Thursday, March 18, 2010

The Gift of Dreams

Have you ever had a dream that lingered in your memory? I had always thought dreams were interesting because of the variety of people that appeared in them, some I recognized from my life and others I'd never seen or met before. I also thought that the places in my dreams were a bit unusual because even the familiar places looked somehow different when they appeared in the dreams. I had never given too much thought to any of these, until an image from a recent dream kept popping up at unexpected times, and I would wonder why it kept coming back. I tried remembering the dream, but I struggled with making sense out of it. I was surprised then to be in the middle of a therapy session, and out of nowhere came a clear image from that exact dream. I intuitively knew the image had arrived so vividly during the session so that I would have the chance to discuss it with my therapist, and I am grateful that I trusted my feeling enough to mention the image.

Since this was my first venture into dreams, I wasn't sure what anything meant and it all seemed like a silly story with me playing the main character. The "story" was about me being in a large metropolitan city, marching in a parade while holding an enormous sparkling crystal at the top of a very long pole. The crystal was in the bright sunlight, shining with such an intense sparkle that it brought shouts of joy and admiration at the glistening sight. I remember looking up at this spectacular vision of pure beauty, but then it gently went into the gloomy shadow of a tall building, taking all its splendor away. That's where the dream ended.

My therapist was interested in knowing details about the type of building that was casting the shadow on my crystal, but since I had absolutely no clue what kind of building it was other than being quite large, she instructed me to close my eyes and visually return to that place. It didn't take long for me to revisit the main street with the parade going strongly. As my beautiful crystal gradually went into the darkness I turned to locate the building and was amazed to see a huge cathedral casting that dark dreary shadow. Realizing that it was a church that took away the beauty made me swallow hard as the impact of that revelation slapped me in the gut!

The light bulb of understanding was burning brightly, and in that second of realization it was as though the floodgates of my awareness opened. I grasped that the crystal was a symbol for my relationship with God, while the image of the shadow brought clarity to the internal struggle I had been having about the Catholic Church. It seemed as though there were so many rules in the Church that brought a darkness in the form of judgment, negativity, power and control. For me this inner struggle began as I journeyed through the process of having my first marriage annulled by the Church. Remember theMarriage Tribunal of priests who had the power to decide if Jim and I could be married in the eyes of the Church? We had to wait years for their decision, and it wasn't until a monsignor at our church finally stepped forward and told my mom and dad that he would take on the responsibility of blessing our marriage even though the verdict had not yet been pronounced. At the time I wondered why there needed to be all the drama of waiting and uncertainty, when in the end the monsignor was able to handle it in a loving and compassionate manner. Our parish priest had also informed us that our diocese did not allow couples to be married in an outdoor ceremony even though it was allowed in the neighboring many rules.

I walked away from these experiences with questions about all the inconsistencies that seemed to exist in the Church, but I never dealt with those concerns. It wasn't until that dream that I understood how I was truly feeling, and the darkness of the shadow summed it up quite well. I walked away from that therapy session with another loose thread that would be woven into the fabric of my life...the gift of dreams and the insights they can offer.

Friday, February 26, 2010

What a Ride!

I have fond memories of my initial "taste" of mindfulness. I was literally introduced to the joy of eating an orange in a mindful manner. I thought of all the oranges I had consumed over the years, and not once had I considered how the orange skin felt as I peeled it or how it popped and shot juice throughout my mouth as I bit into it. After that one experience I certainly wanted to learn more.

As I read Thich Nhat Hanh describing how he would choose a day each week to be immersed in mindfulness, I was captivated with figuring out how to make that happen in my life. It didn't take me long to realize that all I needed was the commitment to actually do it! My biggest obstacle was reigning in my need to control. Maybe because this was my maiden voyage into a new realm of discovery, or maybe because I was always more comfortable when I felt in control. For whatever reason, I went into overdrive in getting my mind solidly in control of the whole situation. I even went so far as to consider which day of the week would work best into my schedule...STOP! Okay, it took me some time before I finally realized that control was in no way needed.

The very next day I set off on my day of exploration into mindfulness. I was astonished with the time it took to merely get out of bed and brush my many textures to feel, so many sounds to hear, so many tastes to experience, and that's just brushing my teeth! I was really getting into this intensified sense of awareness...even making out my grocery shopping list gave me an opportunity to feel the consistency of the pen against my skin as well as the sensation as the tip of the pen began gliding smoothly across the surface of the paper. I was so caught up in this new experience that I almost forgot about the list I was writing. And that is exactly the one challenge I had with mindfulness immersion...staying focused on the task that needed to be completed.

As I climbed into the car to drive to the grocery store, my senses were alive with an attentive awareness that was intoxicating. I smile with the memory of me sitting alone in the garage in my car, filled with the sensations of my body sliding into the seat, retrieving my keys from my purse, placing the key into the ignition...the soft coolness of the leather seat, the rattling of the keys along with the hard metallic feel of each key. By the time I finally backed the car into the street, this heightened attentiveness of me in the world brought a fullness to my whole being. In fact, I was so consumed with savoring each part of this fullness that I was four blocks past the grocery store before I even realized it! Now that was a ride!

Monday, February 15, 2010

Threads of Expansion

Since the bandages on my back needed to be changed daily, it gave me a chance each day to ponder how, in the span of six months, I had two totally different experiences in the way my body healed. What had made the difference? Did my lack of active participation affect the degree to which the wound was repaired? Did inviting divine participation affect the outcome? Honestly, it was a challenge to wrap my head around this new way of looking at healing. Throughout those summer weeks I continued to process my expanding perceptions!

It was also during this year that I investigated different ways to calm my mind and body. After reading Dr. Herbert Benson's book The Relaxation Response I began taking a structured quiet time each day for about fifteen to twenty minutes. During these times I would concentrate only on my breathing, counting each complete breath as "one." I liked this because with the repetition of "one" I was better able to just breath without my mind becoming involved in keeping count. Believe me, my mind had more than a bit of difficulty giving up control. Many random thoughts would enter my mind, so with each one I would gently set it aside and return to my breathing. I remember after several times of practicing this type of relaxation, I realized that I was no longer aware of my was as though I had reached a place where my mind and body were suspended in silence and a deep sense of peace wrapped me in stillness. I must admit that initially this new feeling scared me, so I took one very deep breath to reassure myself that I was fine. Another new experience for me to process...exhilarating for sure, and yet a bit scary at the same time.

In the midst of this introspective period, another book crossed my path that encouraged me to expand my awareness in still another area of living...The Miracle of Mindfulness by Thich Nhat Hanh. I can honestly admit that I had never considered the concept of mindfulness, and yet after being exposed to it, I could only wonder how I had become so occupied in busyness, making me unavailable to a different way of living. I thought about my initial attempts to quiet my mind and the difficulty I had calming the constant activity. After reading this book I came to a profound self-realization...mind full, most definitely yes...mindful, most definitely no! Oh, my journey with mindfulness had just begun.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Opposite of Wonder and Delight

Three short months later at my regular check-up with the dermatologist, he biopsied a mole that I had not even seen because it was out of sight, right below my neck at the top of my back. The test indicated that further work was needed, so I set up yet another trip to the Procedure Room. After having the positive experience with the healing of my leg, what could ever keep me from embracing the same strategy following this new procedure? The sad answer is that I was too busy to even think about the quality of healing. This procedure was done in May, which was the busiest time of the year for me. I was busy planning a little reading party, busy making homemade awards for each student, busy doing report cards, busy packing up the countless books and supplies in preparation for summer much busyness, so little healing.

I vividly remember the sound of my doctor's voice as he removed all the stitches, only to watch the wound completely open up again. Here was my confident doctor standing in disbelief while trying to find the words to explain to me what had just happened. "Oh my," was repeated two or three times, followed by a heavy sigh. Since I could not see what he was looking at, I was more that a bit worried by this unusual tone. He proceeded to calmly explain that since the entire wound had opened, it would have to slowly heal from within. I wasn't exactly sure what that meant or how long it would take. I felt numb as I listened to all the instructions he laid out for us to follow over the next several weeks. It was at that point that my head became a bobble head, randomly nodding up and down as his explanation became more and more involved. Now it was my turn to say, "Oh my!"

As I left the clinic, my arms were filled with all the supplies needed to help the wound begin to gradually close. It's difficult to explain what was going through my head on the short trip home. I felt a mixture of guilt, shame, fear and uncertainty...guilt for being so self-absorbed in school related matters that I had no energy or thought left to give to my healing; shame for treating my body in such an unlovin way, fear about the possibility of it not healing properly; uncertainty as to why this would be happening to me. By the time I had arrived home, I was physically and emotionally drained.

Jessica was home from college for summer break, so I carefully explained to her and Jim all the details of how they would need to help with the special technique for cleaning the area and changing the bandages. After telling them that I had not seen it, they were both curious to see what I was talking about. I will never forget the silence that hung in the air as they cautiously inspected the wound. I knew it was serious when Jessica looked like she had just seen a scary reptile, and the only thing she said was, "Mom, are you sure the doctor said it was safe for you to come home?"

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Loose Threads

Choosing a title for this stage of my journey, I had the visual of a handful of loose threads hanging freely in the air while waiting to be woven into the fiber of my life. I lived through these threads/experiences, considering them to be unrelated to each other...until years later when I saw how they had individually played a part in helping create the person I am today.

The first occurrence brings me back to the Procedure Room where my dad peeked in to help give me the courage to face the task ahead of me. I think I described it as an icky procedure that involved a fine set of stitches on the inside of my leg, right at the bend of the knee. My doctor explained that this was an especially tricky place for stitches due to the constant bending, so he asked me to carefully limit my knee movement. Being a first grade teacher meant that I was active throughout the day, so I knew that would be a nearly impossible task.

I had recently been a silent participant in a group discussion about our ability to quiet the body and invite God's energy to help in the healing process. I wasn't able to contribute to the conversation because it was a new idea for me and I first needed to process all this information before I could begin to formulate a comment. Now two weeks later, I was literally being given the opportunity to put this into practice. Each day I would sit on my sofa, taking a few deep cleansing breaths while inviting healing energy to surround and penetrate the wound. I was easily able to hold my hand over the bandages,visualizing this energy as a warm glowing light. I would quietly sit like this for a few short minutes and then whisper a prayer of gratitude. I could repeat this several times throughout each day since it took hardly any time to do.

When I returned to have the stitches removed, my doctor was delighted with how well the wound had healed. He wondered what I had done and commented that I could give lessons to his other patients on how to heal. Sitting there on the examination table I felt a bit awkward and unsure of what to say to him...this was a whole new way for me to think about healing. So after making small talk, I headed home with a feeling of wonder and delight and of course lots and lots of questions to ponder. How I wish I had again been able to touch into the same sense of wonder and delight just a few short months later...

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Seeds of Change

As I reached my late thirties and early forties I felt the "nudge"to become more introspective, hopefully bringing some clarity to myself and my world. I had already encountered one divorce, two bouts with cancer and a clinical depression. I tried not to let these circumstances define me, but I admit that at times I felt like the poster child for When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I considered myself a well-behaved, respectable person, but as I grew up I wondered what I had done to deserve all these challenges. I began to ask God's help in understanding my life and my purpose for being here. Would I ever be able to go through life without the need for my daily companion, fear?

Saving money for a retreat with Francis was a two-year project, so when I finally achieved my goal, I was surprisingly nervous about spending an entire week with this woman. I was well aware of the deeply hidden feelings that she was able to bring forth during the brief weekend retreats in Milwaukee, so I was worried about what may come to the surface when I had more concentrated time with her. Even though the unknown aspect of this retreat was scary, I knew I was hungry for exactly this level of communication. I remembered how quickly I had trusted Francis when meeting her, and how refreshed my heart felt after each encounter. Yes, this retreat was exactly what I needed, so I put my uncertainties aside and headed out to California with confidence and just a wee bit of trepidation.

The best way to sum up my week in Idyllwild is to explain how I spent my last day. When I met with Francis that afternoon I brought along a small pad of paper and pen, quite seriously asking her to describe how I could recreate this peacefully quiet environment back in Madison. Now as I reflect back on that request, I smile and gently shake my head back and forth while feeling a mild case of embarrassment. Did I really believe Francis could give a detailed list of what needed to be altered in my life in order to achieve a retreat-like atmosphere? Oh my, I truly did begin at the beginning...but know that the seeds of change were planted during that stay.

Friday, January 8, 2010

Slow and Steady

It amazed me how life continued to move forward all around me even though the bottom of my world had fallen out from under me! Leaving the hospital, I noticed that everyone around me seemed to be engaged in the mundane realities of their world. How could they be going on their merry way when my treasured dad had just died?? I felt physically and emotionally drained, as though I was draped with the weight of grief and loss. Viewing life through that veil of sadness made everything around me seem surreal. Seeing his obituary in the paper was like getting a slug in my gut! There it was--a photo I had taken of him just a year earlier, now published with his obituary...surreal I tell you, surreal!

Moving forward was a slow process, but I found returning to my daily routine was one way of easing the bottomless taste of loss. I was also gifted with a simple way to honor my dad: a wind chime. He and I shared a love of them, and years earlier I'd purchased a beautifully-tuned one in Door County for him to hang on his patio. On the day of his funeral I stood alone on that patio whispering a gentle prayer of good-bye, when suddenly the wind chime rang. With no hint of breeze in the heat of that August air, this totally shocked me, momentarily taking my breath away, but leaving in its place a sweeping sense of peace. I felt like I had been in communication with Dad! Imagine my joy when a few days later at Wild Birds Unlimited I spotted a miniature replica of that exact wind chime! I purchased it, took it home to hang from a cupboard handle in our kitchen. Opening that door and hearing the soft ring of the chime provided a tangible remembrance of my love for him, and each time I would gently say, "Hi Popsi." It was a tender yet profound way of helping me heal in my grieving process.

With our home selling so quickly, we needed to move out two months before our new home was completed. That would have been a major nightmare if it hadn't been for Mom's generous offer to have us stay in the condo with her. This meant we would be with her for the first Thanksgiving and Christmas since Dad's death. Even though her three bedroom condo was busting at the seams with the addition of us and our two dog entourage, we shared a special holiday season filled with an abundance of emotional release and support...quite beautiful and exactly what I needed on my road to living with the loss of a deeply loved man.