Mother’s Day Again

Mother’s Day — I almost forgot.

No, I remembered to send my mom a card, and bring her flowers. A few days early, even. That’s new. This is the first year I’ve had enough of space in my life to plan ahead. I even sent cards to a couple of my friends. So I remembered.

But me. I forgot about me.

Yesterday I was tight and critical with my fiancé, even shouting at him for leaving a box in the middle of the floor where I stumbled over it (a little) on my way to jab folded towels into the shelf in the bathroom. The more upset I became, the more silent and withdrawn, the more he tried to offer what he thought might help, loving words, gentle touch, warm looks. But I refused to meet his gaze, retreating into the familiar safety of more anger. He kept trying to love me, help me out of the tight corner that I was pressing myself deeper into, following me around the house trying to hug me as I grabbed my arms away from him, poked him and pulled his hair to escape the love, my internal age shrinking by the minute until an angry three year-old was fighting away from human contact. The more he tried, the more insistent the words in my head shouted, I hate you. Leave me alone. I hate you. Go away.

Finally, I, or the stubborn three-year old who seemed to be in charge, pulled the Freida Kahlo jigsaw puzzle I’ve been working on into a patch of sunlight on the floor so that I could attack the last pieces, all blue, nearly impossible to conquer. I began shoving one piece after another into the wrong places, satisfied by the repetition of failure.

“Honey, come over here and talk to me,” he pleaded lovingly, then again, firmly. I refused to acknowledge his requests.

At last I said, “Why should I? Why can’t you come here?”

He sighed, got up from where he sat by the fire, and came over. Sitting behind me, he put his arms around me. “What’s going on, honey? What do you need?”

I answered him with silence.

He asked again, waiting patiently, as he has been doing for hours.
“Stop wasting your time. This is stupid. Just because I’m acting like a shit head, doesn’t mean you have to hang out with me. Go do something worthwhile.”

“This is worthwhile,” he affirmed.

“No it isn’t.”

He sat quiet while I continued to press pieces into wrong places, realizing the futility of my efforts.

“Would you like a massage?” he asked.“Fine!” I acquiesced as if I were doing him a favor by stomping my three-year-old self over to the futon in front of the fire and lying face down, still angry, still lost.

I lay waiting, wondering if he would be able to touch me right, if he would remember that my feet need to be touched first. I was sure he’d screw up.

Then I felt the gentle press of a soft blanket across my shoulders. Then more warmth on my hips and legs and feet as he spread another blanket over them. Then the cool touch of his hands on my left foot as he lifted it and placed it on a pillow. Finally, he settled himself down and lifted my right foot onto his lap, caressing it with the softest touch before he set to work on the arch and toes.

As my body began to loosen, let go, knowing nothing was expected of me, knowing I could receive without being asked to give, the angry guard in my head relaxed, and I felt the depth of my sadness rise up. I felt an overwhelming sense of tragedy. The words that came to me were, Everything feels so tragic, and I don’t know why. And with this admission, the tears began to trickle down my nose toward the floor. I kept my arm crooked tight over my face, keeping out the sun, keeping my lover from the satisfaction of knowing he had penetrated my defense, knowing his love and efforts were working, had found a chink in the armor, a way inside to give me the sweet relief of tears. But the words kept repeating themselves. Everything feels so tragic, and I don’t know why. And as I felt the sadness, the depth of it, the bewilderment and still didn’t know where it came from, I noticed also the easing of my resistance. And even though the intensity of the sadness was growing, the painful pinch of holding out against the feeling was gone. The sharp pain of fighting the feeling was diminishing as I was able to finally bathe in the sorrow, knowing from experience, it would now begin to let me go.

As I lay feeling his fingers move slow and gentle along first my pinky toe then the fourth, his progress, so slow, not rushing to be anywhere, that the next toe became impatient like a child, reaching for his fingers, wanting the same attention. I noticed the gift of his patience, his attention to the task, that gave me the space at last to feel sadness and then remorse.

Why am I so hateful? I wondered. I asked myself. Why do I get so irritable and unkind? Playing over again the scenes of the day, the silences, the cutting looks, the criticism I heaped on him. And he gives me this. Love, attention, sweetness, time.

I felt my face wanting the blessing of his hands, and I inched my way closer to him, my head finding his lap where I snuggled in, like a dog sorry for its misdeeds. I rested my skull on his ankle and placed his hand on my face. Everything feels so tragic, and I don’t know why. I rehearsed the words in my head, trying them out, wondering if it was OK to say them. At last I whispered them aloud. And the weeping began again.
He leaned in closer, “Yeah.”
“I don’t know why I get so hateful,” I choked out through my tears.
“It’s OK, honey,” he soothed.

I lay, my head in his lap, my eyes still shut under his hand, and felt the exhaustion of shutting him out, of fighting this sadness for so long. After a while, I felt the e grip of the feelings releasing, as my thoughts slowly returned to the ordinary of daytime life.

We can make oatmeal cookies, I thought to myself. And then bring the new perennials I bought down to the basement because it will be too cold for them in the shed tonight.

Such a relief to imagine doing simple tasks. So good to know there was nothing else to be done tonight.

I lay and listened more to my thoughts. I wondered about this terrible mood, how it descended so quickly after three days of pleasure, of contentment, when I was alone in my mother’s cabin by a lake. I wondered why I felt so bad when things in my life are finally so good. My dreams are coming true. I feel safe. I feel loved. I feel happy in my work.

I thought about the writing prompt I’d given my students in my Healing From Grief class, Write about the rhythm of your grief, about it’s surges and recessions. And I had thought as I wrote it, My grief is done. There are no more surges.
Maybe not.

It’s still six weeks away from my dead son’s birthday, so it’s too early for that, I thought.

Finally, I realized, Oh. It’s Mother’s Day tomorrow. Maybe that’s what’s going on. I lay there wondering, Marc’s fingers still stroking my long hair. And I said the words out loud. And then, “Sometimes Mother’s Day is not the easiest day for me.”

“Oh honey,” he leaned in again with his quiet love, and I felt surface in me what I now see was a little bit of compassion. Oh yes, this, grief, my son, my baby boy, who died before we were ready.

Yes, this. And now it’s mother’s day. The day I remember that only two of my three sons are still here on the planet with me, the day I remember I had a little boy I loved, one who loved me with such fierceness that he sometimes cried at the thought of losing me. And I am a mother who watched her own son die.

Maybe that’s why I was overcome with difficult emotions yesterday, maybe that’s why I was powerless against their surfacing. Maybe that’s why I couldn’t manage my feelings. Maybe it’s because some feelings are too big to be managed and you just have to let them have their way, make their way out, leave you quiet and humble and gentle for a little while.

Catharine H. Murray

Author, Now You See the Sky, 2018, Akashic Books

Photo Credit: Photo by MIO ITO on Unsplash

How is your heart?

My dear friend Dr. Lenna Liu is a pediatrician at Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic which serves diverse & predominantly lower income families in Seattle. She is also a mindfulness and meditation teacher. For the past two months she and the rest of her colleagues and staff at the clinic and hospital have been working heroically to save lives. They have been giving far beyond their normal capacity for work and heartbreak. To help keep everyone going, Lenna sends out an email message every week. She shared this one with me. I asked for her permission to post it here.

How is your heart?

It is so inspiring to work in a clinic full of superheroes–those of you feeding our community, supporting undocumented families, finding face shields, taking care of the sick while putting yourself at risk, calling and talking to families all day, leading us in this most challenging time.

And at the same time it is tremendously humbling. Not only do I think of you all, but I think about the healthcare providers in the ERs and ICUs and the first responders rushing into homes. I often feel guilty that I’m not doing enough, that I should be doing more, that i’m not making enough of a difference.

It’s been said:
“People will ask years from now how did you show up during this moment in the world?”
That can feel like both an inspiring and a daunting question.

It has reminded me of a famous teaching from Thich Nhat Hanh, Buddhist monk and peace activist.
A student asked him:
“… I am an activist and I care very deeply for the world. Sometimes I feel a lot of despair about what’s happening in the world around us, in terms of violence, poverty, and environmental destruction. What practices would you recommend for those of us who…are in despair about the suffering of the world?”

Thich Nhat Hanh said this:
Imagine a pine tree standing in the yard. If that pine tree were to ask us what it should do, what the maximum is that a pine tree can do to help the world, our answer would very clear: “You should be a beautiful, healthy pine tree. You help the world by being your best.” That is true for humans also. The basic thing we can do to help the world is to be healthy, solid, loving, and gentle to ourselves.

So anything you do for yourself, you do for the world. Don’t think that you and the world are two separate things. When you breathe in mindfully and gently, when you feel the wonder of being alive, remember that you’re also doing this for the world. Practicing with that kind of insight, you will succeed in helping the world. You don’t even have to wait until tomorrow. You can do it right now, today.

I am grateful for this reminder.
Like the pine tree, when a baby is born, she is worthy just in her being. She doesn’t have to DO anything. She has the full love of her family and her community just as she is. She contributes to the world just as she is.

So for those of you who have not stopped your caring, your giving, your selfless and noble efforts during this crisis, please remember that we need you in your fullest being, your fullest HEALTHIEST being. Please pause and take the time to eat, sleep, rest, exercise, nourish your spirit, and be loving and kind to yourself. It is not selfish to care for yourself, it renews your capacity to be your fullest self.

And for those feeling like we are not doing enough or in those moments you feel this way, remember that we are enough just in our being ourselves. Being parents, partners, daughters, sons. Being the voice that admits to feeling overwhelmed so that others can know they are not alone. Being the one who cries so that others feel permission to cry as well. Being the one who sings off key and makes everyone laugh. Every voice matters. We each contribute to creating a rich tapestry of humanity enduring this moment together.

And a reminder of the obvious, we are in a world pandemic. The enormity of suffering and healing needed is beyond any one of us. We each need to find our own balance of doing and being. And by finding that balance, we are being the pine tree and contributing to the forest of healing that this world needs now.

–Lenna Liu, MD, MPH

Seattle, Washington

Photo by eberhard grossgasteiger on Unsplash

Surviving Social Slow Down: First of three Ideas

Some of us are having a hard time. Parents with children home all day have to suddenly negotiate a new family system that may demand more time and attention than before. Workers furloughed with no return date in sight are wondering how to keep a roof overhead and food on the table. All of us have to find ways to stay connected to those we love when we cannot touch each other. Many of us are afraid of illness for ourselves, those we love and those we’ve never met.

We are facing new ways of being, working and communicating, new situations that challenge our minds and our hearts. And for some of us, this can be very hard at times. Many of the places we used to go to find solace or camaraderie have been taken away from us. A close friend’s warm shoulder, a cold beer at a cozy bar, our favorite latte at a lively coffee shop, a bargain at a stylish store, none of this is accessible now.

So rather than avoiding our inner discomfort or having it soothed by the distraction of a friend or a drink or an ice cream or pair of earrings, we now have the very uncomfortable job of being with our own feelings. When there is no where to rush off to, we might notice vague feelings of fear or dread or boredom or loneliness rising up from the places within us we can usually keep out of sight.

There is always the TV, the fridge, the internet and the endless work of home, so we could keep hiding, keep busy, keep ourselves from hearing the insistent voices inside that ask for our attention. But after a while, screens begin to feel less inviting, food loses its appeal, chores exhaust us, and we find ourselves, again, alone with ourselves.

This can be a hard place to be. But the good news is, it can also be a deeply nourishing place to be if one makes the time and effort to pay attention. If we can, rather than flee from our discomfort, sit still and invite it in, we may find some powerful learning takes place, some healing we didn’t even know we needed.

It can be helpful, perhaps essential, to approach our difficult feelings with the clear sense of a container. A container both in terms of time and space can give us the reassuring sense that we don’t have to sit in these difficult places forever, that we will enter into contact with the thoughts and feelings, recognize and allow them, let them be transformed by our loving presence, and then we will move back into the present. So for the three methods I will describe over the next few days, the three containers, be sure to set a timer before you begin any of them. Start with just a few minutes, five or even one, whatever feels just at the edge of your comfort level. And as your practice becomes more regular, extend the period of time you work.

Meditation is one of the oldest forms of opening to the wise part of ourselves. It is a time-tested and effective tool for making space to increase peace in our lives and access inner wisdom. When we stop for a few minutes, sit still, and let the business of our minds settle into relaxed, loving, curiosity, we begin to see and feel what lies beneath the usual speed of our lives. If we do it regularly, we will have better access to our own intelligence.

When we meditate, we make room for thoughts and feelings to arise. And we lovingly receive whatever, I repeat WHATEVER, comes up. We let go of judgment, and we witness the mischievous mind’s offerings, saying to ourselves, “Oh that thought. That’s not me. That’s just the mind.” Or maybe we say to ourselves, “Sweetie, I’m so sorry that this has been here. That is hard. You’re doing a good job despite these thoughts that try to set you back, despite the difficult memories you’ve tried to avoid. Don’t worry. It’s only the mind. You’re just right. There’s nothing wrong with you.”

When the timer rings, acknowledge your good intention in sitting still, in pushing against a lifelong pattern of moving away rather than toward what’s hard. Be pleased with your efforts.

Doing something new that’s good for us, that we’re not used to doing, even for a few minutes once a day can be difficult. I think of each of my life-long patterns (procrastination, negative self-talk, reluctance to be in the spotlight) like a huge tanker moving across the ocean, steady with a tremendous amount of inertia. When I take up a practice to reverse the vector of the pattern, it’s like turning a that ship around. It doesn’t turn on a dime. It takes time and energy to slowly pull it off its old course and onto a better one. But once the turn begins, the inertia has shifted, and the ship is headed in the right direction at last.

After you do the work of nudging the ship in the right direction, reward yourself. Recognize your efforts for the hard work they are. Plan some pleasant, rewarding task for when you finish: water the plants, take a walk on the beach, cook your favorite soup, sit down to a bowl of ice cream.

Being with the parts of ourselves we have avoided for long periods of time is work that requires courage and patience. Be especially kind to yourself, knowing you are working hard to bring your best, most nurtured self to this challenging time.

Cultivating creativity

This spring, for the first time since kindergarten, I have been planting seeds and witnessing their movement from underground darkness into light of day. Watching them emerge from the dirt then progress from spindly sprouts to hardy seedlings has been a delight. And waiting while they did their work beneath the ground was exciting too, knowing what was to come.

As writers and artists, we too must move from the depths of potential to the surface of expression. In solitude we work deep within the rich soil of the emotional world until we have something we can bring out into the light. And if we have given ourselves and our work the right kind of nurturing, it will be unique and beautiful, and others will notice, admire and be moved by it.

Because I believe in the importance of all of us doing our creative work, because I believe by telling our own stories, we can heal not only ourselves but others as well, I am delighted to be helping aspiring writers move into and through this process.

Next month I am offering a weekly online class Memoir 101: Writing the Stories of Your Life, Saturday, June 6th to July 11th from 10:00 to 11:30 AM EDT.

I hope you will join me. No experience is necessary. As long as you have stories to tell and a desire to write, you are qualified.

10% of proceeds will be donated to Doctors Without Borders.

For more information and to register, click here.

To check out my memoir, click here.

Writing Out the Wait

I live in Maine, a state near the bottom of the list of number of cases of Covid 19. Even though 90% of the cases are in my city, I do not yet know anyone with the illness. It’s still easier for me to worry more about the fact that my beloved beach has closed than to be aware of the fact that the world just a few hours away from my door is coping with disaster. Up here my biggest challenge so far is screen fatigue from doing my job on ZOOM. Last weekend I got to revel in the pleasures of being home: doing a jigsaw puzzle in the morning sunshine, organizing the basement in the afternoon, and making pizza for dinner before the delicious pleasure of laughter with my family while we watched The Blues Brothers before bed.

And yet, even when I do not have the news turned on, even when I try to be fully present with what is happening in my own life, I cannot escape the larger reality. In my mind is always the knowledge that devastation is spreading across the world, that my friends in New York, Seattle, Boston, New Orleans and Bangkok are struggling. No matter what I’m doing, every now and then, I hear the phrase Covid Nineteen loud and clear in my mind. The voice is flat, emotionless, but persistent. It is followed by the listing of facts: people, no different from me except for where they happen to live, have lost their jobs; parents are facing the possibility of themselves and their children going hungry; in New York, so many are dying so fast that refrigerator trucks have been deployed to transport the bodies; and perhaps most heartbreaking, people are dying alone.

So throughout the day as I move through my home, nowhere to go, nothing to plan, just time to appreciate the people I love and the life we have, I wonder, how can I possible be enjoying myself, how can I be pleased with the new pace of life here in my own little world when so many people are suffering? It’s a strange place to be psychologically. Beyond trying to stay connected to those I love, and maybe start sewing masks, it seems to me my job now is to batten down the hatches and wait.

In my last post I promised to offer a new tool for moving through this crisis. I encouraged people to meditate. Meditation is a way to slow down enough to witness our own discomfort up close. In meditation, I have found that one of the most difficult things for me to do psychologically is to hold what seem to be conflicting realities at nearly the same time. It is uncomfortable because living with what feels paradoxical takes away any sense of psychological security I have so carefully and unconsciously created year after year, day after day, moment after moment.

As a human being, I have a habitual need to think I can make myself feel safe by imagining I know what’s ahead, by living as if illness and death were not always a breath away. By constantly planning my next move, my next task, my next vacation, I keep straining forward into the future rather than staying with what is present.

When I stop moving, when I sit still, I can see more clearly not what I want my life to be, but the reality of what it is. This can be emotionally upsetting. Yet it can also be a huge relief. When I stop and see what’s actually going on, I can put down the constant burden of illusion I carry. I can stand up a little taller without its weight and look around from a new place. I can see my situation more clearly.

Right now, clear-sightedness is essential. We are in a time that demands each of us be able to function with full access to our best intelligence. And we can only think well when we recognize what’s actually happening around us. Right now, that is hard. When things are confusing, painful or sad, we want to cling even tighter to the illusions we’ve created. When we fear that our safety and livelihood might be taken away from us, our tendency is to try to maintain our distance from what threatens us. Right now many gun stores are overwhelmed with business. Online ammunition site reported a recent spike of 70 percent in sales. Almost all of us are worrying about the future, putting energy into planning to protect what we have. Alcohol (the kind you drink) sales are climbing, another indicator that we are trying to numb ourselves to the terror at our doorstep.

Constantly running away makes it hard to think clearly, constantly denying our own pain makes it hard to know what to do. But allowing ourselves to actually experience, embody and express the emotions that carry so much energy in our bodies, leaves us feeling calmer and clearer. We need to recognize, allow, feel and release what we try to deny in order to diffuse the negative power.

Writing in a journal, like meditating, can makes space to more clearly experience what is. When we journal, when we write without regard to audience or logic or accomplishment, when we write with the same attitude with which we meditate, with a sense of non-judgmental allowing, we can begin to know ourselves better, to see our situation more clearly. And often, when we do this, when we see how challenging things are in our lives and the current situation, we begin to find a sense of compassion arising. We look at ourselves as we might look at a friend who is going through something hard, and we might be able to say to ourselves, “Wow, that’s really hard. No wonder you are struggling. I’m sorry it’s like this right now.”

Jiddu Krishnamurti writes, “The highest form of human intelligence is to observe yourself without judgment.” That’s what I strive for when I write. I try to do nothing more than release what’s troubling me, record my own suffering by writing it onto the page. When I do this, I start to see myself from a new vantage point. By noting (as I might in meditation) the images of illness, death, and fear that haunt me, I begin to access a compassionate, patient part of me. This part can hold my worry and witness my feelings of pain enough to allow space release, for healing.

And then I can move on. By writing down what’s hard, I let it go. It no longer cripples me with the drag of its insistence to be noticed. When I treat myself with enough care to slow down and allow what’s happening inside me to surface, I can release it. And then, I get up from my work with a sense of spaciousness in my mind and heart, better able to think about how to serve myself and my world at this time.

— Catharine H. Murray, Author Now You See the Sky