Images That Speak

Images That Speak

A few months before he died, my friend, David, gave me a two-year gift subscription to Joan Chittister’s monthly publication, The Monastic Way. Each month’s pamphlet features a different work of art and invites the reader to sit with the painting and read it with a “listening heart” while contemplating the following questions:

  • What does this painting say?
  • What does this painting say to me?
  • What do I want to say to God through this painting?
  • What difference does this painting make in my life?
  • What feeling or thought or word does it evoke? 

The Monastic Way employs art as a doorway to spiritual contemplation and is the perfect gift for me. It has inspired me to ask similar questions of images I find in dreams and nature. For instance, earlier this year I dreamed of sunlight shining through the frost-covered branches of a willow tree. It was the most beautiful, gripping image, and I wanted desperately to photograph it! Several weeks later, that image still calls to me. Realizing that it’s unlikely I will come across a frosted willow tree at this point in the season, today I did a Google search for sunlit, frosted willow trees and was transfixed by one image in particular. Once again, I’m grateful that someone took the time to capture and share an image that calls to me from within but eludes me when I search for it in the outer world. Because of this person’s generosity, I can sit with the image with a grateful heart and contemplate the particular significance it holds for me.

Other times, images aren’t so elusive, and I find them even when I am not looking for them – or when I am looking for something else. I never know when it will happen, but if I’m walking in nature – with or without my camera – something inevitably will stop me in my tracks and fill me with awe and gratitude. It could be anything, large or small. But when something calls to me like that, it always stops me in my tracks, quite literally. My husband has learned to deal with this little quirk of mine when we are out walking for exercise. Once I stopped for about 20 minutes to capture sunlight illuminating a leaf that was standing on its side on the roadside.

The oak leaf kept blowing gently in the wind but did not fall and lay flat like the other leaves around it. It stood alone and allowed the sunlight to shine through. Something about that resonated deeply in me.

And then there’s the tree that stands alone, silhouetted so magnificently by the setting sun. When we drove past it one evening (as we had done countless times before), my husband commented that he loves that tree. That’s all it took for me to fall in love with it, too, to the point of becoming fixated on mapping out angles, weather conditions, and times when it was most striking and photographable – for once I noticed it, the image spoke to me so strongly that I couldn’t stop thinking about it and needed to capture and share it.

What does this image say?

What feeling, thought, or word does it evoke? 

How does it awaken me?

On a recent, solo walk I came across the following image, which stopped me in my tracks:

Three milkweed pods. One is empty. It opened and released its seeds to the wind before winter took hold. The other two pods are still full of seeds. Whereas some of the long, white hairs attached to the seeds are still fairly silky, most are wet and matted and therefore cannot be released into the wind. And the matted ones are pressing on the silkier ones, keeping them stuck in the seed pod.

As I stopped and gazed at this sight, I thought of my mother, who continues to live with advanced pancreatic cancer. I thought of her life and how fully she has lived it. She loved her work – early on as a flight attendant and then as an executive assistant at a performing arts center for three decades. But despite how much she loved her work, she’d always dreamed of being a nurse. She even went to nursing school part-time when my children were little, as she continued to work full-time. Eventually, she withdrew from the nursing program because she felt it got in the way of her spending precious time with her grandchildren while they were young. Time she realized she could not get back.

However, after she retired a few years ago, she became a hospital volunteer. And then she had a new dream: To learn to play guitar so she could share the gift of music with the patients she visited. Well, she didn’t miss a beat! She found a teacher and became a serious, dedicated student. Her life began to revolve around guitar, and her teacher became one of her dearest friends. Not only did she play for her patients, but she also mustered the confidence and courage to do open mic performances! Her energy was youthful and abundant and ever so inspiring. She was on fire with new passion in her mid-70s.

Music had always been so important to my mother, and when my siblings and I were growing up, she made sure we had music lessons for whatever instruments we wished to play. It was very important to her that we could play an instrument, and of the three of us, I was the one who took it most seriously. Playing piano became a fundamental part of my identity, and I know this brought my mother great joy. However, when I began to lose interest and move on to other endeavors, I think it was quite a loss for her. All along, she had an inner musician longing to come out like those milkweed seeds still stuck inside the pod. She made a career of working with world-famous musicians and supported her children’s involvement with music. But finally, she learned to play guitar, and that made all the difference. And what’s even more inspiring and impressive is that she used her musical passion and talent in service of others.

My mom is like the empty milkweed pod that has opened and allowed her seed dreams to be released into the world. In the process, she has inspired many who have witnessed her. (In fact, I, too, want to learn to play guitar.) It is a beautiful thing when silky seed fairies hitch a ride on a gentle wind, for they were made to travel beyond the protective confines of their pods, to give birth to new possibilities and fulfill their potential.

The image of the milkweed pods inspires me to consider what seeds are still waiting to be released from within me so that, when all is said and done, I can say with sincerity and gratitude that I have lived a truly fulfilled life. Also, how might I support others in opening and releasing their gifts to the world? May each of us open and let go of any fears and doubts that prevent us from sending our seeds into the world so that when we come to the end of our lives, we are lovely, empty pods with seeds sown as far as the gracious winds of our lives will carry them.

Just like my mother.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’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 Photography ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Transcending the Roles of a Lifetime

Transcending the Roles of a Lifetime

Oh, technology, you have failed me! Last night I spent more than two hours pouring my heart and soul into perhaps the most raw, honest, meaningful, therapeutic blog post I have ever composed – complete with tears and deep revelations. I was totally in the flow. After I had finished writing and attempted to add some pictures, Blogger froze, and I lost everything. It was the stillborn blog post, and there was nothing I could do to bring it back. More tears followed, for I knew I could never rewrite that post; it was way too powerful. It was so powerful that – once the tears stopped flowing and I regained my composure – I felt tremendous healing had taken place during the two-plus hours during which I labored with it. Apparently it was only meant for me in its original form. Although I had lost the writing, I had gained the experience and wisdom. And then I set to work on rewriting it in its new form. I hope some of the original energy will be transmitted through these words.

Since my mother’s diagnosis of advanced Stage IV pancreatic cancer about six weeks ago, I have been reflecting on the mother-daughter connection, which is one of the most complicated and conflicted of all human relationships. I have considered the pervasiveness of mother-blaming in our society and the effects it has on mothers and daughters. It seems mothers are expected to embody the impossible archetype of Mother and are not easily forgiven for being human and fallible. Mothers are blamed for making mistakes despite our best efforts and loving hearts. We are blamed for our children’s troubles and unhappiness. Our words, glances, actions, and inaction can carry such weight and be easily misinterpreted and blown out of proportion, thus giving unintended messages a life of their own that leaves our children feeling fundamentally flawed.

But where there is pain, there is opportunity to heal, even if it takes decades.

My wedding day

Pancreatic cancer is a thief stealing my mother from me too soon. I feel very sad about the prospect of losing her, although when she is ready to let go, I will be a midwife for her and release her into the Light with my deepest blessing. Along with my husband, she is my best friend, the person I pick up the phone to call and share my news and feelings. But it wasn’t always like that. Although I can only speak from my own experience, it seems daughters tend to develop by differentiating ourselves from our mothers – defining ourselves against, or apart from our magnified perception of our mother’s shortcomings and flaws. In other words: “My mother is this; therefore I am not this.” We exile all these unacceptable parts we associate with our mothers to what Swiss psychiatrist and psychoanalyst Carl Jung called the shadow. They become baggage that we drag around perhaps for the bulk of a lifetime until (if we are fortunate) we awaken and reconcile the exiled parts, making room for them in our psyche and welcoming them with open arms, no longer threatened by or having an aversion to them.

The healing began for me when I became a mother and realized that theory and practice are two entirely different matters. Although theory can inform our practice, a little practice tends to upset a lot of theory and squelch feelings of superiority.

Four generations of eldest daughters

I have sat in therapists’ offices with my own daughter and been the target of mother blaming. It was painful, surreal, and frustrating as hell. I left one therapist’s office wounded to the core and sobbed the whole way home in response to the therapist’s abrasive, misinformed treatment of me. I was coached to listen to my daughter’s painful feelings and presumed to be the cause of them (or so it seemed). But it was a one-way street. And this is ultimately abusive to mothers and daughters alike, turning mothers into monsters (like the witches and evil stepmothers in fairy tales) and daughters into victims (damsels in distress waiting to be rescued). I believe in the importance of hearing and acknowledging children’s feelings, and a listening presence characterized by deep empathy is as natural to me as breathing and has formed the foundation for my parenting and teaching. However, there is another piece that is equally important: A child needs to know that s/he is loved, despite any pain attributed to the mother’s fallibility or resulting from the collision of the child’s will with the mother’s boundaries. The mother is human. She will not always please her children. She will make mistakes. She is not the fairy godmother with the magic wand who grants their every wish. Forgive her, for you will make mistakes, as well, when it is your turn to raise children. You will not always be your children’s best friend and make them happy. Forgive her so you may forgive your future self and allow yourself to establish healthy limits with your children without feeling guilty for doing so. Above all, you are and always have been loved.

My mother as a child

I feel it is so important for children to know this. Your mother is human and doing the best she can. You are loved. As a teacher, I am constantly giving my students this message. When they complain about something their mother has done that has upset them, I listen to and reflect their feelings and then remind them that she did it because she loves them and is trying to keep them safe – which is almost always the case. I feel it is very important for children to hear this, especially if the father is unable to support, or actively sabotages, the integrity of the mother-child relationship for whatever reason.

Back to my mother’s illness…

When people ask me how I’m handling my mom’s illness, I often reply by wondering out loud why it took so long to awaken to her beauty. At times, I regret all the wasted years when I could have enjoyed and appreciated her and reciprocated her love so much more than I did. But time is ultimately irrelevant. Awakening is the only thing that matters. Whether we do it years, months, days, or moments before death separates us from our mother, in the end the only thing that matters is that we did awaken. To awaken while our mother is still physically present is such a blessing – although I believe it’s never too late.

So when the tears come – usually late at night when everyone else is asleep – they are a mixture of sorrow on the physical level and spiritual joy, for I am so grateful to have awakened. Perhaps the lyrics to my mother’s favorite hymn say it best:

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

It feels as if I have transcended the roles that have circumscribed my relationship with my mother all these years and have stepped across the threshold and entered her world with new eyes, able to appreciate the scenery I find there. I truly enjoy her company and presence, watching her favorite television shows with her, getting to know her friends, talking openly about important matters, laughing, listening to her play guitar, and running errands for her.

Now that my blinders have been removed by her illness, I finally can see how amazing and beautiful my mom is. I am in awe of her and love her more each day. Her essence shines through so strongly, like a bright sun that makes the details that differentiate us seem so trivial, small, and faded. I wish I could keep her around for many years to come. But perhaps a brush with death and the realization of our mother’s mortality is what needs to happen in order for us to awaken, heal, and love more fully. Perhaps it is an initiation that awakens us to the truth of who our mother is as a human and spiritual being beyond the limiting roles we take on during our lifetime together.

My mom and me

I don’t know how much time my mother and I have left together, only that our time will come to an end, for death is inevitable for each of us. It is perched on my shoulder and reminds me that every moment is precious. This time is an incredible gift, despite all the pain, and I must take full advantage of it because I cannot get it back to do over. Something like this reorders one’s priorities. The advice I get from others who have traveled this path (as each of us will in time) is to spend as much time as I can with my mom now and not let other stuff get in the way. Make the time, and take the time. Be prepared by having my day-to-day affairs in order as much as possible so I can drop everything and be with her when I need to. And also remember to take care of myself.

This post is quite different from what I wrote last night. I am not attempting to interpret or invent psychological theory but to communicate how I am reconciling my own experience with my mother’s mortality in hopes that sharing may benefit others. I apologize for any overgeneralizations I might have made about the mother-daughter dynamic (as I’m sure there are other paths up this mountain) and also don’t mean to exclude males.

Grief has opened the floodgates of my heart, tears and poetry flowing. In closing, I offer a spiritual poem that wrote itself through me one night (and which is the only way I can account for the word fealty, which I have never used in my life but insisted on being written and not edited out):


The god and goddess
Become mortal
Hearts of glass shattering
Spilling a lifetime’s worth of tears.

When it comes to a close
We bow deeply
And thank one another
For playing these roles
With such fealty.

It happens to each in turn:
Girl becomes mother
Set up to be knocked down
No matter
Never meaning any harm
Nor deserving such blame.

She removes the mask,
Hands it down
And all is beauty and love.
Really, that is all there ever was
When you see through
The impossible mantle
Of Mother.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’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 Photography ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Opportunities for Practice

Opportunities for Practice

This morning, my husband woke me with the following words: “I know you want to get some sleep, but you might want to look out the window. It’s one of those mornings.” And it certainly was. Within minutes, I was walking through a frosted world waiting for the sun to burst through the clouds and play with the ice crystals that formed from last night’s fog.

It took an hour and a half before the rising sun intersected with a patch of blue sky, but I was determined to be there and ready when it happened. I had plenty of time to walk around and consider the scenery and angles I wanted to photograph.

It was a cold morning, and at times I wished the clouds would hurry up and move out of the way. But then I’d take a deep breath and remind myself that this is a perfect opportunity to practice. To meditate.

After decades of practicing on and off, I have come to understand meditation quite simply as the act of bringing awareness back from the thinking mind to the spaciousness of the present moment. You catch yourself again and again, bring your mind back, and work on strengthening that response so it becomes more instinctive and immediate. Meditative awareness offers freedom from the tyranny of thought.

I couldn’t do anything to speed up the clouds, so I had some choices, as we all do:

  • Give up and go home
  • Be agitated and discontented with the present moment while waiting for it to change
  • Embrace the moment, and love what’s already here.



You can complain about life not meeting your expectations, about all the misery in the world, about the present moment not being as you want it to be. Or you can find something to love, here and now. You can have a peaceful, joyful heart despite it all.

I have had a lot of opportunity for practice lately. When the house is still at night or I’m alone without any distractions, my parents’ suffering often arises in my mind. I think about how very unfair it is that such good, kind people can receive such cruel blows from life. Pancreatic cancer sucks. My mom is worn out and in pain much of the time. She hasn’t been able to do the things she loves. I realize the importance of acknowledging, allowing, and releasing grief, and I know from experience that grief is hard, physical work.

But this will not stop me from searching for beauty. From spending more than two hours outdoors on a frosty morning waiting for the moment when the light finally shines through and transforms the world into a luminous wonderland. Kahlil Gibran’s words from The Prophet resonate: “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.” In fact, the sorrow only fuels my desire to find and share joy and beauty.

Grief is energy that feels like a wave crashing through me. But I’m realizing that grief is not the same thing as sorrow. Grief is physical. Tears flow. Like shells and stones that wash up as waves crash against the shore, grief often gives rise to sadness and sorrow – which can be perpetuated by the egoic, thinking mind. Once the wave of grief energy passes, I can choose whether to focus on thoughts of deprivation or gratitude. I can feel sadness for my mom’s suffering and for everything her cancer is stealing from us. I can continue to think sad thoughts for as long as I want. But those thoughts will not change her situation. They will only keep me awake at night and leave me feeling tired the next day – and less present and able to do the things that will make a difference. So instead of feeding the sorrow, I’ve found that once the grief wave passes through, I can breathe into my heart center and transform grief into gratitude. Gratitude for having such loving parents who have helped me to become who I am today. Gratitude for having awakened to how amazing and beautiful my parents are while there is still time to repay their love and kindness and enjoy their company.

It’s all the same: Impatience for the sun to shine, grieving my mother’s illness, etc., etc., etc. It’s all an opportunity to practice returning to the spaciousness of the present moment and discovering the gifts waiting to be noticed and received.

While waiting for the sun to shine this morning, I found so much beauty when I decided to take a look around and expand my awareness beyond waiting and focusing on what was missing from the moment. The same can also be done when a loved one has a serious illness. Every moment is an opportunity to live and love more fully. Every moment offers a gift.

© Susan Meyer and River Bliss Photography, 2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material, including all text and photos, without express and written permission from this website’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 Photography ( with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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