It was another week of staying home (the eighth, to be precise). And yet, I went on an important journey: to the epicenter of my heart to connect with the aliveness that’s there beneath the sadness/grief/anger/blame. What is it, and what does it ask of me? What does it want me to know?
And I discovered a longing to know that I am making a positive difference in this world. That I’m loving well.
When people come to the end of their life and look back, the questions that they most often ask are not usually, “How much is in my bank account?” or “How many books did I write?” or “What did I build?” or the like. If you have the privilege of being with a person who is aware at the time of his or her death, you find the questions such a person asks are very simple: “Did I love well?” “Did I live fully?” “Did I learn to let go?”
And from “Late Fragment”, Raymond Carver’s last published poem before dying of cancer:
And did you get what
you wanted from this life, even so?
And what did you want?
To call myself beloved, to feel myself
beloved on the earth.
Did I love well? Did my loving matter? Did I feel beloved? Connected?
These are universal yearnings.
One of the greatest realizations I’ve had since my mom passed away six years ago this month is that the seeds of love we plant on this earth are not done growing when our life here has come to an end. Chances are pretty good that you will not live to see them flower fully. Sometimes it’s your very absence that waters them until at last they bloom, and those left behind marvel at what your life has been and all the ways in which your loving has enriched their lives.
My relationship with my mother was complicated when she was alive, for we were so different (and alike) in some ways. I put up walls that wouldn’t let her get too close. She couldn’t have had any way of knowing that those walls were my own vulnerability and had nothing to do with her worth as a mother or human being. I didn’t even realize at the time what they were because I was too enmeshed. In our mother-daughter relationship, I didn’t feel seen, and I’m sure she didn’t, either. We just kept playing our roles. Doing our best but not giving each other what we wanted most. Which I think was the same thing.
Until the end, when those roles and walls dissolved, which was incredibly beautiful.
Although I did my best to help her feel loved and appreciated during the final months of her life, my love and appreciation for my mother didn’t truly blossom until after she took her final breath. She didn’t live to see it. And it probably couldn’t have been any other way.
As a result of my experience, I realize that sometimes you have to be content with planting seeds and have faith in the invisible seeds you sow in the world through the life you live. Through your very presence. Some seeds grow quickly. Others take more time. And we have to be patient. Many seeds won’t send shoots above ground until after we’re gone – from someone’s life or from this earth altogether.
Yes, the seeds of love continue to awaken and grow after we’re gone. When we come to the end of our life, may we understand that it’s not over. The seeds we sowed continue on and will bloom in time. We can’t take our last breath believing it’s the end. There’s so much more yet to come. So many gifts to be found and unwrapped.
When I was doing hospice work in my 20s, one of my patients expressed sadness for not being able to live long enough to see her flowers come up in the spring. I didn’t understand at the time, but her words remained with me, and I think I finally grasp both the literal and metaphorical meaning. Which is why there are tears streaming down my face as I write this.
After we leave this life, our love will continue to grow. Those we leave behind will discover artifacts of our lives and get to know us in new ways. They will find them inside boxes of our belongings and inside themself, as well.
Appreciation and love will deepen. They will feel our presence in so many ways, places, and situations. Our love is our gift to them that endures beyond our lifetime and even into new generations – like the mint plants I transplanted from my mother’s garden a few years ago that now thrive in my own garden (a metaphor in itself). And the lilac bush in my parents’ yard that still blooms even though someone else lives there now.
We interact with those who were friends of our loved ones and through the exchange of smiles and stories see them from different angles, like a flower being illuminated by just the right slant of sunlight.
And we allow ourselves to express the qualities we appreciated most about them, even if we didn’t fully appreciate them when they were alive, when we were trying to be different and set ourselves apart from them (as is often the case with mothers and daughters and with fathers and sons).
There are so many ways in which loving – our most essential nature – continues on.
So if you ever wonder or doubt whether your life and love is of value, know this: It’s not over yet. Even when you take your last breath, there is so much more of your life left to live. So many seeds yet to emerge from underground and be seen.
And the most wonderful thing I’ve learned is that relationships don’t end with death. I’ve never been closer to my mom. I see her sometimes in dreams and feel her presence in certain moments and places. Whenever I need her, she is never further away than my own heart. My heart and dreams are the portals that allow love to flow both ways. At this point, love is all that’s left, and it’s everything.
Yesterday, I went hiking with my husband and decided to stop to take some pictures, so he went on ahead. There was a period of several minutes when I walked alone through the woods. And the most bizarre thing happened: A bird landed on the path a few steps in front of me and walked with me the whole time. It was like walking a dog, but it was a bird. The bird stayed real close to me the whole time and made me giggle. It was a Snow White moment, for sure. But I also wondered if the bird was injured because it didn’t fly away.
Eventually, I saw the blue of my husband’s jacket in the distance, and the moment he came into view, the bird flew off into the woods. It seemed like it had wanted to keep me company as I walked alone – didn’t want me to be alone.
When I told my husband about my bird companion, he reminded me that it’s Mother’s Day weekend, and perhaps it was my mom saying hi. It felt like the bird wanted me to know that I wasn’t walking alone. And I think that if our departed loved ones could give us any message, especially now, it’s that.
They are still with us, and the love continues to bloom. And not only do we get to witness it, but we can dedicate the merits of our own awakening to them.
In the end, I understand
It was the ocean itself
That kept calling me back
And nothing less.
The ocean that held
Everything I brought to it
And made it seem
Until I stood at the edge
Of land and sea,
Vast and rhythmic
Breathing the breath
Of all life.
I bow down and release
All the worries and heartache
Into the ebb tide
That carries them
To the unseen place
Where they become formless,
And pick up a smooth stone
That catches my eye:
A token of the journey.
Back home, I hold
The stone to my heart
And feel the waves wash
Over it so tenderly
And find the ocean
Right there, always
Accessible no matter
How many miles
Or months or years
I am from the coast.
In time, I don’t even need
To touch the stone
For the ocean is in
My heart and perhaps
Is even what my heart
And in the end, I understand
That in response to all
The words and prayers
I wrote in the sand
And through all the waves
Of coming and going
And the great longing
To return, the ocean
Has taught me
To smooth the rough edges
And resource my life:
With kind awareness
To this breath, this moment,
To the life that is here,
Again and again
And to want this
Above all else.
I’ve been asking myself some important questions lately and wondering how others would answer them. For example:
What matters most to you?
And how do you connect with it?
What consistently matters most to me is: Presence, Connection, Compassion, and Gratitude.
I connect with these qualities on a daily basis by doing walking meditation in the labyrinth, which is my sanctuary. It’s the only reason why I leave the house and has become my favorite daily ritual. It’s a meditation practice from which insights arise, and it’s really supporting me during this time of staying home during the pandemic.
After more than a month of staying home, I’ve made a series of five “labyrinth time” videos, complete with lots of uplifting birdsong. Is it a meditation? Meditation instruction? A poem? All of the above? I don’t know what to call it. All I know is that it’s real and tender and honest. (So much so that sometimes I feel shy about sharing.) These are videos for quiet moments.
Here’s what’s going on: As I walk the labyrinth, I stop periodically to dictate insights into a Google doc on my phone. Then I put my phone back in my pocket, return to presence, and start walking again. At the end of my walking meditation, before leaving the labyrinth, I record myself reading the insights and reflections out loud, accompanied by all the natural sounds. I also take pictures either before or after walking the labyrinth. This video series is my own personal chronicle of where I draw strength from during this time of deep uncertainty.
What you’re hearing is an unfiltered narration of what arises in my mind when I’m immersed in moving meditation in nature and feeling present and connected. The themes center around being intimate with what is and shifting out of expectation, desire, and thought patterns and back into presence. Repeatedly. With compassion.
And you can see the changes the natural world goes through as the weeks pass. Even as our normal routines remain collectively altered, nature keeps doing what it always does at this time of year: renewing, growing, blooming. The natural world is a steadfast background and an anchor of presence we can return to again and again.
This morning, I intended to write about a completely different topic, but then this came. Perhaps because someone needs to read it.
Winter Solstice occurred late last night: the moment at which the sun was farthest from the Northern Hemisphere. This is the darkest time of year, and although it might not feel like it, the light has begun to increase, little by little, each day going forward.
It makes me reflect on the darkest days of my life, my own dark night of the soul following my mother’s death, when so much was changing.
I’ve grieved my share of deaths and losses, but the worst feeling of all was not following the call of my soul. That’s what made this dark chapter even harder: I allowed my light to dim.
On the surface, it might sound like avoidable suffering. (Why not just follow your soul?) But I understand now that there were some soul lessons I needed to learn before I was able to move forward, and life delivered the perfect circumstances and teachers. The perfect storm.
Sometimes my conditioning and desires were too strong, and other times I wasn’t able to access my power for whatever reason. There was a lot of fear and an underlying sense of unworthiness that kept me feeling and living small.
And so the journey became one of taking back my power, baby step by baby step, just like the light begins to return ever so gradually at this time of year. Sometimes it was two steps forward, one step back. But I learned not to beat myself up for the step back and focus more on the steps forward.
I began creating inspirational quote pictures that I’d put where I could see them every day. They were messages from my deeper self that I hoped and prayed would take root. The images were of places and moments when I experienced a sense of empowerment. I read and recited the affirmations every morning and kept them with me wherever I went.
Some of them stayed with me for a long, humbling time. But eventually all were replaced by new ones.
I prayed for help and guidance from my Higher Power, spirit guides, and angels. And I received it. Sometimes it was strength. Whispers of inspiration. Or the vision of a being of light standing at the edge of the Forest of Forbidden Thoughts and Fantasy when I began to think a thought that didn’t serve my soul and my healing. Other times it was physical injury: falling down the stairs, finding a tick on me, smacking my mouth on a space heater, health issues.
If I didn’t listen to the more subtle calls, I got smacked with unambiguous, physical wake-up calls. But I was grateful nonetheless because, after all, I’d requested help. My deepest yearning was to follow the call of my soul and undo a great deal of conditioning that didn’t serve me. And that’s the kind of help I got.
In the beginning, freedom seemed unattainable. My greatest hope and strength came from others who had found their way out of their own dark places. From their examples, I knew liberation was possible.
Some who were in similar or worse circumstances also were catalysts for healing. I empathized with their pain and wished they could be liberated from it. In doing so, I realized I wasn’t alone or unique in what I was experiencing and also was worthy of liberation from suffering.
To reiterate: What I know now that I didn’t know back then is that there would be assistance every step of the way. Assistance I never could’ve dreamed of: Feeling drawn to take Reiki training and to say yes to any number of new possibilities that showed up. Some of the possibilities had been in my orbit all along, but I hadn’t given them attention. Until I was ready. Really ready to transform my life into something greater.
I learned that when you feel really stuck, you might be on the brink of unprecedented growth.
Now I look back with so much gratitude for the journey because I’ve come so far from that dark night of the soul. It’s not the end of the road. You always can go further. But the journey from the darkest days to where I am now was the greatest leap in consciousness I’ve experienced my entire life. (And I’ve spent my life as a spiritual seeker working with a guide, so to say that is a really big deal.)
I learned the importance of self-love and burning in a fierce love (not blame, not hatred, not regret) everything that doesn’t serve me. I’ve learned there is a source of steadfast, unconditional love I can call upon when I need it, when I’m not feeling strong enough. I’ve learned that when I need it most, there is a circle of loved ones around me whose love still reaches me from beyond the grave. And behind them is even more love. Beings of love and light. I’ve learned to source my life from that great love and to see myself through the eyes of unconditional love.
I wish this for everyone who is suffering. Because it’s possible.
From the darkest days, I found the brightest light. The journey required lots of patience, forgiveness, and love. I became disciplined with regard to the thoughts I would and wouldn’t allow myself to think, and learned that mindfulness of thoughts paired with compassion forms a mighty superpower that can be used to benefit ourselves and others.
I’ve shifted from seeking validation from others to generating it within. Can you imagine how different our world would be if more people – including world leaders – made this shift and didn’t walk around needing others to fill their empty holes?
I offer the story of my journey to encourage anyone who is experiencing a dark night of the soul to keep going and have hope. And to encourage anyone who is supporting someone through dark times not to give up on them, no matter how many times they stumble and fall and could be left for dead. I’m not suggesting anyone should be a doormat and try to save others. (I learned that lesson the very hard way.) Healthy boundaries are essential. I’m just saying: Maintain an attitude of hope and unconditional love, and trust their soul’s path. If there’s nothing else you can do, send love and light.
And give it to yourself, as well. Let any self-judgment burn up in that fierce love. Allow yourself to receive the love and light that seeks you. Learn to receive it. You are worthy.
The only way out of the darkness is through love. As love grows in you, it pulls you along and gains momentum.
Do not fear the darkness. It’s where you will learn to shine your brightest light. Individually and collectively, that’s what the darkness calls forth from us.