to the lake. My Uncle Jim, who has driven separately, arrives. He is dressed in business attire, as he just came from his office at the University of Kentucky where he works as a chemical engineer. He climbs into a row boat with my dad, still dressed in his suit and tie. My sister and I giggle at him. I've never seen anyone go fishing in a suit before.

We eat dinner out on the screened back porch. As the sun sets over the lake, we hear a chorus of crickets singing. Fireflies blink their happy little lights in the dusk. Twangy country tunes are playing softly in the background on a transister radio. My dad puffs on an aromatic cherry tobacco blend in his pipe. My sister and I climb into the glider on the porch with our Uncle Joe.

There is no phone or television. We tell stories or just sit quietly together. There are no fireworks in these parts, but we can hear a few distant firecrackers over the lake. We listen to the frogs, whippoorwills, and other sounds of nature. We enjoy spending this time together. It is peaceful here, we are a family, and everything is right with the world.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Lost Child on Valentines Day

I was born to parents who could not love me. My mother died when I was only four years old. My father, a over-educated intellectual with a lot of pizazz and borderline personality disorder, possessed many talents. He smoked a pipe and wore a tiger eye ring. He excelled at watercolor painting and playing the quitar. He had a "green thumb" and was an avid vegetable gardener. My dad enjoyed reading Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain. He wove macrame plant hangers and liked to fly a kite at the beach. One talent he lacked was the ability to be the caring and consistent type of parent that a daughter needs.

I've been told that my dad was different as a young man, perhaps before the stresses and strains of married life and earning a living overtook his life. He became an Eagle Scout in high school. He sang duets in the Disciples of Christ church back home in Kentucky with my aunt Leafie, his brother Joe's wife. When he and his brother Jim were undergraduates at Sue Bennett College, my dad was a cheerleader and Jim played on the basketball team. All of this happened before I was born. I'm not sure exactly when he changed from being a person who was fairly normal and engaged with life into the eccentric, detached, and isolated individual that he was throughout my childhood.

I became somewhat like the concept of a Lost Child, as defined by therapist and author Sharon Wegscheider-Cruse. The lost child is often quiet, withdrawn, and aloof. Because lost children are so often overlooked, they tend to feel lonely, depressed, and rejected. They frequently have difficulty connecting with others and prefer to be alone. The lost child may be perceived by others as being unsociable. Because they try so hard to stay invisible, they are often overlooked by people who might be able to help them.

The Lost Child role is characterized by shyness, solitariness, and isolation. Inwardly, he or she feels like an outsider in the family, ignored by parents and siblings, and feels lonely. The lost child seeks the privacy of his or her own company to be away from the family chaos, and may have a rich fantasy life, into which he or she withdraws. The lost child often has poor communication skills, difficulties with intimacy and in forming relationships, and may have confusion or conflicts about his or her sexual identity and functioning. Lost children may attempt to self-nurture by overeating or using drugs or alcohol.

Wegscheider-Cruse writes that the solitude of a Lost Child may be conducive to the development of his or her spirituality. This certainly rings true for me. This afternoon finds me perched on a little wooden meditation bench with a small circle of people in a Zen Buddhist sangha. Today is Valentines Day. Part of this afternoon's meditation involves savoring the sweetness of chocolate. We share Hershey's Kisses and Ghiradelli Squares.

It is a balmy Florida pre-Spring afternoon. Our sangha meets in a classroom at the Unitarian Universalist Church. We have the classroom door and windows open during our meeting in order to enjoy the nice weather, and we can hear the soothing sound of a bubbling fountain in the church courtyard. We also hear a barred owl hooting softly in a wooded area. White dogwood and redbud trees near the church are beginning to blossom.

During meditation, my thoughts drift to the past and my family of origin. I am the only surviving member of my nuclear family. Both of my parents and my sister are gone now. As I meditate, tender feelings for them arise and make me smile. All of the hurts and disappointments of the past are gone. I am still here, living on earth in a human form, and I carry my family with me in my heart.

The Lost Child may develop a rich inner life and creative mental pursuits, if self-esteem issues do not shut down all efforts at achievement. The lost child commonly has few friendships, and may have difficulty finding a marriage partner. Instead, he or she might try to find comfort in material possessions or pets. This pattern of escape may allow him or her to avoid seeking professional help, and remain stuck in social isolation.

I found Jack through my spiritual community. We met at our church in 2003 and were married last year, right before Valentines Day. We have just celebrated our first anniversary. It is a very special time for us. Being with this sangha makes it seem even more special, since our wedding ceremony was in the Buddhist tradition, complete with lotus blossoms adorning our wedding cakes and the Heart Sutra chant sung by our friends.

Our sangha goes on a walking meditation through the Memory Garden behind our church. As we walk contemplatively along the brick path, I gaze at the lovely camelias blooming all around the garden. Camelias have been planted in memory of church members who have died. I read the names posted on plaques next to each camelia plant. I remember many of these people who were fellow members of my spiritual community. They lived their lives and now they are gone.

I am still here. Thoughts flow through my mind as I meditate. Someday I too will be gone. How would I like to use the remainder of the time that I have left here on earth? What would I like to accomplish and what would I like my legacy to the world to be? How do I want to be remembered? What can a Lost Child do to make the world a better place?

I have no ready answer for those questions. I believe that the answers will come to me through continued meditation and spiritual practice. I am 50 years old and still dreaming of the future that I want to create. Maybe eating chocolate will help!

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Doggie Heaven

Our blue heeler (Australian Cattle Dog) Lily went to "doggie heaven" last night. She was 13 years old. Lily was born in 1996 in Lacrosse, Florida, a small rural area located near Gainesville. When she was born, she was the largest puppy in the litter. I sometimes wondered over the years about what became of her litter mates, whether they were still living, where they were, and what kind of lives they had.

Lily's mother belonged to a gentleman who was a correctional officer and vocational instructor in the "Iron Triangle" of prisons (Florida State Prison, Union Correctional Institution, and New River Correctional Institution) in Bradford and Union Counties. His job involved training inmates to manage herds of cattle on state-owned pasture land, for a company called PRIDE (Prison Rehabilitative Industries Diversified Enterprises). Lily's mom worked in the fields with her owner. Lily's father belonged to a Jacksonville veterinarian who helped to formulate one of the popular brands of pet foods.

In her early years, Lily enjoyed herding a small group of polled Hereford beef cattle and Nubian milk goats in a rural area just west of Gainesville. She later moved with me into a Gainesville suburb, and transitioned from working dog to being a pet of leisure. She enjoyed long naps on our old brick patio under a Chinese elm, going for walks in the neighborhood, and protecting our home. Lily was terrified of fireworks, so New Years Eve and the Fourth of July were her least favorite days of the year. She was a bright dog, and worked out a deal with the Gainesville Regional Utilities meter reader to allow him into our backyard only in exchange for a Milkbone. True to her breed, she tried to nip the heels of most everyone who crossed her path. She loved tummy rubs, squeaky toys, and rawhide chewy bones.

Lily is survived by her human parents (Shelby and Jack), her 11 year old canine colleague JD (an Australian Shepard mix), and three cats, Bridget, Alice, and Sandy. Our home feels a bit empty, as this is the first day that I have ever lived in our house without her. I am sad that she is gone, and my life is certainly richer from having known and loved a blue heeler. As Buddhist friend Genkaku said, Lily, we will miss you to tears, but we thank you for the smile in our hearts.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Life in Poetry and Pastels

I plop down on our red leather sofa with a stack of catalogs I recently received in the mail. I put my feet up and start leafing through the catalogs. Several attractive outfits catch my eye in Lands' End and L.L.Bean. One particular item makes me do a double take. It is a baby doll style top, with short puffy sleeves and an empire waist. The fabric is a soft floral pattern with pastel blooms of pale pink, light aqua, and pear green. It looks like a style that my sister used to wear. It makes me feel a familiar twinge of missing her.

Carolyn has been gone more than a year now. I think I'm adjusting fairly well to the situation. Shortly after her death, New York City psychiatrist Dr. Ivan Goldberg, whom I have known for several years on an internet professional listserve, told me that he was depressed for long time after his sister's suicide. I have held his statement in my thoughts to remind myself over and over that when I'm feeling blue, my sadness will one day come to an end.

What kind of person was my sister? Like many other baby boomers, she loved Simon and Garfunkel music and long straight hair. She wore her hair in that same style from her college years until she was over fifty. Carolyn and I went to see Neil Diamond, another one of her music idols, in concert back in the 1980's. One year on my birthday, she sent me a little teddy bear holding a small silk balloon in one paw on which the words "You're Very Special" are printed. The bear stills sits on my bookshelf, reminding me of her.

Carolyn enjoyed poetry, especially the work of Emily Dickinson and Edna St. Vincent Milay. She was a university librarian for twenty-five years. She loved Granny Smith apples and Zero candy bars, and she hated cold weather. She adored Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Siamese cats.

My big sister helped me in several ways over the years. She helped me get my first job, as a pharmacy technician at an Eckerds drug store, when I was a teenager. She had worked there as a cashier one summer when she was home from college, and she introduced me to the store manager. Although she was a Christian and believed in a male God, she gave me the first book I ever read on feminist spirituality, "When God Was a Woman" by Merlin Stone. When I got a divorce at age 30 and was struggling financially, she co-signed an application for an American Express card to help me rebuild my credit.

I should have known how things would turn out, but I’m not sure that I could have done anything to change the ultimate outcome. Carolyn had been in psychotherapy from time to time over the years, and had been prescribed antidepressants on a couple of occasions. During her last Christmas, in 2006, she sent me a prized work of art as a gift, something I thought she would never give away. It is a Georgia O'Keeffe inspired abstract of a cow skull, done by the late Alabama artist Anne Ward Huey who died in 1988 from lupus-related kidney failure. Carolyn married Anne's widower in 1990. Their marriage lasted 17 years. The two of them shared an appreciation of the late Anne's art. They were in the processess of divorcing when my sister died. Carolyn did not want the divorce.

In a phone conversation in early 2007, Carolyn told me unexpectedly that she was going to repay me a long outstanding personal loan of a thousand dollars, and sent me a check in the mail a few days later. Maybe she was getting her affairs in order and this, too, was a sign of what was to come, but I failed to recognize it at the time. She seldom complained about her marital problems, and I did not know until until after her spouse left her in September, 2007 that he had threatened to do so many times throughout their marriage, beginning right after their wedding in 1990.

Both Carolyn and her spouse were Enneagram Type Two. The Enneagram is a theory of personality development written by the Sufis over a thousand years ago. According to this theory, people become one of nine personality types, based on their early experiences.

Type Twos, known as the Helper or the Giver, are described by Enneagram teacher Renee Baron, as being motivated by the need to be loved, appreciated, and needed. They take pride in their ability to make people feel special and to anticipate and to fulfill other people’s needs better than anyone else. Twos appear cheerful, self-sufficient, and confident, and are often unaware of their own needs. Healthy Twos are warm, generous, empathic, enthusiastic, and nurturing, They relate easily to people, enjoy giving to others, and are capable of unconditional love. Unhealthy Twos can be manipulative, clingy, indirect, possessive, martyrlike, and preoccupied with gaining approval.

Carolyn helped her husband a great deal in the early years of their relationship when he was going through some difficult times with his health and his career. She came to the rescue in a big way, shouldering most of the responsibility for the couple's obligations and living expenses. In the last years of their marriage, when Carolyn needed assistance and expected a return on her investment, her spouse didn't want to reciprocate. Family members postulated after her death that Carolyn may have been manipulatively self-sacrificial about the help she had given him. When her spouse later found himself in the position of being expected to help his helper, he didn't want to be there for her and bailed out of the marriage. Enneagram expert Don Riso describes the relationship between a pair of unhealthy Twos as a "macabre dance of death". The outcome of this dance was my sister's death.

I am learning to deal to the fact that life can bring us changes that we don't see coming and do not want. I thought that I would have my sister for a lot longer. I didn't want to go through life without a sister, but I found myself without her at age 49. She was never really able to share with me the true depth of her anguish about her marriage.

Some changes are gradual and creep up on us over time. In our backyard yesterday, I was surprised to notice that a very large tree stump was missing. I had a 70 foot tall sweet gum tree cut down in 2002, because the lawn was often covered with so many prickly balls that my dogs couldn't romp without stepping on them and ending up with sore paws. I was sad to see the huge tree go. The original owner of our mid-20th century modern style house, a University of Florida architecture professor from Switzerland, planted it when he built the house in 1957.

When the tree was removed, it left a stump about three feet in diameter. Over time, the stump rotted and tall green bamboo shoots grew up around it. Yesterday I peered through the bamboo shoots and found the splintered remnants of the decayed stump.

I guess I didn't notice changes in my world over time, like the sweet gum stump decomposing and my sister's distress exceeding her ability to cope. Carolyn preferred living in a dreamy world of poetry and pastels, and to paraphrase Don Riso paraphrasing Othello, she didn't love too wisely or too well. She didn't want to think about things like making a "Plan B" for her life if her marriage didn't work out.

I struggle to find peace and meaning around the whole situation, and sometimes I still can't quite believe that Carolyn is gone. Life is fragile and we never know what the future will bring. Although I'm adapting to life without a sister, I'm still trying to find ways to put her death into perspective. I think my journey along this path will be long before I find a way to completely heal the loss.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

A Happy New Year

When I was a child, my paternal grandparents, who were Disciples of Christ ministers in the hills of Eastern Kentucky, were among my favorite people. To me, they represented everything about the world that was good and true and kind. I saw them as being vitally important to their small rural community. There were no psychotherapists in those parts and Prozac hadn’t been invented yet. Whenever a parishioner became ill, their tobacco crop failed, or their tractor broke down, my grandparents were always there to help. I remember seeing my grandfather hike down the hill from the parsonage to make pastoral visits at Marymount Hospital in the mornings, and I watched him write his sermons as he sat at his big oak roll top desk. My grandmother taught a Bible Study class on Wednesday evenings, and she even had her own radio show on a Christian station for awhile, providing messages of hope and comfort for listeners. She tirelessly cranked out bulletins for the Sunday services on an old mimeograph machine in the church basement, and sometimes she would let me help her pick out beautiful images of religious art for the bulletin cover. I saw their work as being the most important thing in the world.

My grandparents met each other in a holler known as Grassy Creek, when she was 16 years old and he was 17. They got married and started having kids. Many years after they had passed away, I found out something very interesting about them. My grandfather wanted to be a farmer, but he didn’t have any money to buy land. My uncle Jim, one of their three sons, told me that when he was a small child, he remembered seeing them sitting together at their kitchen table, leafing through college catalogs and trying to choose a course of study. They decided to enroll together in Lexington Theological Seminary to earn their ministerial degrees.

So I realized that they didn’t receive a divine calling to be ministers. Their decision to spend their lives serving a faith community was voluntary rather than demanded of them by a supreme being. It was a conscious choice. As a liberal Unitarian Universalist, this insight made me appreciate my grandmother and grandfather even more.

I am a continuation of my grandparents. Although my chosen profession is in the healthcare field rather than the ministry, I hope someday to provide spiritual care for others. Jack and I got out of bed early this morning, and drove a bit bleary-eyed to a Tibetan Buddhist First Light New Years Ceremony, where we meditated, chanted, and lit 108 beautiful candles with a small group of people. In this type of ceremony, prayers for peace are made at the beginning of the first day of the new year. With groups participating worldwide, Buddhists greet the first light across the planet in a continuous wave of prayer. I cannot think of a more important or meaningful way to spend New Years Day. Whenever I engage in spiritual practices, I feel my close to my grandparents, I am peaceful and happy, and all is right with my world.

Peace and Happy New Year to all!

Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Brief Eulogy for My Sister

These are the words I spoke at my sister Carolyn's funeral on December 19, 2007, at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in Auburn, Alabama. Carolyn died one year ago today, on December 13, 2007.

EULOGY

The famous author Mark Twain wrote the following words of wisdom that I would like to share today:

“Oh death, where is thy sting? It has none, but life has.”

Today I am stung by the loss of my sister, my only sibling, who will never again be only as far away as a phone call or a day’s drive up the interstate. I am left with fond memories of us as girls, spending time with Uncle Jim and other loved ones at our family’s cabin on Lake Cumberland in Kentucky, and camping on a Florida beach with Margaret and our Dad. I will miss my sister’s collections of things - stray cats, beautiful dolls, and old vinyl record albums from the 1970’s.

I have never for one single moment ever regretted that she was my sister, and I truly hope that to her I was more than just another aspect of her suffering. As a Christian, Carolyn believed in heaven and the afterlife. I believe that she has gone to a better place where she is no longer “stung” by the emotional pain she suffered in this life. I believe that she has joined the ancestors, including our mother Iris Mae Anderson Havens, and our beloved grandmother, Vergia Alma Rudd Havens.

I also believe that Carolyn has become part of the cosmic stardust of the universe, and that she will always live on in the minds and hearts of everyone who loved her.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Being Creative

This is one of my most recent watercolor paintings. It is called "White Lotus". I feel happiest when I am being creative and doing things that I really enjoy, such as photography and painting. I'm also happy when I am doing things to help others. And of course, eating chocolate ALWAYS gives me joy!

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Ashes and a Class Ring

I unbuckle my seatbelt and look out the window after the aircraft has reached cruising altitude and the houses, treetops, and parking lots have all disappeared. Only blue sky and white cotton candy clouds are visible now. I lean back in my seat and think about yesterday's memorial service. I am flying back home from Kentucky, where I traveled to pay my last respects to my cousin Jeff who died a few days ago at age 57.

Jeff wanted to be cremated. A shiny brass urn containing his ashes was displayed on the church altar during his memorial service. I found it oddly comforting to be in the same room with this physical manifestation of my cousin. We were not able to visit one another in person for many years, for a variety of reasons, although we did stay in touch from time to time through telephone calls, Christmas cards, and emails. I think we both did the best we could to stay in relationship with each other.

After the service, about a dozen members of my extended family gathered in the church vestibule. I removed my mother's Pikeville High School class of 1945 ring from my hand and held it out to show to Jeff's father, my uncle Edgar. He is 83 years old. He graduated two years before my mother, in 1943. I asked him if he still has his class ring. I was not prepared for his reply. Although he didn't shed a tear during the memorial service, his eyes became misty and he said, with his voice cracking just a bit, that he sold his ring to a German soldier for a bowl of soup. My uncle was a prisoner of war in Europe in World War II.

An hush settled over my family. To the best of my knowledge, Uncle Edgar has seldom if ever talked about his experiences as a POW. I wish I could have handled his disclosure better, but there is no way I could have seen it coming. After an awkward moment, I reached over and gave his arm a gentle pat. Maybe losing his son has brought back memories of other losses he has suffered, such as his sister, his freedom during the war, and his class ring.

The day before my trip, I carefully turned the numbers of the combination lock on the fireproof safe that contains some of my most special possessions. The metal door swung open, and I retrieved a small jewelry box and lifted my mother's ring from from its cushion. I slid the bulky gold ring on the fourth finger of my right hand. Although some of its embossed details have become worn and smooth over time, the numerals "1945" are still clearly visible. I feel a little uneasy about wearing this ring, because I am not sure my mother would have wanted me to have it. She died too young to think about things like the disposition of her personal effects, so I am not sure what her wishes would have been.

At the church, a couple of elderly ladies told me a story they remembered about my mother. One sunny day they rode their bicycles down to a lake in Millard, Kentucky where they swam all day, during the summer between my mother's high school graduation and her freshman year at Pikeville College, before she met my father. My mother, a fair-skinned redhead, got a blistering sunburn that day, and spent the whole next day in bed. This story about the past made me smile. It is like a piece of a jigsaw puzzle, giving me a glimpse of a picture that I have never seen whole.

In my rental car, winding my way up Mountain Parkway from Pikeville back to Bluegrass Field Airport in Lexington after the funeral, I had a chance to enjoy the early autumn scenery. It seemed exotic in contrast to the verdant Florida palmetto flats where I live. Leaves on the trees were beginning to turn shades of copper, golden ochre, russet, and burnt sienna. Vertical expanses of ancient rocky hills rose up like earthen monuments on either side of the highway, touching the sky. One farm I noticed still had tobacco leaves, brown and ruffled, hanging in the barn to dry. Other farms along the parkway, in lieu of billboards, displayed advertisments for products such as lite beer and chewing tobacco on the sides of their barns. I have happy memories of riding through these parts as a child, seeing ads for Ruby Falls and Burma Shave painted on the barns. Exit signs along the parkway for Morgan County and Hazel Green brought back fond memories of my paternal grandfather who served as a minister at Disciples of Christ churches in those areas. All of my history is here in the Eastern Kentucky foothills. I exist because of the Scots-Irish immigrants and indigenous Cherokees who wove their lives together and raised families on this land. I am a result of their circumstances, choices, successes and failures.

Sometimes I think about my mother as a girl, growing up in these Appalachian hills. I am not sure what her hopes and dreams were for her future. The demands of marriage, motherhood, and medical problems overwhelmed her. When I enrolled in college for my freshman year, my dad accompanied me on registration day. As we strolled across campus to the Registrars Office, he commented that I looked a lot like my mother when she was my age. This surprised me, as he never talked about her much after her death and I assumed that he had forgotten her. I am a continuation of my mother, but I am not sure exactly what I am continuing. I have sometimes felt as though I was left alone on this planet to invent myself, with few ties to anyone. I wonder how life would have been different if she had lived.

My family relationships often feel tenuous. I wonder if other people have similar feelings about their families. I feel happiest when I am creating something beautiful and when I’m helping other sentient beings. My watercolor paintings, my photography, my cats and dogs, Jack, my church, and my patients give my life meaning. I am connected to my family by ashes, a class ring, and being present in Pikeville for the survivors at Jeff’s memorial service, sitting shoulder to shoulder with my cousins and other kin in the reserved family section of the church.

I wonder if I will always feel as though something is missing. Maybe a good philosophy to adopt is that we are all doing the best we can, given our strengths and weaknesses, at the curent stage in our lives and our personal growth. Everything is perfect and imperfect, all at the same time. Always.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Send Replacements!

It has happened again. Threads of death have been woven all throughout the fabric of my life for awhile now. Yesterday my sweet cat Pixie went to “kitty heaven” after living with cancer for the past several months. She was ten years old.

I remember the day Pixie became a part of my family in 1998. I was living out in the country, on ten bucolic acres with a log house and a barn. Late one afternoon as I strolled through the pasture with a friend, we heard a soft plaintive “mew” coming from the barn. We went into the barn and looked around. A scrawny grayish kitten, maybe six months old, looked down at us from the hay loft. She was hungry, scared, and alone. I have no idea where she came from, or how she found her way to my barn.

I had just lost my cat Rusty a few weeks earlier. My friend smiled and said, “well, you lose one, you gain one!” I nodded and headed towards the house to get some cat food for the thin little creature crouched in the loft.

As I watched the starving kitty bolt down a dish of cat chow, I wondered whether I should keep her. Even though I had recently lost a cat, there were several others living at my house. I decided that she could stay in the barn and I would bring her food and water every day. After I headed back down the path to the house, it was only a few minutes before she followed me and curled up contently on my front porch.

My friend asked me what I was going to name the new kitty. I said “Pixie” without even thinking about it. She had a slightly “elfish” look, and the name seemed perfect for her.

Pixie’s fur was light gray flecked with pale orange and cream colored highlights. My friends described her as a dilute calico. I thought of her colors as pastel, and affectionately called her “Pixie Pastel” many times over the years. Although she could be distrustful and aggressive with other felines, Pixie was sweet, friendly, and affectionate with her human family and friends. As a former stray, I think she always longed for connection and wanted to be loved.

At the veterinary clinic yesterday, after Pixie had gone peacefully to sleep, the vet told me how sorry she was for my loss, and then added “she’ll send a replacement – they always do!” I thought about the day Pixie arrived, soon after Rusty died. My sister passed away almost a year ago, and my beloved cat Blondie died just two months ago. Another one of my kitties, Goldie, died in 2006.

I still have several pet cats and dogs. Although Jack has two sons who live in Ohio, I have no biological children. I have only fur children. My kids are “graduating” and leaving home. This makes me sad, but having fewer pet responsibilities will make it easier for Jack and me to travel in the future. I’d love to see Ireland, India, and the Grand Canyon. Jack wants to go to Poland. But the loss of my only sibling and my cats leaves big holes in my life. Who will come along to replace them? Should I volunteer at a shelter for homeless cats? How will I get another sister? Like my Pixie, I long for connection and want to be loved. I wonder when the departed members of my family, both human and non-human, will send replacements. I suppose they will find their way into my life whenever the universe decides the time is right. I will look forward to blogging about these welcome arrivals.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Reaching Out

A tiny yellow paw darts out at me from the long row of metal cages on the adoptable cat wing of our local animal shelter. It is the summer of 1994, and I have come to the shelter in hopes of adding another kitten to my household. While vacationing in Key West a couple of months earlier, I found a litter of stray kittens under the steps of a museum, and brought one home. There are a couple of older cats at my house, but no youngster to play with the kitten. I thought she might benefit from having a playmate.

I turn to look at the small animal attached to the paw. A solemn little whiskered face peers up at me. She is a small wisp of a tabby, not more than a couple of months old. I reach my index finger through the bars and scratch her little chin. The kitten lifts her chin and purrs, her motor going strong. I tell her that she’s coming to live with me.

A few days later, after she’s been spayed and received her vaccinations, she is ready to leave the shelter. Because the kitten from Key West is named Blondie, I’m perplexed about what to name the new one. Since she’s yellow, Blondie would have been a good name for her. The synonym Goldie seems to fit my new baby.

To my disappointment, the two kittens don’t bond very well. They are generally indifferent to one another. Nevertheless, Goldie is a wonderful addition to the family. She’s shy on approach, to the point of being a “touch-me-not”, but she comes around in her own time and on her own terms. She protests when I pick her up and squirms until I put her down. When she decides she wants affection, Goldie lets me know with her chirpy meow, insistent head-butting, and the brush of her long ringed tail against my legs. She reaches out her paw and touches me, just the way she did at the animal shelter, in order to get my attention. I lean down and scratch her head. She purrs appreciatively, but still keeps a very serious look on her face.

She is a well-mannered, dainty little feline, very civilized and fastidiously clean. For a while, when I am living out in the country, all five cats living on the property catch mice. Some of my kitties make a game of chasing down the little rodents, batting them around and pouncing on them repeatedly before the kill. Goldie, not wanting to be left out, catches a mouse also but makes quick work of the hunt, putting a swift end to her prey's struggle, as though she wishes to be merciful to the small gray creature.

Our lives go on intertwined for more than ten years, until 2006. Goldie begins to vomit and lose weight. She is obviously not feeling well. After a couple of days, I hurry her off to the vet’s office. After blood tests, a sonogram, biopsies, and other tests, she is diagnosed with stomach cancer. This news hits me like a ton of bricks. I have never had a seriously ill pet before.

The next two months are a flurry of surgeries, feeding tubes, medications, bandages, and vet appointments. The vet gives me articles to read about research studies on feline oncology. She urges me to consider either intravenous or oral chemotherapy for Goldie, earnestly pointing out that this treatment can extend a cat’s life up to two years. She believes Goldie’s cancer may go into remission with treatment. I don’t know what to think. I know that chemotherapy sometimes makes life a living hell for humans suffering from cancer, and then they die anyway. I don’t Goldie to suffer, and I am concerned about what her quality of life would be like on chemotherapy. I ask the vet a hundred questions. Will the chemo make Goldie lose her hair? Will she continue vomiting? Will she feel sick all the time? How much will chemotherapy cost?

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), before I can make a decision about chemotherapy, the cancer spreads to rapidly Goldie’s brain. All of a sudden she can no longer stand up unassisted without falling over on her left side. Her vision becomes impaired, and she cannot find her way to the litter box. I place her gently in the box and hold her steady her so that she can keep her balance while she relieves herself. Goldie growls when I approach her, refuses to eat, and secludes herself in an easy chair in the corner of our spare bedroom. She looks miserable. She is fussy about taking medication. I worry that her pain may not be adequately controlled.

I am forced to face the fact that it is probably best for Goldie to not keep going. There are worse things than death. Goldie is clearly suffering. I don’t think that either she or I can face the ordeal of chemotherapy, although I am glad for the advancements in veterinary oncology that can extend the lifespan of some cats with cancer.

As she goes gently to sleep in our vet’s office, I hold Goldie’s paw. She reached out to me with her paw at the animal shelter in 1994, and in the end it is my responsibility as her mommy to reach out to her and relieve her suffering. Reaching out with her paw was the behavioral trait that drew me to Goldie and brought us together. I whisper in her ear, thanking her for being my kitty, and telling her that I will always love her. I give her little yellow paw one last squeeze.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Interbeing

I could spend an entire afternoon standing at the kitchen sink and gazing out the window at the abundant life forms in our front yard. This time of year, honeybees and butterflies are frequent visitors to our red sage plants. Bright little crimson sage blooms dot the landscape outside our window. Graceful dragonflies glide by, and last week Jack was delighted to see a hummingbird buzzing around, wings a blur, busily poking her little beak into flower after flower to sip drops of nectar.

Our gray feral kitty, Kathmandu, plays on the grassy lawn pretending rather lazily to stalk a lizard or two. A mockingbird perches in our magnolia tree, her perky long tail held high, pouring out her song. A pair of brown doves peck at the ground together, never straying more than a few feet away from one another.

I often think about my grandmother, Vergia Alma Rudd Havens, and the way she lived her life. Even though she passed away in 1971 when I was only 11 years old, I still think of her almost every day, as she was a strong influence on my life as a young girl and she still continues to be a guiding force for me as an adult. I think of her growing Black-Eyed Susans in the backyard of the parsonage where she and my grandfather lived in the hills of Eastern Kentucky. In the summertime, the happy golden flowers covered the hillside. She had a birdfeeder mounted on a pole on the hillside, and every morning she filled it with food for the birds. I especially loved the cardinals who came to the feeder. To this day, I think of my grandmother whenever I see a cardinal. Since my grandmother was part Cherokee, and I embrace certain Native American spiritual beliefs, and I think of cardinals as being my spirit guides. Whenever I see a pair of cardinals together, a handsome tufted male all vivid scarlet and an olive-brown female, a little less flashy with her red-tinged feathers, I like to think they are my grandparents visiting me from the spirit world. It comforts me and helps me feel rooted in my past.

As I watch from my kitchen window, I touch the beaded necklace that encircles my neck. It was given to me by a friend almost ten years ago. I roll the smooth oblong beads around in my fingers. They are made of cream-colored bone, probably from a camel, and are handpainted with terracotta-colored striped designs. Terracotta is one of my favorite colors, so I enjoy wearing these beads. They make me feel good. I think about the artisans who made the beads from bone and painted them. I wonder where they live and what was going on in their lives when they were working on these beads. I feel a connection to them. I wonder if the beads were made in someone's home workshop or in a factory. Were they made in India, Africa, or somewhere in Indonesia perhaps? Did the bead makers earn a living wage from their craft? Were they doing what they loved? Did the artisan who made my beads ever think that a person half way round the world would be wearing the results of their labor?

In my study of Buddhism I have learned that I exist within a circle of interbeing. Like all beings, my existence is impermanent. I am here for just a little while, occupying a house on a small piece of ground, growing red sage flowers, and wearing beads made from camel bone. I am not separate from other beings or the earth. I am like an ocean wave that rolls up on the beach for a moment and then flows back out, returning to the body of water. I am a continuation of my grandparents. Their blood flows through my veins. I carry their DNA into the future. I breathe the same air as a cardinal, a hummingbird, and a bead maker at a workbench in a small factory on another part of the planet. I have no "self". Like the wave, I am merely a part of the whole. There is no birth or death, only change. Earth becomes red sage, red sage becomes a honeybee, a bee becomes a human, a human becomes earth. My grandparents have become spirit guides. Everything is a part of life. I can see the whole universe from my kitchen window, and I smile to the universe.