Author: susantara

In Celebration of Earth Day

In Celebration of Earth Day

“If I had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children I should ask that her gift to each child be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantment of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.”  -Rachel Carson

Happy Earth Day, everyone!

Sharing nature with children is one of my most deeply held inspired values as an early childhood educator. I believe that:

  • If children are to care about and want to protect the Earth, they need to have a personal relationship with it
  • The sense of wonder children experience early in life will remain with them and bring a greater depth of understanding to their later studies and explorations
  • Nature can enrich our lives as a source of inspiration, creativity, and strength.

Despite the recent, dramatic changes to the public school curriculum and the restricted freedom and time we now have for “enrichment,” I hold onto some goals that I strive to weave into my teaching however possible. They include:

  • Connecting children with the natural world through direct experiences and observations, stories, photographs, informational resources, and art projects
  • Putting children in contact with growing things to develop a greater awareness of the cycles of nature
  • Cultivating the child’s reverence and sense of wonder for the whole of creation (natural world)
  • Encouraging sensory awareness and mindfulness of nature
  • Sharing metaphors and cycles from nature that speak to the human experience
  • Using natural objects as manipulatives and play props.

To accomplish these goals, there are certain activities throughout the year that I will do everything in my power to keep in my kindergarten curriculum despite it all. For example, I would continue to have an indoor butterfly pavilion in my classroom for children to observe the monarch butterfly life cycle. Even if (hypothetically) we were not taking time to officially learn about it, at least my students could observe it, be in awe of it, and ask questions. We could take a few minutes at the beginning of recess to release the butterflies outdoors. This is an example of one of my personal “non-negotiables.” Another is growing plants from seed. Both of these activities cultivate caring.

I’ve thought long and hard about different ongoing activities and structures I can include in my classroom to support my goals of connecting children with nature no matter what. Here are some I came up with:

  • Having a seasonal “nature” table in the classroom
  • Naming each full moon based on what is happening in the natural world during that month
  • Celebrating each full moon by reading a story featuring the moon
  • Observing and discussing the weather and temperature on a regular basis
  • Pausing for a moment to honor and observe natural phenomena as they occur (i.e. leaves or snow falling, squirrels playing, wind gusting, butterfly hatching)
  • Setting up science investigation stations for free exploration
  • Offering magnifying glasses as tools for exploration during outdoor recess
  • Providing bags for children to pick up playground trash
  • Providing direct experiences when possible – and when not possible, alternatives include virtual experiences (on our SMART Board) and family “homework”
  • Taking monthly nature walks and focusing on sensory observations and signs of the season.
Seasonal nature tables
Science investigation stations

I have yet to implement “family homework,” but here are some ideas:

  • Feel the bark of different trees, and do a leaf rubbing with paper and crayons.
  • Collect and press a few fallen autumn leaves, and send to school to share, compare, and use in an art project.
  • Go outdoors after dark, and notice (and make a list of) different night sounds.
  • Look for bird nests after the leaves have fallen from the trees; inspect with a magnifying glass, and perhaps bring to school for our bird nest display case (empty fish tank).
  • Make a snowman or snow sculpture, and take a picture of it.
  • Make a bird chart, and keep track of the birds you see in your yard during winter (or spring).
  • Look at the night sky, and identify constellations, or make up constellations of your own.
  • Take a walk, and notice signs of spring (or fall).
  • Listen to the sounds of spring.
  • Put out materials for birds to use in making their nests (such as hair from a hairbrush).
  • Full Moon Club: Step outside when the moon is full each month, and make a list in a small notebook of what you notice (sights, sounds, smells, temperature, etc.); notice how the sensory impressions change from month to month.

Like delicate plants determined to push up through cracks in the pavement, there is always a way to facilitate children’s connection with the natural world. Sharing my nature and wildlife photography is one of my favorite ways to do this. It seems that my passion for what I have photographed and experienced on the river awakens something in my students. They engage and pay attention when I share my photos and anecdotes via the SMART Board, and it is among the highest quality, most insightful and observant discussion we have. I think that a teacher’s passion is infectious and ignites learners. I have a class website with a photo album in which families can upload pictures of nature and wildlife they observe outside of the classroom so children can do the same – a high tech version of show-and-tell.

I also make room for some read aloud stories pertaining to Earth Day. Some of my favorites are:

  • Why the Sky is Far Away: A Nigerian Folktale by Mary-Joan Gerson
  • The Gift: A Magical Story about Caring for the Earth by Isia Osuchowska (since I teach in a public school, I omit religious references)
  • Zinnia’s Flower Garden by Monica Wellington
  • Each Living Thing by Joanne Ryder
  • The Great Kapok Tree by Lynne Cherry


Each year, I like to create something in celebration of Earth Day. One year I made a book from a paper bag that showed, through photos and text, 20 different ways we care for the Earth in our classroom.


To raise awareness of what we already do – and to brainstorm more ideas – I included items like:

  • Sharpening crayons, using the shavings for art projects, and using the stubs for crayon rubbings and melting into block crayons (message: using all the parts instead of throwing them away)
  • Turning off the lights when we leave the classroom
  • Obtaining most of the books in our classroom library secondhand (message: buying used rather than new and passing things on to others after they have outlived their usefulness to us)
  • Having a system for reusing and recycling paper, and using both sides of paper for writing and drawing
  • Repurposing different kinds of food containers to make classroom materials (paint cups, pencil holders, mini greenhouses).

For the second year in a row, I have created a video in celebration of Earth Day. Last year, I wanted to share Louis Armstrong’s song “What a Wonderful World” and Tom Chapin’s “This Pretty Planet” with my students and thought it would be more powerful if I paired the songs with images. That is how the first video came into being. My students asked to see it repeatedly; I think it has a comforting effect. Since I didn’t have my blog going at that time, I’ll share last year’s video HERE. (Please be sure to watch it at the highest quality setting!)


 
This year, I created a video based on one of my favorite songs, “The Garden Song” by David Mallett, in memory of my friend, David, who passed on in February. David was a faithful gardener of both land and spirit, and my last visit with him ended with a walk around our yard looking at our gardens. One of his last pieces of advice was about how to keep cauliflower heads protected as they grow. He planted so many seeds during his lifetime, some of which have been growing in me for decades. In a nutshell, I think life is about growing and blooming where we are planted, and offering the world our highest expression – and then leaving seeds for the next generation to do the same. “The Garden Song” is full of metaphors, and it reminds me so much of David.

 
Email followers: Click HERE to play video.

I hope you will enjoy the videos and find some way to plant a seed in honor of Earth Day! 

With love and light,
Susan

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Creating Labyrinths

Creating Labyrinths

In a recent post, I mentioned the labyrinth I walked while I was on retreat. The topic of labyrinths deserves a post of its own, and here I will describe different ways to make your own, even if you don’t have any land or space.

Knowing how much I love labyrinths, my husband surprised me one day a few years ago by mowing a seven-circuit, Classical labyrinth design in our yard while I was at work. 

Maintaining it (with a lawnmower and a weed wacker) has been a labor of love ever since. Mowing only takes about 20 minutes, but weed wacking, which needs to be done every couple weeks, takes about three hours. I think of it as our “wildflower labyrinth” because flowers grow in the “walls” between the circuits throughout the summer. We placed a “gazing ball” orb mounted on a stone pedestal at the center of the labyrinth. 

Mowing a labyrinth seemed like the simplest way to go since we didn’t want to go through the trouble of buying and laying down rocks. It is also an easily reversible choice. 


The Classical labyrinth (scroll down to see my turquoise and purple mini replica) is a simple design that is perhaps most easily recreated by beginning with the cross toward the bottom near the entrance and working outward from there. If I were making one, I’d measure and mark it out beforehand. My husband, on the other hand, took a more “intuitive” approach; he attached the labyrinth design to his lawnmower and started mowing at the beginning of the path, moving very slowly and only a few steps at a time as he followed the path on his “map.” To each his own!

It’s a nice touch – though certainly not necessary –  to have a passage or threshold leading to the entrance. Ours is very simple:


A more permanent labyrinth may be created with rocks, as in the 11-circuit design based on the Chartres Cathedral labyrinth that I walked at Light on the Hill retreat center


or with slate, as in this seven-circuit, Neo-Medieval style labyrinth in a nearby park:


I love the entrance to the park labyrinth (photographed while exiting the labyrinth):


A portable alternative is to tape or paint the labyrinth design on tarp, vinyl, or cloth (such as a king-sized sheet) that can be laid on the ground or floor. I have considered doing this for my classroom but haven’t gotten around to it. I’m thinking it could be a useful tool for helping children to relax and center their energy. They would need to remove their shoes before walking it, to help it last longer.

If time and space are issues, a finger labyrinth could be the answer! A finger labyrinth is held in your lap, placed on a table, or mounted on a wall, and the path to the center and back out is traced with a finger (preferably the pointer finger of your non-dominant hand) or stylus. A finger labyrinth is a tool for calming and centering mind-body-spirit. In its simplest form, it can be an image you find online and print on a piece of paper. However, I prefer finger labyrinths with raised “walls” so I don’t have to pay so much attention to remaining on the path (and not inadvertently crossing over to an adjacent circuit).

Click HERE for instructions on using a finger labyrinth. 

Here are a few different designs I have replicated for finger labyrinths:

Classical
Santa Rosa
Chartres replica (sans lunations)

Applying the non-dominant hand theory, I created the above finger labyrinths with a left entrance for right-hand dominant usage with the left hand. (Does that make sense?) The pattern could be flipped for lefties.

To make the design, you could attempt to draw it freehand (for Classical style), trace it using an overhead projector, or affix a paper printout to a board (or stiff cardboard) of some sort. After much experimentation, here is my method for creating finger labyrinths:

Materials needed:

  • Artist canvas panel, acrylic-primed (11″x14″ is a nice size, but you will need 14″x18″ for the Chartres design)
  • Mod Podge
  • Dimensional fabric paint
  • Printout of labyrinth design (on plain paper, watercolor paper, or scrapbook paper)
  • Scissors
  • Acrylic paints
  • Colored pencils or crayons (optional)
  • Glitter (optional)
  • Round gemstone (optional)
  • Hot glue gun

Procedure:

  1. Print out the design, and make sure it is the right size for your canvas. You can reduce or enlarge it using a photocopier. You could bring it to a copy shop if it needs to be printed larger than you’re able to do on your own. (Variation: You could print the design on watercolor paper if you want to paint it with watercolors. Simple Variation: You could print the design on patterned scrapbook paper and skip steps 2 and 5.)
  2. Decide whether you will color the labyrinth using paint, crayons, or colored pencils. If you wish to use crayons or colored pencils, go ahead and color it at this point. (Watercolor paint is another choice but only if you printed the design on watercolor paper.)
  3. Trim around the boundary of the labyrinth using scissors so there is no excess paper around it. Or you might choose to keep a small border around the labyrinth, as I did with the Santa Rosa design, above.
  4. Attach the printout to the canvas using Mod Podge.
  5. If you are painting the labyrinth, do so now, making sure you can still see the lines. You can paint the rest of the canvas at this point if you wish, or wait until later.
  6. Very carefully, trace the “wall” lines with fabric paint. You might want to practice on a scrap paper first to get a feel for how the paint flows.
  7. Allow fabric paint to dry completely.
  8. If you haven’t yet painted the rest of the canvas, do so now.
  9. When paint has dried, cover the entire canvas with a coat of Mod Podge, and allow it to dry.
  10. If you’re using glitter, apply more Mod Podge to the center, and sprinkle on some glitter. You could even mix the glitter into the Mod Podge. Allow to dry.
  11. If you’d like, affix a gemstone at the center, using a hot glue gun.

There are many alternative methods you could experiment with, including using glue and string, sand, or tiny pebbles (instead of fabric paint) for the walls. The possibilities are endless!

Here is a simple finger labyrinth I printed on cardstock, colored with pencils, traced with black dimensional fabric paint, and put on the wall next to the Peace Table in my classroom. The children find it calming to trace the path to the center and back out.

I have a vision of creating a labyrinth in a grassy or paved area around a school. Children could walk the labyrinth as an activity during recess, or it could even be used as a tool for problem solving or conflict management – as a non-punitive “time-out” or reflective activity. I imagine it would be useful for helping children focus, as well. My husband gave one of my finger labyrinths to a blind woman who works in an alternative educational setting with teenagers when they are in highly agitated states and need to cool down. Although he gave it to her for her own use, apparently the students enjoyed it, too. 

I am now offering finger labyrinths (Classical and Santa Rosa styles) in my Etsy shop.

Here is a larger (24″x30″) labyrinth that I painted on canvas as meditative art:

To learn more about the uses and kinds of labyrinths, to find images for creating your own, or for more in-depth instructions for making them, here are two highly informative websites:

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Time to Bloom!

Time to Bloom!

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.  -Ralph Waldo Emerson

As usual, the flower parade has begun with the daffodils leading the way, to be followed closely by the tulips. Growing tired of winter, I was thrilled to notice the daffodil shoots pushing above ground outside my classroom during the last week of February – and I have been observing them with my students and photographing them ever since. They became a symbol of hope and spring, and I enjoyed watching the yellow tips mature and bulge.


Yesterday was the first day back from spring vacation, and I hoped they hadn’t bloomed in my absence. I was not disappointed! They were just about ready.


This morning, I arrived at school anticipating something wonderful – and here is what I found:


The sight filled me with joy.

I observed the daffodils obsessively throughout the day. And they couldn’t have picked a better day to bloom.

It so happened that our big book read-aloud story for the day (as per our language arts core curriculum) was Leo the Late Bloomer by Robert Kraus. This is a story about a young tiger named Leo who couldn’t read, write, draw, or “eat neatly” like his friends. I introduced the story by talking about what it means to bloom – how flowers bloom and how people bloom, as well. I gave an example of my mother learning to play guitar in her mid-70s and talked about how beautiful it is to see someone bloom and how good it feels to bloom. I also mentioned that our daffodils were in the process of blooming today, and the children were eager to see for themselves since we’d been watching and waiting for so long.

But first we read the story. Young Leo wore a sad expression on his face throughout most of the book as he tried unsuccessfully to do what his friends were doing. His dad was worried, too, and told Leo’s mom that he’s afraid Leo is not a bloomer. His mom, however, had faith in Leo’s natural developmental rhythm and assured his dad that Leo will bloom in his own time. The dad tried not to worry, but as Leo continued not to bloom, he couldn’t help but worry. Again, the mom reassured him that Leo will bloom when he is ready. And at last…Leo bloomed! He was able to read, write, draw, and eat neatly. And he was so proud.

I love the message of this story. It saddens me that recent public education mandates have raised the academic bar so much higher for kindergartners, and as a result there is little tolerance for the natural developmental rhythms of diverse learners. I tell parents at the beginning of each school year that my primary goals for their children are for them to enjoy coming to school, to love learning, and to feel good about themselves. And yet, even in kindergarten, teachers are required to identify children who are not meeting grade level benchmarks and to provide them with intervention services designed to accelerate their learning so they will catch up and end the year where they are expected to be. Although I agree – and have seen for myself – that children are often capable of more than we may imagine – I worry that this approach may result in more young children feeling badly about themselves and feeling self-conscious about not measuring up. Some children are ready for the new, more demanding kindergarten curriculum, but others are not. I wish we had greater freedom to honor children’s developmental rhythms and to rely more on authentic assessment methods.

I really enjoyed reading and discussing Leo the Late Bloomer with the children. We talked about how poor Leo felt bad about himself and how his dad was worried about him – but also about how his mom had faith that he would bloom in his own time. I really stressed his mother’s attitude, hoping to get across the message that children bloom in their own time – and not to worry if something is very difficult for you because eventually it will get easier. Don’t worry or compare yourself to others. You will arrive in your own time. I have faith in you. Despite all the report card testing, benchmark testing, and progress monitoring, I have faith in you, and I know there is something each one of you does really well. It might not be something we assess in school, but it is important and valuable nonetheless.

After reading the story, we had snack time, and the children wanted to see the daffodils, so I took them outside one table group at a time. It was so beautiful to watch their faces light up when they saw the daffodils opening and beginning to bloom. 

We noticed that some of the daffodils were blooming more quickly than others. Each of them was growing and opening their petals at a slightly different pace. And each will become a beautiful, fully formed flower in its own time. 

We continued to observe the daffodils throughout the day, during recess and at dismissal.

We have observed the daffodils since we noticed the first shoots and talked about how people and flowers are alike in the way they bloom. And it seems my students have developed reverence for the daffodils in our little garden. They are protective of the flowers and remind children in other classes to be gentle and to keep a safe distance.


I hope that the ways in which our curriculum coincided with natural phenomena today deepened my students’ connection with the natural world. I hope they will grow to regard nature as a mirror of their own social, emotional, and spiritual selves and to find strength and hope in the metaphors offered so abundantly by the natural world.

The first of our daffodils will be in full bloom tomorrow.


And woe to any unsuspecting child who innocently attempts to pick one. I don’t think my students would stand for it!

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

On Retreat

On Retreat

“We are here to find that dimension within ourselves that is deeper than thought.”  -Eckhart Tolle

It’s a school vacation week, and I spent a few days on a solitary, spiritual retreat in a cabin on a hill in Van Etten, New York at a retreat center aptly named Light on the Hill. I have been visiting Light on the Hill since 1990, which was around the time it began, and have done so much deep, transformative work there that I feel “all my changes are there.” My husband and I even got married there. It is a very special place, run by a very special couple, Alice and Larry. 

I met Alice when she was a religious studies professor at Ithaca College. I enrolled in her Introduction to World Religions course and was so drawn to her energy and teachings that I took a course with her every semester. As her student, I recall Alice talking about her dream to operate a retreat center and how perfect it was that the man she was soon to marry owned some land. As she eased into retiring from academia, she and Larry were busy behind the scenes building their shared dream. To see how it has grown and blossomed since those early days is truly astonishing and inspiring.

Alice and I have remained in contact all these years. She became my guide in the Sufi tradition, she and Larry officiated at both of my weddings, and she assisted me during the homebirth of my son. I could go on and on about the important role(s) Alice has played in my life, but the purpose of this post is to describe the retreat process as I have experienced it at Light on the Hill.

I feel called to Light on the Hill when I am at a crossroads or in the “valley of unknowing” and seek clarity and direction. I embarked on this week’s retreat with a specific intention in mind. During the course of a retreat, one is drawn more deeply in touch with the divine Self each day.

To prepare for the retreat, I intuitively withdrew from technology for a full day before leaving. The four-hour drive to Light on the Hill (which included an out-of-the-way stop at my favorite waterfall in Ithaca) provided further preparation and a rare opportunity to photograph Ithaca Falls without anyone else around.

From Ithaca, it’s about a half-hour drive along country roads. Light on the Hill is located a mile up a dirt road that climbs a hill, taking you away from the distractions of ordinary life. And then you go even deeper as you drive slowly along the narrow road to the cottage. 

By the time you arrive, you have a sense of being nestled deeply and protectively in the sacred space on the hill. Such peace.

I stayed in the Meadow Cottage, which is also where my husband and I spent our wedding night. Over the years, I have stayed in every cottage and hut on the land. Prior to this week, I had experienced Light on the Hill during every season except spring.

There is no electricity in the Meadow Cottage, but it is heated and very comfortable. There is a kitchen, bathroom, and living room downstairs and a sleeping loft upstairs. The sofa downstairs also converts to a bed. The refrigerator and heat run on propane. There is a gas stove in the kitchen, and you turn on a generator for a hot shower and to flush the toilet.

The windows and sliding glass door open to a picturesque view of the meadow and distant hills. The sounds of spring were all around.

Here is the view from the windows by the table:

In the past, I have gone on fully guided retreats as well as unguided retreats. This time, I chose a partially guided retreat, which means that Alice visited the cottage to sit with me once (rather than twice) each day. She is highly intuitive and brings practices that she discerns will facilitate spiritual attunement and growth. I received some guided meditations on CD and inspiring conversations and teachings on cassette tape (with battery-operated players), along with some handwritten instructions for practices and a few quotes to contemplate. 

I spent the next 24 hours (until meeting with Alice again and receiving new practices) engaging with the meditations and practices, doing some yoga/movement, and taking walks.


Walking, meditating, resting, moving, dreaming – it’s all part of the process. Slowed down and removed from the usual distractions, I find that I intuitively know what to do, what to eat, etc. It feels as if my soul is guiding me, and I am still enough to hear it. The soul connection is much stronger than in normal daily life, and it deepens each day on retreat. There is a momentum that builds and is difficult to describe in words.

As I was settling in to the practices, I heard (in my mind):

Quiet, quiet, quiet!
Put your mind on a diet!

…which made me laugh.

Each day, I walked the 11-circuit labyrinth (based on the Chartres cathedral model), letting the 34 turns of the labyrinth work their magic on me. A symbol of wholeness, a labyrinth is different from a maze in that there is one pathway from the entrance to the goal (in this case, the center), with no dead ends. If you keep walking, you are certain to arrive. My time in the labyrinth was especially powerful and transformative. I don’t know if this is true for others, but there is a certain point in the labyrinth where the insights seem to come and really take hold. There is a pile of smooth rocks near the entrance to the labyrinth, and I carried one with me each time and offered it when I arrived at the center.

Not long after meeting with Alice in the late afternoon, Larry arrives with dinner in a lovely basket. In addition to being a dedicated caretaker of the land and facilities, he is a fabulous cook. The meals are vegetarian, as meat and sugar are best avoided while on retreat because of the effects they have on one’s energy field. I always look forward to Larry’s nourishing meals. This one featured rice pasta with a delicious, puréed sauce.

After the sun sets, I light the mantle on the gas lanterns on the wall and continue doing my work next to the warm glow of the wood stove.

Eventually, it’s time for sleep. I find that I go to bed much earlier on retreat than I normally do, and I think the retreat rhythm is closer to my natural rhythm. You have to climb a ladder to the sleeping loft, and therefore you can’t bring much with you. I bring a notepad, pen, and a small headlamp. Note: It is not necessary to climb in order to sleep, as there is a pullout sofa bed in the living room. Also, the woods cottage has downstairs bedrooms.

Multitudes of stars shone brightly in the clear sky through the window and skylight over the bed. So peaceful and comforting. I was tempted to do some astrophotography but felt it was more important to get some rest.

Dream work is an important part of the retreat process. I record my dreams on the notepad and work with the content the next day.

Here is the view to which I awakened in the morning:

The first morning, I woke up to a snow-dusted world. I drank some hot water with freshly squeezed lemon juice and watched the snowflakes dance through the air. My first insight of the day came from the snowflakes:

Water is not content to stay still.
It constantly moves and changes form:
A snowflake. A tear. A river.
A snowflake does not expect 
To remain a snowflake forever
But enjoys dancing its way to the ground.
In its brief time as a snowflake, 
It gives its all to being a snowflake.
Then the sun melts it,
And it is time to move on.
Let’s melt and become a puddle
Then soak down and nourish the plants
And then?
And then?
And then?

Thus spoke the higher Self.

Throughout the course of the retreat, I did experience guidance and clarity with regard to my original intention and also had some time for some unanticipated, additional work that Alice’s inquiry and intuition felt was important. I have complete trust in her, which is important when working with a guide. It is a trust that has developed through the decades, and I feel so blessed to have her in my life. She is an amazing teacher and healer.

I appreciate that the journey back home takes quite a while. After being on retreat, the energies of the world feel very dense, and I prefer to ease myself back in. I stopped again at my favorite waterfalls in Ithaca, and experienced more people than usual smiling at me and approaching me – remarking about my starry shoes or that I’m “obviously” a professional photographer (::smile::). I think I was radiating a higher energy than usual. The quality of my energy after being on retreat also reminds me of the value of making time for daily meditation, prayer, and reflection. I see the image of a dusty attic with the sun shining in through the window. Meditating is like sweeping the dust from the floor and cleaning the window. Doing this daily makes a difference in your life and how you view the world around you. It creates a sense of spaciousness. Going on retreat – especially a guided retreat – is like doing deep spring cleaning!

I find it rather interesting that as I was writing this blog entry, a cardinal landed briefly on my windowsill – just long enough to get my attention before flying away. I have been trying to photograph a cardinal for weeks and haven’t been able to get close enough. It’s as if this one came to me. Post-retreat magic!

You can visit Light on the Hill’s website by clicking HERE.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Gifts from Dying Patients (and the Promise of Spring)

Gifts from Dying Patients (and the Promise of Spring)

This morning, I went to the river’s edge for the sunrise, and the dawn chorus was what I noticed most. The birds were all waking up for the day and singing their territorial songs of spring from their perches way up high. The ice that covered the river throughout January and February has thawed, and the river has assumed its reflective quality once again. Early in the morning, the water is very calm and mirror-like, which is a joy to photograph. 

And yet, it was only 18 degrees (F) this morning, and I spent most of the sunrise photographing delicate, glistening ice formations along the shoreline. 

Winter has not yet released the Northeast from its grip, but I put my faith in the birdsong, which heralds spring.

While sitting on the shore listening to the birds, I recalled a hospice patient I worked with back in my twenties. I don’t remember her name and only visited her once, when she was in the hospital. It was mid to late autumn, and this elderly woman expressed sorrow for not being able to live long enough to see the flowers come up in the spring one more time. I was young at the time, and her words made an impression on me. I had my whole life ahead of me and took the seasons for granted, not paying much attention to their gifts or to the flow of the year or time in general. She awakened me to the power and promise of spring and to the relationship one could have with the natural world. I bet she was a gardener.

For the past couple weeks, I have delighted in observing the daffodils that have sprouted outside my classroom door. They make me smile every time I see them and urge me not to be fooled by the wintry weather forecast: Spring is coming! Now I get it. I understand the words of the dying woman and the spiritual and emotional significance of spring.  

It is usually the case that when I remember one of my hospice friends, several more come to mind. Each one taught me an important lesson that was a blessing to have received so early in life. Today, I am starting more tomato seeds, and I realize that each of these people planted a seed in my spiritual garden. I agree with Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who wrote, “The best teachers in the world are dying patients.” The authenticity of dying patients is an incredible spiritual gift – a teacher that sows hearty seeds. 

Here are a few others that have taken root:

V. was a 98-year-old man who was deaf, partially blind, and had numerous broken bones because his skeleton was so brittle. He taught me about the power of communicating without words, since he could no longer hear them. Though I visited mostly with his wife, the moments I spent with him were profound. I held his hand and visualized white light entering through the top of my head and flowing down through my arm, into my fingers, and into his hands and body. I did this silent visualization twice while holding his hand, and each time I imagined light flowing through me and into him, teardrops trickled from his eyes – and I knew that a deep connection was taking place. I never got to see him again because he died the night before my next scheduled visit. But I have carried that profound connection with me all these years.

Then there was M., my first patient – a spunky woman who loved origami and had always wanted to learn how to do it herself but never got around to it. She inspired me to learn origami because it was something to which I’d also felt drawn. So I learned, and I love it, and I have her to thank for it.

Finally, there was a female hospice patient whom I visited at home. She was probably in her late forties or early fifties and was suffering from ALA (“Lou Gehrig’s disease”). There were framed photographs all over the living room walls that showed her smiling with her husband and children when she was in better health, and the contrast between the pictures and the way she looked as I sat with her in her living room was striking and memorable. (I would love to have photographs displayed at the bedsides or in the rooms of all hospital patients so caregivers could see who they were prior to their illness.) This was a woman who had lived a short but vibrant, loving life and was so much more than her current condition suggested. I realized her fate could befall anyone. Her husband told us about all the special things he was doing for her in a devoted effort to fulfill all her wishes before she became further incapacitated and eventually died. He understood that his time with her was coming to a close and put everything else aside to be there for her. Such love and devotion! 

Although my grandmother wasn’t one of my patients, I remember the last visit I had with her at her home three months before she died. At that time, she would have been eligible for hospice services; she had decided to let the cancer run its course rather than subject herself to further treatments that compromised her quality of life. We sat together on her front steps, and she spoke quietly of the joy and comfort of watching the wind blow gently through the trees. And I thought – that’s it – she had arrived. Her attachments to worldly concerns were falling away, and she was able to dwell in the stillness of the trees that are so rooted in being. When I’m kayaking on the river or sitting in the back yard and a gentle wind shakes the leafy trees like soft tambourines, I think of her and how we sat in stillness watching and listening to the trees that afternoon.

If only we could understand how much of an impression we make on others when we share our authentic self, even in brief encounters, when we are suffering, or when we feel we have nothing of value left to give! By doing so, surely we have a far greater impact on our world than we ever would imagine. And perhaps we can allow the petty concerns of our daily lives to fall away long enough to realize how fortunate we are for the opportunity to experience the gifts of spring once again.

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© Susan Meyer and River Bliss, 2012-2013. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all photos, without express and written permission from this blog’s author/owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Susan Meyer and River Bliss (www.riverblissed.blogspot.com) with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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