This Thanksgiving, I’m reflecting on what I’m most grateful for – what has supported me through this year. Here are my top 11 (because 11 is my favorite number, of course).
During the shutdown, when everything got cancelled and felt surreal and changed from day to day and sometimes even hour to hour, I was drawn to birdsong like never before. It was like a meditation bell that brought me out of my thoughts and into the present moment countless times a day. The songbirds cued me to notice my breathing and scan through my body to notice where I was holding tension so I could release it and invite greater ease.
It also seemed the birds were just living their lives, returning as they do every spring – regardless of how disrupted our human lives had become. Their melodic conversations uplifted me. It felt like a part of me could understand birdsong and found it comforting. The birds seemed to be messengers of lightness, joy, all-is-well.
As our planet took a gigantic and much needed breather and the human sounds quieted down, the birdsong became more noticeable…and captivating. It’s been my companion ever since. In this year of physical distancing, birdsong has kept me connected with the living, breathing world and ushered me back to presence.
This year, I’ve stayed close to home since the shutdown. I haven’t made any overnight trips, and the only day trips I made were to the New England Peace Pagoda a couple hours away in Massachusetts and to the Adirondacks for a Women of Light photo shoot on a perfect, autumn day. Aside from that, I’ve been exploring and appreciating what’s close to home. It’s been a beautiful experiment of “staying”.
There have been four parks/trails in particular that I’ve gravitated to this year. The first is Hudson Crossing Park, which is the closest. In the spring, I visited Hudson Crossing every morning and walked the labyrinth. “Labyrinth time” was what I looked forward to most of all every day. It was my only outing, my meditation time, and an opportunity to connect with both nature and my deeper self.
For a while, my husband and I hiked the Thunder Mountain trail in Greenwich regularly. I appreciated being in the woods and the view of the surrounding hills and mountains in the distance. We also ran into fewer people on this trail.
Then the Saratoga Spa State Park started calling to me. With far fewer tourists in town since both the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and the racetrack were closed to the public, it was more delightful than ever to explore the Spa State Park. I discovered and photographed lesser known mineral springs, meditated next to the Geyser Island Spouter, and walked the trails. In the fall, the Ellen Reid Sound Walk was a special treat that put me in an especially creative state.
The fall foliage was so stunning this year that I wasn’t content to just drive through it. I wanted to be immersed in it, up close and personal. That’s when the trails at Christ the King Center in Greenwich came on our radar. And they did not disappoint! It was rare to run into anyone at all, and I fell in love with a section of birch trees on the trail, the views, the peace and quiet, and the diversity of leaves blanketing the ground. (I collected some to make leaf lanterns.) Jack made a video about hiking at Christ the King you that can watch HERE.
The icing on the cake was the time I spent with my granddaughter and daughter (and her boyfriend) at the two parks. My granddaughter and I miss our weekly sleepovers so much, but she had lots of fun exploring the trails, pretending, caring for pinecones (baby trees), searching for and constructing fairy houses, and just being outdoors together creating beautiful memories.
I’m also immensely grateful for everyone who maintains these parks and trails that have offered refuge to so many this year.
The Hudson River
I feel so blessed to live on the river. The navigation season was much shorter than usual this year due to the locks being closed, which meant I could kayak without having to be so vigilant about boat traffic. Once things started to reopen in the summer and there was more traffic and human noise, it was incredibly satisfying to paddle up the river to where the human sounds (that seemed so loud) subsided so I could hear the symphony of nature undisturbed: songbirds, wind dancing with the leaves in the trees, woodpeckers pecking, bald eagles calling.
Sometimes I’d bring my singing drum or Koshi chimes and play with the sounds of nature and even dance. I felt much more free to dance and be embodied in spots on the riverside due to the lack of boat traffic. And there were more spots to choose from because the water level was low all year, creating several tiny “beaches”.
It’s also wonderful to wake up to the river every morning and to have it as my view all day long. To watch it flow and to be inspired by its movement and the reflective quality of its stillness. And to walk along the river at both Hudson Crossing Park and on the quiet roads across the river. The river nourishes my life on so many levels, and “staying” has been a great joy.
A Sense of Community
I have longed for more community in my life – especially a spiritually supportive community. A couple years ago, I had an astrological reading that ended up being absolutely uncanny in its accuracy. The astrologer highlighted the significance of me working with groups of women, in spiritual and healing ways. At the time, I couldn’t imagine what this could mean. It sounded great, but no possibilities came to mind.
Now I’m chuckling as I remember how perplexed I was by this…because it’s become my reality.
This year, I went full steam ahead into the role of meditation teacher that’s called to me my whole life. And who showed up? Mostly women. Exclusively women for at least the first few months. Many of the participants in my meditation courses have been with me since the spring, and a sense of community has been growing. Someday when Covid has run its course, I look forward to being with them in person. But in the meantime, we are creating community and awakening together via Zoom. For that, I am grateful.
There’s also another community of women that showed up in my life this year, that feels like the answer to a longtime prayer. This is a network of mostly younger, local women who are brilliant, deeply spiritual, and multifaceted creatives. I am in awe of their energy, talents, wisdom, and light. Remember the Three Dog Night song, “Shambhala”? I can tell my sister(s) by the flowers in (their) eyes / On the road to Shambala. It’s like that.
Knowing women like this earlier in life would have altered the entire trajectory of my life. These women are deeply in touch with spirit and express it in unique and beautiful ways. They are inspiring me to be more fully embodied and to bring my wisdom and light into fuller expression.
I even cleared furniture out of the sunroom overlooking the river to create space for yoga and dancing, and that’s what I do most evenings, sometimes with these women as my guides and inspiration (remotely, for now). This kind of sisterhood is the piece that has been missing all my life. I’m so grateful for the ways they inspire me. They even provided the initial inspiration for my Women of Light photography sessions. (How many times have I used the word “inspire” to describe them?)
Working From Home
The astrologer also said that I would be transitioning to working more from home. Working with groups of women and working from home? Sounded amazing, but I couldn’t imagine this happening. Had no vision for it whatsoever. At the time, I was working two part-time jobs at two different libraries and trying to make time for my own work as best I could.
In March as we headed into the shutdown, I couldn’t fathom doing either of my library jobs from home. They weren’t those kinds of jobs: I taught preschool and helped library patrons with computer and technology issues. I was in the midst of teaching a mindfulness meditation course through the smaller library as part of my practicum requirements for teacher certification and, already fluent in Zoom through my teacher training program, switched the course from in-person to Zoom literally overnight, without missing a beat.
Realizing people were really stressed out by the pandemic cancellations, I asked the HR person at the larger library if she’d like me to teach a mindfulness meditation class for staff through Zoom…and received a resounding YES!Can you start yesterday? That course went well, and then I was asked to offer a course for patrons.
That’s how it all began. I’ve been teaching Zoom classes ever since, non-stop with the exception of a month-long break at the end of summer. I became so busy doing this and developing more content that I ended up resigning from both of my library jobs so I could put my energy into delivering programs instead.
It feels like I am living my purpose, and I love working from home. Thank you, Zoom.
Inspired by my teacher, Tara Brach, I incorporate poetry into my guided meditations and meditation classes. Through Tara, I’ve discovered three poets whose work really resonates: John O’Donohue, Danna Faulds, and Mark Nepo. Their poems have been breaths of fresh air throughout the chaos of 2020. Mary Oliver is always right there in the mix, too, but I’ve appreciated her work for quite some time, along with the spiritual poetry of Hafiz and Rumi and my earliest favorite poet, Kahlil Gibran.
Bringing a book of poetry and a hot water bottle to bed with me is a pleasure I look forward to just like I appreciated my morning labyrinth time in the spring.
There’s a line from a poem I once read (most likely a Zen death poem) that has stuck with me: Don’t lean on the shifting world.
This year, the world has shifted so much that sometimes it’s felt like there’s nothing solid to stand on. And in moments when that felt overwhelming, I’d go outside. One spring evening, I sat outdoors beneath the clear, starry sky listening to the sound of spring peepers in the distance, across the river. I relished that the stars were still in the sky, and the peepers were still peeping, as they did every year at that time. They helped me to get grounded and find stability in a time of groundlessness and instability.
And then there were the daffodils blooming around the labyrinth as they did every spring. And then the fiddlehead families. The whole flower parade. And the backyard fireflies that put on a magical light show on summer nights. My beloved “water lily friends” in front of our house on the river. The brilliant display of fall foliage. All on schedule, as if nothing had changed.
As we head toward winter, there is not as much birdsong as there was earlier in the year. Anticipating this during the warmer months, I wondered how I’d adjust to winter’s quiet after resonating so deeply with the songbirds.
That’s where the beautiful instruments come in. The instruments that line my dance space: handpan, singing drums, and Koshi chimes. Sometimes I’ll dance with my Koshi chimes, wearing them like a ring and moving however my body wants to move. Or I’ll play the instruments intuitively, improvisationally, as a musical meditation. I also play keyboard from time to time, but it is in a different location because I have a different relationship with it than I do with these other instruments.
The sounds of these beautiful instruments are so soothing. I tend to turn to uplifting, major scales during the day and minor tunings in the evening, to wind down. And sometimes I’ll lie in the middle of my dance space and listen to a sound bath recorded by someone else. Sacred sounds enrich my life and physical body and fill the quiet spaces where birdsong has subsided.
Well-Stocked Grocery Stores
For a while during the shutdown in the spring, we had our groceries delivered. There was also one small, local business that came through with organic produce in a pinch. I’d place an order online and pick it up curbside ten minutes later, knowing that everything advertised was in stock. Once I bit the bullet and paid $8 for a head of cauliflower that was advertised as ridiculously large. But it was the puniest head of cauliflower I’d ever bought, and I couldn’t return it or get a price adjustment. And sometimes Instacart deliveries would include containers of salad greens that were already decomposing or other produce I wouldn’t have selected myself.
When I returned to the grocery store for the first time, there literally were tears in my eyes upon seeing a fully stocked produce department and being able to pick out fruits and vegetables on my own.
It’s a privilege I won’t take for granted again.
This might be the most difficult gratitude to put into words. So I’ll try to express what I’ve found living in my heart by describing a vision I had during meditation. It began with hearing my mother’s loving voice, which has been growing in my heart ever since she died 6 1/2 years ago. Then I realized that she was part of a greater entity of unconditional love. This entity appeared as a female form and contained everyone who’s loved me, teachers who have taught me to be more loving and wise, and even the higher selves of those with whom I’ve experienced disharmony. All their voices emanated from this entity of Love.
Then this entity went into my heart, like a genie going back into its bottle. I experienced it as an iridescent, heart-shaped crystal in my heart area. There was a white water lily at the top of my head, and a stream of light flowed from it down through my body. The heart crystal was in this stream of light, and when I listened to the sound of the tumbling stream, I realized it was the whispering of all those loving voices. The river of light was keeping the heart crystal clean and clear and accessible and was filling me with love.
From then on, I knew that all I needed to do was put a hand on my heart or call upon Love. Then that entity living in my heart would emerge from the crystal container and stand before me, and I’d feel all the love and hear what Love had to say to me. I could hear my mother’s voice, my father’s voice, my grandmother’s voice, the voice of the higher self of someone who had hurt me. During one meditation, the entity held my hands and then embraced me, and I felt completely surrounded by and filled with this pure energy of love and light. It felt like the embrace we all long for and was almost unbearably satisfying.
I know that whenever I need it, it’s all right there in my heart, accessible and more real than anything. And in this sense, we are not separate from our loved ones. The veils of death, mental illness, addiction, physical distance, etc. can be dissolved in a heartbeat so that there is no separation. For this, I am immensely grateful and resourced.
There was a particular moment recently when a wave of relief washed through my whole body, and the seeds of hope sent new roots into the earth. I was hopeful earlier in the year that the shutdown would help to awaken the world to simplicity and caring. And then things erupted into flames. But I still sense that we are part of a great awakening in human history. It won’t happen overnight. It’ll be messy and intense at times. But it’s happening, and we are part of it. We just need to be patient and to keep showing up for what we care about most.
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.