What’s next?

It was a Wizard of Oz moment. Our guide pulled a heart-shaped rock out of his bag and presented it to me as a parting gift.

Six days earlier my husband and I started a hike through the Dolomites with two strangers, our guide and our hiking companion Jill. Now we were saying our goodbyes as four people who had bonded together during the steep climbs, the knee-deep snow, the strong winds, and the time spent together every day and evening. Our shared experience created a trust that allowed us to open our hearts and express some of our deepest thoughts about life and death in the context of the most spectacular scenery – a breathtaking part of creation that could only be reached on foot.

The trip underscored what is most important in life – relationships. We need each other. We needed our guide to show us where to go, how to hike, and to break trail in the snow and he needed our life perspective to make sense of his experience of losing his father when he was nine years old.

It was a life-changing journey. I’m still trying to figure out how I have been changed and how it has affected my perspective. I can’t quite seem to motivate myself to run or work out with no trip looming in the future. I had trouble restarting this blog and my writing. I’m still processing what was an incredible and almost indescribable trip. What’s next after a trip of a lifetime? What does it all mean?

One thing I know, I left a piece of my heart in the Dolomites.

Fresh Flowers

A friend bought me fresh flowers nineteen days ago and I just threw them out. It’s amazing how cut flowers can transform a space. They are a constant reminder of the beauty that exists in the world. I marvel at the variety of colors, shapes, and textures. It’s the details like the tiny white antenna poking up from the intense pink petals and the subtle shade changes of the red rose petals that call out the creativity of nature.

The beauty and joy of fresh flowers only lasts so long. It’s hard for me to watch the beauty fade, the browning of the edges, the wilting of the petals and the scattering of the flower shrapnel on the counter.

It’s a short life cycle once the flowers are cut from their food source.

Fresh flowers mark time. They are a reminder to enjoy the moment and to notice the beauty in the details because beauty and moments are fleeting.

Today is labor day. We rest from our labors, stop, and look.

Fresh flowers are a spiritual practice. Watching them change helps keep our priorities in order.

People Have Moved On

It’s been just over a week since my aunt died. Her two children traveled to Florida to be with her but now they have left to return to their lives. My uncle is left behind.

One of the most difficult and challenging parts of the grieving process is when the initial shock wears off, others resume their lives (as they should) and the person who endured the worst loss, the death of their spouse, has to face it alone. Even those of us with the best support systems in the world, the most thoughtful friends, still have to climb into bed and stare at the empty pillow. Reality sets in and there is the realization that life has changed.

Grief is exacerbated by our unmet expectations. We grieve not only the loss of the person but the loss of our future trips together, the experience of enjoying our children and grandchildren together, and the vision we had of growing old together.

As a priest, I always try to reach out to individuals two to three weeks after a death. I want to make sure the person understands that even though people have gone back to living their lives and it may seem that there isn’t any more acknowledgment of the tremendous loss they have sustained, I am still praying for them to have the strength and courage to meet the days ahead. Sometimes an encouraging call or text can help someone through a bad day.

Grief takes the time it takes and often I have heard people grumble that so and so needs to move on, they need to get over it, do something and not wallow in their sadness. This is dangerous. It is healthy to allow ourselves to feel the sadness and talk about our loss. We can’t push people to feel differently. We can help them express what they are feeling and not judge.

Finding a therapist or a grief group is invaluable. Instead of feeling totally lost and alone, we can be with people who are navigating the same waters and know what course to take. Some burdens are too great to shoulder alone.

You can be sure I will be reaching out to my uncle on a regular basis, just to let him know that I have not forgotten and that I love him.

Waiting

My aunt is in the process of dying. I heard the doctor said she may have a few days. Cancer. She is only 73 and the youngest of my aunts.

I remember her wedding day. I was eleven. She had a beautiful ball gown wedding dress that made her look like a Disney princess. It took four of my aunts to bustle the train so she could dance and sit down. At nineteen she was an exquisite bride, youthful and full of joy.

I was jealous of her. Not just because she was beautiful but because she had stolen my uncle’s attention. He was the youngest of seven children and he was a favorite among the grandchildren. He snuck us candy and let us read his “Mad Magazines” that he kept hidden in the closet.

She was the perfect foil to my goof ball Uncle and they had a comedic repertoire that made us laugh.

She was unable to get pregnant.

They adopted one son and then a few years later another son. Our kids are similar in age. She devoted herself to raising her children. They are on their way to her bedside as I write.

My aunt is a devote Catholic. She volunteered her time at her church and her faith has never wavered. She converted to Catholicism when she decided to marry my uncle. She found her spiritual home in the liturgy and practices of the faith. Her mother-in-law, my grandmother, was a devote Catholic and we both loved her. My aunt gave me my grandmother’s china a few years ago. She knew I would treasure it.

My heart is breaking for her and for my uncle. The death of a long time spouse is onerous.

I will always remember the beautiful bride, the sparkling laughter, and the love she freely gave to all of us. May her transition be peaceful and may all her love ones welcome her home.

Why It’s Important To Make Mistakes

We know that we will make mistakes. Everyone makes mistakes. But I don’t want to make mistakes and that desire to avoid mistakes can be paralyzing.

I don’t consider myself a perfectionist. I’m okay if I stumble into a mistake but my problem is spending too much time figuring out how to avoid mistakes to the point where I become paralyzed.

Let me give an example. I have been agonizing over if I should use this new linen yarn to make a sweater pattern I have been wanting to make for years. First of all, who agonizes over a decision like that? This is supposed to be a fun hobby, not something I agonize over. By agonize, I mean constantly thinking about it in the back of my head. When I retired, I told myself I wouldn’t spend time worrying about minor things!

It all comes down to how I spend my time. I didn’t want to spend time knitting this sweater only to find out it won’t fit. I have done the steps to ensure that I have the right gauge but there are other factors. How much will the yarn stretch? Will my gauge be different in the round? I don’t want to spend time working on a garment I will just have to rip out but the only way I know if it will work is to try it.

I jumped in and cast on the sweater. We usually watch two shows at night which gives me about 90 minutes to knit. I could just be sitting there watching tv so I told myself I wasn’t wasting time.

I’m glad I took the leap. I actually enjoyed the process of knitting the pattern and I’m ok if I have to rip it out. I’m learning about how linen behaves and it’s interesting.

Jumping in is the way to go. It’s the “Just do it” philosophy. Since I get concerned about how I spend my time, I have adopted this strategy.

Mistakes are just information. I was a science major. This is what I was taught. Experiment and learn. I love that I’m still learning after all these years!

Choosing Our Words

Last week in my post, I equated the word small with insignificant. One of my friends reminded me that small also means small – tiny, little in comparison with something enormous like space. I meant insignificant, she meant tiny. Finding the right words can make a difference in our ability to express ourselves.

My husband and I assembled a bed this past week.

As we positioned the top full-size bunk over the bottom full-size bunk, we struggled for the right words. “Move to your left, I mean my left!” Directions eventually became – “Move toward the door. Move more toward the window. Grab that thing. What thing????” I’m sure you get the picture.

I had a writing teacher who told us to go through our writing and find all the adverbs and then replace them with a more descriptive verb. For example, instead of walking slowly, use sauntered or crept or ambled or drifted. Each verb creates a picture.

Sometimes it is a struggle to find the right words. I use the word God for what I believe is the all-encompassing available energy of love that exists in the universe. What I call God is impossible to express with words. However, the words we do use need to be well chosen. I have stopped using any pronoun for God. It’s too limiting. Father is also difficult because some of us have too much baggage with our “earthly fathers”. I sometimes use the word “Love” with a capital L.

Language can be limiting.

Except the language of love – music.

Music is so much better than lots of words. I listen to endless songs and marvel at how the notes elicit different feelings and spark creative thoughts. Whenever I preach a sermon and I’m grasping for a way to explain what is inexplicable, I hope there is an anthem that will bring home the message.

My husband and I listened to the an audio book “Project Hail Mary” on a road trip. An astronaut meets an alien who talks through musical notes. I’m not sure how the alien’s music was expressed in the written book but listening to the notes in the audio book we knew immediately what the alien was trying to say. The astronaut created a spreadsheet with musical notes and what they meant so he could translate what the alien was trying to communicate. The book is worth a listen.

I have certain pieces of music that I listen to or play when I’m feeling a certain way. Sometimes, the piece communicates grief or sadness, sometimes it accentuates my feelings of joy. Sometimes I listen to music to give me energy or to create a change in mood.

Music is the international language or maybe even the universal language. I know it is my way to God.

Our Place In Space

Image from the James Webb Telescope: https://www.npr.org/2022/07/17/1111714756/james-webb-telescope-big-bang-galaxy-image-interview-project-manager-bill-ochs

How amazing is it to look at an image that is billions of light years old? The beauty and the vastness and numbers that are too high to comprehend. and here we are on little planet earth in a small solitary solar system a speck in the midst of universe. And here we are one person out of six billion on the planet.

When I first saw the images I felt small and insignificant. After all, I am one person out of six billion on this planet.

But we haven’t discovered complex life in space. Not yet.

Each life is a miracle. A unique masterpiece with special talents and gifts from God.

I went to a funeral yesterday. The deceased was a wonderful wise gentle priest. Everyone who knew him loved him. As the homilist talked about his life, I thought about his uniqueness, his contributions, and the way he served others. I met a woman who had driven hundreds of miles to his funeral because his husband had been her Sunday school teacher. She told me how he had shaped her life.

Each one of us is a miracle of skin, bones, nerves, tissue, heart, mind, and soul. We are alive on this beautiful planet in the midst of interstellar space so that we can taste the ripe strawberry, feel the warmth of our sun, see the turquoise water, and smell the pink carnations.

What we do matters.

We are it. Maybe other complex life is out there somewhere but as far as we know, we are it.

We are not insignificant. We are part of God’s great universe. We are the stewards of this part of it. We need to take care of it, ourselves and others.

The Summer Sunset Series

We can only see the sunset in the summer. The sun retreats back over the land in the fall and winter and then creeps slowly back over the water in the spring. Each night, people who live in our neighborhood on Lake Ontario, stop whatever they are doing and come out of their houses to watch the sunset. It’s different every time.

Like most people, I learned about space and our solar system in school. At the time, it was like most other lessons. We memorized the names and orders of the planets. We were taught about orbits, the earth’s tilt, the gravitational pull, and how the moon affects the tides. The sun was simply a star at the center of our solar system.

My physic professor in college gave me a new and deep appreciation for the solar system. He was clearly in awe of the sun and how it provided what we needed to exist. Every time he talked about the energy from the sun he sounded like a priest invoking a special prayer. This star was necessary for our survival. We knew that intellectually but he made us understand it in a more visceral way. Feel the warmth on your skin he would say. Look at the first light of the day, the last light at night. Really look! He would plead with us to take a moment and let our minds take in the enormity of space and our place in it traveling around the star we call the sun.

I love the rhythm of the rising and the setting. The light that wakes us up in the morning and calls us to action and the receding light at night that sends us off to sleep in the comfort of darkness.

I’m grateful I live in a spot that allows me to witness this miracle each day. It reminds me that we are part of something so much greater than ourselves. Our star is just one of the hundreds of billions of stars in the Milky Way. How can we possibly wrap our minds around that fact?

In what feels like a chaotic and challenging time, I know that I can count on the sun to go down and night and come up in the morning and that gives me hope. This is an order we did not create and maybe that means we cannot destroy it.

I can still hear the intensity of my professor’s voice pleading with the class to really look at the sun. Now that I’m much older, I think he was trying to help us see beyond ourselves. He helped me think about the vast expanse of interstellar space and I think about the orderly solar system that has allowed the human race to live and move and have our being and I am profoundly grateful that I get to have this experience of life. I experience my professor’s sense of awe and wonder every night that I get to see the setting of the sun secure in the knowing that tomorrow it will reappear. Life will go on and for those of us who are still here, each day becomes an opportunity to make things better.

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