Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Difficult Goodbye

The year of preparation definitely helped me get ready to set Jessica on the road to adulthood, but it didn't offer any ways to make this initial break achievable or even possible. If only my heart could absorb this growth and change that was about to occur. I never gave up...I kept processing this until the day we packed up our car and headed off to Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. What a trip! We left at night, trying to avoid as much traffic as possible, and since this was in the time before GPS, we faithfully followed our trusty little map from AAA. The best thing I can say about our trip out to Washington was that it was uneventful...until it was time to actually drive in DC traffic. Oh my, nothing could have prepared us for the speed, disregard for rules of the road, and total chaos that is known as driving in Washington. I arrived at our country's capital feeling a bit like a fish out of water. I felt like such a Midwesterner! I truly wasn't accustomed to being surrounded by people moving at such a fast pace, but I was most definitely intrigued by the city. It had a wide diversity of nationalities as well as all that is entailed in being our nation's much to see and do and our time in this bustling city was so limited.

We stopped at a MacDonald's on the way to Jessica's dorm, and we were greeted as we got out of our car by a police officer who was wearing a bullet-proof vest and acting as an escort for people like us who were "new" to the neighborhood. He suggested that next time we may want to choose a different location for getting a meal. Now there's something I had never seen in Madison! Is this giving you an idea of why I felt like a fish out of water? Soon after that, we had to wait for a very l-o-n-g time in the hot sun for another police officer to arrive because we witnessed a car accident...remember the crazy driving I mentioned?

After finally getting Jessica settled into her new home, we became typical tourists as we went out for an entire day of sightseeing, taking in all the major highlights found throughout the city. We even went to the top of the Washington Monument where Jessica was able to point out the CUA campus far off in the distance. This was all a fun distraction, but in the corners of my mind I was keenly aware of the real reason for being in DC...we were there to transport our daughter to college, release this mature young lady from childhood, and set her free to continue her grown-up journey to adulthood. Those were some heavy duty responsibilities which would challenge me more than I could have ever imagined!

Thursday, September 17, 2009


When I returned to Madison I felt like I had a hangover. It was an emotional hangover filled with a heightened sense of excitement, disbelief and awe that remained with me for several days, making it a bit of a challenge to keep my mind focused. It was as though I understood that I had received an invitation to change, and I was wanting to set this change in motion immediately, even though I knew that realistically I was in no position to drop my daily commitments, pack my suitcase and head out to California. But in my heart I knew that I had met the woman who could be my respected, safe and treasured mentor...Francis, and that alone was intoxicating. Hey, maybe that's why I felt like I returned with a hangover.

During this period of waiting, I would smile as I recited my version of the prayer for gaining patience...Dear God, please grant me patience and I want it now! That sums up how I was feeling about needing to wait, save money and find the time in order to go on a week retreat with Francis. I also needed to accept that the timing wasn't wonderful since Jessica was looking into colleges, which meant that we would have four years of financial commitments. Paying college tuition could certainly affect my ability to put money aside in a retreat fund, but I was focused on saving money, no matter how small each contribution may be.

Jessica was in her senior year in high school, which was an interesting time for our family. She was very involved in student council and this commitment kept her busy and happy with all that she was able to accomplish. I was involved in preparing myself for her departure from home to college. The two of us had been a solidly connected duo for so many years and the thought of her leaving Madison for an indefinite period was beyond my comprehension. It literally took me the entire year to gradually process that this was a natural time for her to venture out on her own, as well as the natural time for me to willingly open my arms and send her off on her journey as an adult. Intellectually I understood this to be true, good and healthy, but in my heart I was sad and full of my own natural uncertainty about how my life would look and feel when she was far away in Washington D.C. I had difficulty envisioning my daily routine for the next year, a routine that would not include our time spent together at the end of each day sharing the highs and lows of our day. It was our nightly ritual, and one I treasured. So many other many questions. Who would be able to go clothes shopping with me and share an honest opinion? Who would go to Door County with me and enjoy doing all the things that we both considered fun? Who would sit and talk with me about everything and nothing at the same time?

I learned that growth and change can be quite painful, even knowing that this was the best time for us to naturally separate didn't lesson the degree of loss and pain.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Life-Changing Encounter

The first little tear was easy to catch with a quick swish of my tongue, but the ones that quickly followed were a bit more difficult to sweep away because they flowed steadily as I sketched the image. Needless to say, I had no problem getting in touch with the emotions from the picture that had come, once the distractions of my mind were put to rest. Fear had no place in this experience! All the earlier clutter of thoughts, fears and judgements dissipated as soon as I was able to focus on the healing music and the gentle invitation that Francis dripped into my heart. All else fell away, except for the pesky tears that arrived in such abundance that I then had to involve the sleeve of my shirt to help capture them. At one point I did become aware of the reality of sobbing in front of the large number of bodies that surrounded me, but after taking a quick peek at them, I understood that they too had their own images to welcome.

I was carefully drawing the distinct image of the yellow cab that had carried my little body to the hospital to meet Dr. Reese. I saw me looking up at the highest skyscraper I had ever seen. I remember trying to capture the deep impotence I was feeling during that cab ride, but I quickly let go of trying to control the look of the image, and instead I was connecting with every emotion I remember experiencing at that time. With the arrival of each emotion came more tears, and I mean more tears. Both sleeves of my shirt were soaked and my nose was then actively participating in the release of my previously imprisoned emotions that had remained all these years in the darkened corners of my memories. I hope you are able to appreciate the image of me drawing an image of me while all sorts of bodily fluids are escaping my body, and I only had my tongue, hands and sleeves to keep these fluids in check.

Francis had again asked us to jot down any words that arrived during our sketching. Oh my, how surprised I was with the flood of words that appeared along with the continuing flood of tears. Overwhelming, the unknown, fear, why me?, alone, so-o small, God?, where am I going?, scary new area, and cancer? were the thoughts and feelings that blanketed the image. With all the physical and emotional release that surrounded me, I look back and think about what had actually kept me seated in my chair. Why hadn't I simply melted into a puddle of tears with a side order of exhaustion?

By the end of that retreat I knew four things for sure...I knew I was grateful for receiving the opportunity to attend the retreat with Suzanne, I knew I needed to save my pennies so that I could make reservations to go on a week-long retreat in California with Francis, I knew that I had been gifted with a loving, safe, spiritually grounded woman who could help me on my journey of growth and change, and I knew that my life would never be the same after those three days with Francis. Thank You God!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Honesty Prevails

Saturday morning went by so quickly because Francis had the ability to draw me into each part of the discussions. I was often quite shy when I found myself surrounded by a large group of people I didn't know, and yet here I was with well over fifty participants that I had never met, feeling safe and welcomed. After lunch Francis introduced to us the plan for using the paper and art tools. She began by asking us to get comfortable as she played some beautifully calming music while gently giving us the instructions. As we began, I felt so relaxed and opened, a good place for honesty to thrive.

Francis invited each of us to think back to the innocence of our early youth and get a mental picture that embodied that time. She asked us to sketch the image and while drawing, write down words that described our memory of this time. I quickly began attempting to illustrate the tricycle that I had dearly loved as a child. I had a smile on my face and in my heart as I remembered the freedom I felt while riding up and down our street. It was the first mode of travel other than walking or riding in a car that I experienced and it had offered me pure joy and excitement, and these were the words I wrote around my beautiful, freedom, pleasure, fun, excitement, friends and nothing can stop me. Did I forget to mention the set of extraordinarily fancy streamers that fluttered in the wind as I flew down the block as fast as my little feet could pedal? Those blue streamers were like the proverbial cherry on the hot fudge sundae! I felt so sassy and free...what fond memories. If only the exercise had ended on that delicious note.

While I was sitting in the lightness of my memory, Francis asked that each of us then shift our thoughts to the time in our childhood when our innocence was lost. Well, that took me about a nano second to identify, and I bet it didn't take you much longer to remember back to my busy travel schedule taking me back and forth to New York. I may seem casual as I mention it now, but as I sat at the retreat, listening to the directions, I felt almost sick to my stomach. Then I remembered that not one person at the retreat knew anything about my childhood days, so it might be possible for me to fade into the blandness of the walls and slip out at the end of the afternoon without being noticed. I quickly determined that I could mentally drop a veil over the depth of my feelings, like the invisibility cloak of Harry Potter, casually drawing a sketch with little or no emotional attachment...proving once again that old habits are indeed hard to break. However, this honesty was not about to be ignored or silenced!

With the gentle music playing, Francis invited each of us to breathe deeply and wait patiently for the image to emerge. Her next suggestion challenged me immediately because it seemed as though it had been crafted especially and exclusively for me. I almost believed that she may have been privy to my mental dialogue involving the possibility of a clock. She instructed us to trust the image that appeared, not judging it or changing it...merely sitting quietly with it while noticing the details.

I closed my eyes while trying to be open, calm and ready for a picture or impression to appear. I was immediately aware of the most accurate image. My initial fear encouraged me to quickly open my eyes, causing this specific image to disappear...but then I was reminded of the concept of trust. Was I ready for this degree of trust?? How could I ever remain in this room with all these people surrounding me while I would be attempting to sketch and get in touch with the feelings that this image evoked? I instinctively knew that now was the time to honor and trust the truth of this image, but how could I accomplish this? Picking up the markers and pencil, I noticed a heaviness seep into my heart as I felt the first gentle tear slide down my cheek.

Monday, September 7, 2009

A New Direction

As Suzanne and I became friends and spent more time together, I realized that she was like a breath of fresh air. She brought an energy to my life that I welcomed, even though it was not always comfortable for me because she challenged me to be honest with my thoughts, feelings, beliefs and opinions, and by now you know how difficult that could be for me. Her enthusiasm for life was contagious and she consistently invited me to think outside the box...quite new and refreshing after my years of trying to avoid fear while earnestly striving to create safety and security around me at all times. Being the pastoral minister at our church meant that I also had the opportunity to participate in discussion groups and study groups that she offered to all the parishioners. My active involvement in these classes allowed me to take a closer look at my personal history with God and how I had formed the perceptions I held. I was also aware that the relationship I was building with God was also growing and changing. What an active time in my spiritual, personal and emotional growth.

In early spring Suzanne asked if I would be interested in attending a weekend retreat in Milwaukee with her. She explained that her spiritual teacher came from California two times a year to lead retreats. I didn't need to give it too much thought before telling her that I would definitely want to attend. That illustrates the level of trust I had developed in Suzanne. In the past I would have been more cautious and reluctant about being open to an experience that was new or different, but at this point I was intrigued with the possibilities that the retreat may provide for my spiritual development. Absolutely nothing could have adequately prepared me for the life-giving explosion that awaited me on that glorious weekend!!!

Greeting participants at the door was Francis, Suzanne's spiritual teacher and the retreat leader. I was wide-eyed with wonder as I first met Francis because I didn't understand the concept of spiritual teacher, and I was beyond curious to meet the woman that made Suzanne glow each time she would speak about her. My first impression was filled with adjectives: gentle, calm, safe, happy, peaceful, and inviting. Who wouldn't love that? I was attracted to her energy and I couldn't wait for the retreat to begin. Francis opened the retreat with a quietly enthusiastic welcome that even made this newcomer feel at ease. At one point she asked that each person bring plain paper and colored pencils, markers, paints or chalks for Saturday. I was intrigued even though I was far from being an artist. Maybe it was because I already felt a level of trust with Francis, but for whatever reason, I was not concerned or worried about the activity we would be assigned the next day. What I did know was that Suzanne and I needed to do a bit of shopping for Saturday, and we did not leave the event until 9:00 that night. Where would we be able to locate a store that late where we could buy our little art supplies? Don't ever underestimate two women focused on a mission.

Yes, we arrived the next morning with art tools in our hands. I also came with a sense of uncertainty mixed with anticipation for the upcoming activity. I was on the verge of being presented with one of the most treasured gifts of my life, and I wasn't even aware of it!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Walking Through a Fear

Preparing for the actual public talk I was to be giving, I mentally returned to my time in college when I was required to take a course that caused me great fear and anxiety. It was a speech class, so I should not have been shocked by the sheer number of presentations we were required to give throughout the semester. My struggle centered around the public aspect of giving a talk. I think I can best sum up my experience by sharing a true story from that class. When we were each assigned to present a persuasive speech, I happened to be the first one chosen to begin. Keeping in mind that I had to convince my peers to agree with my point of view, I took a full breath and boldly stepped up to the podium. The truth is I wanted to appear bold and in charge, when in reality my knees were so weak that I could have tripped over that full breath that I had taken. I attempted to have my voice drip with confidence because I believed a tone of self-assurance would certainly assist me in persuading the listeners to agree with my strong convictions.

About halfway through my speech I noticed a few strands of hair that had fallen across my forehead into the upper corner of my eye, and for some unknown reason I felt the immediate need to brush those pesky little annoyances away. Much to my astonishment, I saw this wobbling, fear-enhanced, out of control hunk of flesh (aka my hand) come sweeping into my view, as it ineptly attempted to clear those wisps away. So many thoughts flooded into my mind as to how to best handle this very obvious show of fear...forge ahead and ignore was the solution that came through loud and clear. That was the one shot I had to keep my mind focused, with whatever level of confidence I could exude after that "bump" in the road had challenged my composure to its core.

I smile as I tell you that after all the silliness, I received an A for the speech and an A for the class. Wonders never cease, it's true. Maybe to me what seemed like a show of obvious fear, was not as obvious to those listening. This memory was held onto quite tightly as I began my journey to a new and different podium and audience. The team of adults who would be sharing their stories throughout the retreat met several times in the evening to practice presenting in front of real people. For me, that experience felt as unappealing as walking on a bed of hot coals. Since it was mandatory, I practiced along with everyone, though I don't have any memory of the feedback I received. I just had this deep belief that each of these steps led me closer to my final goal of surviving the event.

The retreat was a powerfully significant time for the students and adults. I felt a vibration of growth and a deepening connection with my faith flow throughout the weekend, and I was able to enter into the fullness of the experience until Sunday morning. Since we were all sleeping with our groups in the classrooms around the school, a good night of sleep was a far stretch of our imagination. But I awoke that morning extra early with a knot the size of my fist in my stomach. I knew it was fear rearing its ugly head, and it took every ounce of self-awareness to keep it from taking control of my body.

I took a walk around the school to calm myself and I ended up in the quiet of the chapel which was located at the far end of the building. I stayed there throughout the time for breakfast . The peace and stillness welcomed me in and I simply sat and breathed in the sense of total wellness surrounding me, until it was time for me to return to the group and give my presentation. That environment in the chapel was a gift I will never forget. On that early Sunday morning I learned an essential key to living ...some of our most beautiful presents don't come wrapped in the distraction of shiny paper with big bows.

You've already figured out the ending to this piece of my journey, haven't you? More important than my survival of the speech was the deep understanding that I can touch into the stillness that is always available.