Category Archives: Rituals

Retirement or ReFIREment?

Manta_1_800x600Her full-bodied smile gave her secret away to anyone astute enough to notice. As the calendar and clock ticked away the last hours of the job that had consumed the last 17 years of her work life, her step seemed lighter, her eyes brighter. Things had happened so suddenly, there hadn’t been time to fret over the details. One phone call, “yes, we’d love to have you give more time to our organization.” A visit to HR to confirm she could take her benefits with her, and her new life in “retirement” began, at least in her mind’s eye.

As an elder, born slightly ahead of the baby boomer generation, I’ve faced the need to navigate more than one transition from a familiar work life of many years to…something else. Whether an employer no longer needed my services, or I left a position and moved to another city as a trailing spouse, or I resigned to help my daughter take care of her children as she went through treatment for breast cancer – after each incident it seemed a “second” or “third act,” in my career life or, a label I prefer – another refirement.

Retirement hasn’t been around that long, just since the middle of the last century when longer life expectancy met the increased benefits corporations and social security provided to a white male industrial work force physically worn out by the age of 65.

For most people, then and now, retirement has never been a practical reality. Low salaries and lack of benefits during their most productive work years disallowed the accumulation of the nest egg necessary to leave paid employment completely. Since the decline of the single job career life, and the recession that began in 2008, many middle class workers now can only think of a “semi- retirement” that leaves plenty of time for paid work for necessities like housing, food, and health care. Hopefully, this model can still includes more time for personal relaxation and enjoyment of family and friends.

Refirement, an even newer concept, involves thinking of a “second or third act” for the energy that has been consumed in one’s work life. According to James V. Gambone, a major proponent refirement means being guiding by one’s values and passions, to create a life-style of work, play and renewal. Refirement can include, in addition to paid work, reinvesting in a hobby, learning new skills, connecting purposefully to the younger generation, and contributing to projects for the common good.

In the mid 70s my engineer father accepted his company’s offer, after 40 some years, to retire a year earlier than he’d expected. When his company was merging with another, they offered more money to stay home than to come to work. Fortunately he’d had the good example of his uncle whose model of a long retirement might be an example of what we now call refirement.

Uncle Lloyd retired from Bell Labs at age 50 and lived a vibrant life until his death at 90. His retirement, which turned out to be longer than his working life, didn’t involve golf or boating, or traveling to distant exotic places. And no bridge or shuffleboard in a 50s+ retirement community either. He and Aunt Bertha spent summers in their New Jersey home and winters in a small farmhouse in Florida. His busy active 40-year retirement consisted of doing each day whatever his passionate interests inspired. Travel was to reconnect with and visit family. His creativity was exercised in his extensively outfitted basement workshop, his curiosity satisfied at neighborhood swap meets and his legacy insured by mentoring his nephews like my father.

IMG_3601Last night our improv troupe, Wing & A Prayer Pittsburgh Players performed a Retirement/Refirement Ritual to help our friend Lynn with her career transition. We shared stories of her strengths and appreciations for her gifts, many achieved during her past career life. We helped her identify what she wanted to leave behind as people who had been through it told of what they haven’t missed from their previous careers. To represent what she didn’t want to bring along to her new life, the community helped her place her old business cards into a fire. We shared our hopes and dreams for her joyous new life by dancing and blowing bubbles on her behalf. Perhaps it was a good omen that the bubbles remained intact on the wet ground for a considerably long time. I heard rumors that her breakfast this morning was left over rum cake and blueberries. Sounds like the fun has already begun.

The Art of Grieving: When Parting Becomes Sweet Sorrow

Candle-burning-in-hands-in-the-darkEarly morning on the Summer Solstice, twenty years ago, my 31-year old son, Kenneth died of AIDS. This fact has insured that I would never forget the anniversary of his crossing and always be reminded of the gift of his life.

There was heartbreaking loss and blessed relief in those final hours. When the path to recovery and a longer life is no longer possible, death becomes the desired goal – the end to pain and suffering for our loved ones and for ourselves. And then begins the long journey of grief and bereavement as we continue on without them. I didn’t know then that my loss would eventually become a resource for my life, a spark of sweet sorrow where remembering would be a way to continue my love for Ken and to give his life meaning in the larger world.

  • Do you have stories of lessons learned from someone no longer with you?
  • Have you found special ways to honor a loved one now deceased?
  • What reminds you of your deceased loved one and how do you respond when that occurs?
  • Are you aware of ways you can extend your loved one’s legacy beyond their lifetime?

Ken’s 3½-year journey living with the disease had meant managing the fear and pain of a death-defying challenge and the social stigma and resulting isolation necessary at that time to live life as fully as possible. “Do not tell anyone,” he was told by the AIDS Outreach Center, “even your best friend, if you want to keep your job.”

Ken and Samantha300Experimenting with medication trials and ways to manage their side effects, Ken bravely continued to life the life he wanted for himself. He called on skills learned in his theater career to help him put aide the discomforts and difficulties and step into his life’s stage in the role of a healthy person. His doctor called his strategy “healthy denial.” It was not a denial of the fact of having a serious disease, but of its inevitable outcome. Ken repeated often to himself, “My main focus is to take really good care of myself so I’ll be here when the cure arrives.”

The cure is still not here. In spite of the great strides made for AIDS to become a chronic disease people can live with – people must know they have the disease and must have access to the newer medications. More than 1.1 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV today, and 1 in 7 of them don’t know it. An estimated 37,600 Americans became newly infected in 2014.

Some years I celebrate Ken’s anniversary by finding ways to call attention to and educate young people about the facts of HIV/AIDS. One year, my improv troupe Wing & a Prayer Pittsburgh Players used the singing, dancing, storytelling improv art-based system of InterPlay to introduce teens to Ken’s story in the program Educating Teens About HIV/AIDS.

http://www.educatingteens.org/mission.html

I knew what Ken would say to them if he had the opportunity and using his voice I got their attention. I figure, preventing even one person a year from getting AIDS is a great way to remember Ken. It feels good to know that something I’ve done on behalf of Ken’s memory may have contributed to the fact that, in the U.S, there are fewer new cases. From 2005 to 2014, the estimated number of annual HIV infections in the U.S. declined 18%.

Love Sweet Love

What the world needs now is love,” lyrics Hal David, music Burt Bacharach

1-jyoti-black-hatI’m in the shower, preparing to attend a celebration of the life of one of my dearest long time friends, Jyoti King. The first lines of this song come to me….”love sweet love. It’s the only thing that there’s still too little of.” I guess it would be natural to think that the world has less love now that Jyoti’s left it, but the event organized by her husband Randall last Sunday, involving 60 or so friends and family members, taught me otherwise.

We gathered in an upper room of a restaurant in downtown Fort Worth Texas, and read Jyoti’s poems and other writings out loud for nearly three hours. Taking turns we added our own stories of Jyoti, whose life has meant so much to each of us these past 30 years. I spoke of my vast personal indebtedness by quoting one of my favorite African sayings, “I am because she is.”

Jyoti and Randall were midwives for Rich and I, for the behavioral health clinic we co-founded and directed, “Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. Jyoti was clinic manager for most of its ten years. She helped edit my first book, Stillpoint: The Dance of Selfcaring, Selfhealing, a playbook for people who do caring work. She left the clinic briefly to pursue her writing, but when my youngest son was diagnosed with AIDS, she returned to support me. When a year to the day later, her son was diagnosed with AIDS, we wept together, fearing we’d taken this sister bond too far.

When my friend Rose asked me to come and be with her as she was dying, Jyoti, a former childbirth midwife, encouraged me. “It’s in the coming in and the going out that there is the most light, when the veil between the worlds is lifted. It’s an honor and a privilege to be present at both occasions.”

Jyoti’s exit was one of the long, long, goodbyes that people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and their family members endure. She and her husband and friends lived this journey for 12 years, before her death last month. There were many stories of lessons Jyoti taught before she got sick. Her son, whose ‘s been sober for 25 years now, told how no matter his mistakes, his mother always forgave him. When he had to go to prison Jyoti washed his feet to protect him. “She told me, keep remembering, you are just a visitor there.”

I shared some of the gifts Jyoti gave me during the course of her disease. Shortly after she was diagnosed I moved to Pittsburgh but I traveled back to Texas often. I always visited her, first in her home and then in the memory care center. Each trip on the plane I would caution myself, “She may not know you this time. Get ready for that.” But, though she eventually lost most verbal language, she always knew who I was. Perhaps better than I did.

Once we walked together in the garden of her home when she was still living there. I noted that she felt unsteady on her feet. Her once good coordination would flounder and she’s grab my hand going down stairs or on the uneven path. Having been a nurse, when she entered the memory care center, she saw herself as a nursing assistant, always looking out for the other residents. A film aficionada, she advised a staff member on movies the community would enjoy. On one visit she brought out a musical instrument, and played and chanting for me.

sheila-and-jyoti-2When my second book was in manuscript form, I brought it with me on a visit. I told her I knew she wouldn’t be able to help me with this book as she had the first one. “But I’d like you to bless it,” I said as I placed the binder in her lap. There were no words, but she took the binder and gently hugged it to her heart. She smiled and we both knew we were doing a ceremony.

On what turned out to be our last visit, I found her in the parlor of the memory care center alongside other residents. They were all seated before a television displaying a blank screen. She was rocking in a rocking chair and coming closer, I heard her singing to herself. I couldn’t identify the song but it was clearly a Texas boot-scooting two- step.

Our Lady of the Broken Wings

“You’re not as you were,” the doctor tells me as he shows me the x-ray of my shoulder. The picture has little meaning since I’m not totally clear on what the shoulder bones are suppose to look like. It’s three months since my fall, and after he directs me to push against his hands and reach up overhead he declares, “you are at 80 percent.”

IMG_1511I agree with his assessment but let him know I will not be satisfied until I have regained what was for me, a full range of motion. He’s careful to make no promises. He tells me to make an appointment in three months and continue physical therapy. If I am not satisfied with my recovery by then he will do an MRI and see whether there is any surgery that would help. If I’m satisfied with where I’m at that time, I can cancel the appointment.

Standing in the examination room with my husband as my witness I am grateful for yesterday’s conversation with Susan, a dancer friend from Chicago, about her own recovery from a shoulder injury. “I’m at 100 per cent. I’ve gotten it all back,” she says as she moves her left arm in a gigantic circle overhead and reaches behind her. She looks straight into my eyes when she says, “I wanted you to know that. It’s possible,” and then she tells me how she did it. Physical therapy twice a week, 20 minutes of exercise three times a day, and Reiki sessions weekly to deeply relax the muscles that are constricting the movement. In other words, it takes work but it’s doable.

At my favorite dress shop yesterday Helen, a woman who claims to be older than me though she won’t say how much, lifts her arm upwards to show me her range of motion. Her shoulder injury was more than five years ago and her arm is about like mine is now, but she’s satisfied. Somebody else can reach the items on the top shelf. In other words, it’s not only what you’re used to, but also what you’re planning to do in your future life. I’m still a member of the “going for the gusto club” though I realize it takes more effort than it used to.

Another dancer friend and mentor Cynthia, had a shoulder injury a couple of months before mine, (her right, my left). She’s nearly back to a complete range of motion and her recovery program included all of the above along with her spiritual practice of making art with whatever comes into her life. We’ve commiserated about our “broken wings” and when I saw her at InterPlay’s national conference she gifted me an art piece she created out of found objects. It’s a shrine to honor our brokenness – individual and collective, to call on the energies of renewal and restoration, and to remember our bones, and other body parts need lots of love, commitment and a caring community in order to heal. 

Hallow’s Eve

The pumpkins are prominently displayed at the grocers, along with the colorful pots of the season’s most celebrated flower, chrysanthemums. Front yards in my urban neighborhood sport dried corn stocks while the nearest farmland is at least a twenty- minute drive away. Homes with resident young children exhibit walkways and front doors decorated with spiders, cobwebs, and life-size white-sheeted ghosts.

Halloween-Home-Decor-Ideas-Cobwebs When visiting the homes of older children you may likely be greeted by a life-size black outfitted, gory, fanged, blood dripping, skeleton. As the costumed trick or treat crowd make their way from house to house on Hallow’s Eve, no one mentions that these playful, sometimes scary provocations of horror, are actually a contemporary version of ancient end-of-harvest ritual that celebrated the spirits of the dead. It was believed that in this transition time between fall and the hibernation of winter, the veil between the worlds was lifted, and spirits who had once walked this earth, might return on this one night.

 For my children Halloween was their favorite holiday, and before the Halloween candy had been sorted, let along eaten, they would begin planning for what they wanted “to be” for the following year. The dressing up as someone or something that they were not, or the opportunity to express a part of themselves in an artistic creative way seems especially satisfy, way beyond other holidays where gifts are exchanged or the turnover of the calendar is marked.

I still remember my youngest son, Ken dressed as a three year old devil, carrying a pitchfork made of cardboard, seven year old Corinne, dressed as a fanged tooth witch, her blond hair hidden by a black wig, and handsome five year old Kevin, outfitted as a swashbuckling pirate, (his dagger was also hand crafted by his parents out of cardboard.)big-scary-halloween-props

During this period of time in my life, my then husband was a radio news broadcaster assigned to the 6 pm and 11 pm news, so for all practical purposes, I was a single Mom on Halloween night. Fortunately I had a sister who came to help dress the children and who stayed at the house to give out the candy while I took the kids on their walk around the neighborhood. The evening  really was a two adult person operation.

One particular year, the scary costumes didn’t keep the evil spirits away from our house. While my sister and I were at our agreed upon posts, someone came around the back of our house and through an open window took our purses that were sitting on the kitchen table. In the aftermath of the celebration, not only were we both out of the money that was in our purses, but it was impossible to get a check cashed or have access to a bank account without our stolen identification.

Now all three of my children are grown and two of them are “on the other side,” as first nation peoples refer to death. As I light a Jack-a Lantern in my front window, I hope the spirits of my relations know that I would welcome a visit from them, in whatever state of dress or undress they might be.

The Summer Solstice

Today is the Summer Solstice. It is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere, because the Earth tilts 23.5 degrees on its axis and causes this part of the Earth to face the sun directly. We’re not moving closer to the sun as people often think, it’s just a better direct angle. In the southern hemisphere, it’s the Winter Solstice and the shortest day of the year as the tilt changes their angle in the opposite direction. 

Summer-solsticeI don’t remember much mention or attention to this day in my family or in the Catholic schools where I was a student, but I somehow always knew it was a special day.

It must have been later research and actually visiting some sites in Mexico and Ireland where I learned the true importance of this day. Many ancient cultures around the globe; the Mayans, Druids, Celtics and others, oriented their sacred sites to highlight this day.  For them it symbolized the triumph of light over darkness. Stone structures or caves were crafted to allow the light to stream in to their altars announcing that the journey to enlightenment had reached its apex.  

I remember just after my son Kenneth died, looking up at the bright moonlight streaming into our living room, and realizing his death was on a particularly auspicious day, the summer solstice. This assured me that I would never forget the day, never allow it to go by unnoticed. My practice is to find something special to do to honor my son, and to express my gratitude for his life and the part I was allowed to play in it.

Ken, Sheila and Rich in CorpusThis year I’m participating in the Re-Source Gathering of Creation Spirituality here in Pittsburgh around the theme of Compassion.  The conference began last night with circle dancing and chants lead by master teachers from the Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist traditions. We used InterPlay forms to connect with ourselves, each other, and those we love who are far away, on this plane and on another. This focus on compassion seems especially fitting for this occasion as Ken and I were compassionate companions, suffering together until, on that early morning of the Summer Solstice 1997, the suffering was no more.

Sacred Water

228976_217256544990433_4221304_nWalking on the beach this morning on the Florida shore of the Gulf of Mexico my husband and I agreed that we’re both water people. For more than twenty years we’d walked the beach on Padre Island, three seasons of the year. Before that, in spring times we’d strolled the edge of a manmade lake in landlocked Lincoln Nebraska. Our present home backs up to the Allegheny River where the geese, ducks, sea gulls and an occasional hawk or eagle, provide entertainment and an education about our place in the web of life. 

 Perhaps we’re all water people, given how crowded the beach communities are this March. Or maybe people are just there to get away from the ice and snow of this particularly challenging winter, or like the students on spring break, needing a respite from the stress of how they usually spend their days. The waters of the bay and gulf provide recreation for many vacationers; fishing, boating, parasailing but I wonder if these people have the same respect for water as the commercial fisherman do. I liked their sign I saw in the fishing village of Cortez: “Don’t teach your trash to swim.”

 13GRANDMOTHERSWe certainly haven’t treated water as the precious element, most essential to life that it is. Between oil spills in the gulf and the elimination of wetlands to hold the rain we’re left with a cycle of draughts and floods in many parts of our country.  And our agricultural industries grow strains of plants that are wasteful of water our communities don’t have. The future for water and we people who need it doesn’t look good unless we change our ways.

 The International Council of the Thirteen Indigenous Grandmothers who have taken the protection of the earth as their main mission suggest a spiritual solution. As was done with Earth Day many years ago, they are holding a World Water Day on Saturday March 22, 2014. As they go into ceremony they’re asking in the name of the Mother, that we join them in spirit from wherever we are.  Friends of mine will be most likely at the Point where the three rivers come together at Pittsburgh. What place in your community could you honor and bless water on this special Water Day?   

 http://inthenameofthemother.net/world-water-day-water-blessing-ceremony/

 

  

Towards a Resilient Grief

Like many people around the world, I watched the bereavement rituals for the beloved Nelson Mandela. In my case, I was looking for clues to answer a question that has been on my mind for years. “Can what is done at the time of a death, and immediately afterwards, help survivors to accept it, and be strengthened by the grief experience?

coffinMandela Mandela of course, was an international hero, an elder statesman and founder of a new nation. The mourners experiencing this loss included not only immediate and extended family members, but citizens of an entire nation, and of the larger world. In looking at this instance of public bereavement, important elements seem relevant to us all.

Celebrating a life

Following the announcement of Mandela’s passing, spontaneous dancing and singing broke out all over South Africa. In the city streets and village squares, and in the stadium before his state funeral, people whistled, sang, and danced with one another.  Having danced at my own son’s funeral I was delighted that people were using song and dance to create a joyful celebration of thanksgiving for Mandela’s life. We know that Mandela would approve since, in a video at age 81, he is seen dancing and he states, “Music and dancing make me at peace with the world…and at peace with myself. (to the audience) But I don’t see much movement happening out there, so let’s join in.”   

http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2013/12/05/watch-this-delightful-video-of-an-81-year-old-nelson-mandela-dancing-on-stage/

womanwithmandelaimage

Expression of Feelings

As the camera panned the crowd it was not hard to spot people crying openly. When a loved one dies, sorrow and tears help us to recognize our loss.  I was grateful that people were able to have their sorrow in the setting of a supportive community. Some people decorated their bodies to express their admiration for Mandela, sporting his image on their shirts, headgear, or ink-stamped upon their faces. People attending his funeral stood in the rain for hours, and when asked about their willingness to do this, they said this was a small inconvenience given the difficulties Mandela had confronted on their behalf. They considered this a way to express their gratitude.

Lessons Learned

During Mandela’s eulogy, world leaders and well-known celebrities, through storytelling and personal reflection, spelled out the lessons of his life. They pointed out events, such as the years of his imprisonment; and lauded him for how he handled his challenges; his ability to forgive and make allies of his former enemies. In President Obama’s comments he asked himself, “How well have I applied his lessons in my own life? “ I’ve noticed that, when friends and family are given the opportunity to share stories with one another, formally as part of a eulogy, or informally at a wake or visitation, a fuller picture of the deceased emerges. It’s as though each person’s life were a puzzle, and each story, a piece. When placed along side one another, the picture becomes complete.  

Relating to what is unfinished in a life

South Africa Mandela Mourning

Mandela lived an unusually long life, yet as his ex-wife Winnie stated it, “Even though he was 95 and had done so much, there was so much that was still undone.” Those of us watching and reading about the rituals of Mandela’s crossing; the full military honors, the 21-gun salute, the 95 candles, one for each year of his life, the slaughter of an ox in his home village, know that the true tribute to his life will consist of what we, the mourners choose to do in the years remaining in our own lives.

Healing Astronomical Grief

The evening started with a family ritual. My husband and I had been invited to attend a Friday night Shabbat dinner at a friend’s house. I felt honored to be included in what, for this family, is a weekly event. Prayers and blessings were chanted by the hostess, her husband, and her 94 year-old father. I was wishing I understood what the words meant, but the intimacy and celebratory nature of the meal needed no translation. Ritual elements such as the lighted candles, two loaves of challah bread, and the wine communicated the specialness of the occasion.

shabbatt.tableThe hostess’s father was the honored guest, a remarkable man who talked easily of his life in the Nazi concentration camp in German-occupied Poland and of his journey to freedom after the war. As the meal was ending, our hostess invited us to drive to the Jewish Community Day School where she is the principal, to see the new Holocaust Sculpture on the school grounds. The project has taken over a dozen years, begun when a social studies teacher was searching for a way to communicate to his students the concept of six million Jews dying in the Holocaust. How could they, and we, understand the reality of such a humungous number?

At the teacher’s suggestion, the class began collecting tabs from aluminum cans, and years later, with help from parents and the larger community, the school amassed six million tabs.

closeup tabs

Next the school and its supporters searched for a way to display them in a meaningful way and the memorial, “Keeping Tabs” was created. An artist worked with the children to design the sculpture. The one that was chosen was a fractured Jewish star, laid out in such a way as to create a maze for visitors to walk through. Nine hundred and eighty glass blocks were then filled with the tabs and arranged in towers of varying heights.

Seeing the memorial at night from a distance, the lit structures seemed to me a cityscape of ancestral skyscrapers. Walking up the hill from the parking lot on the curved pathway I felt the expectation that I would soon be visiting a sacred site.

cityscapeancestors

Upon entering, each narrow corridor offered different angles and perspectives and a play of light and shadow. Close up, the individual tabs in each glass window, mostly silver, with an occasional red or green one, brought tears to my eyes as I experienced each tab standing in for a person, a life snuffed out forever due to hatred and the evil of attempted genocide. I thought of the enormity of the world’s grief for these lives and all the lives that would have come from each of them.

keepingtabs.angles

Since single human bodies are not built to hold such overwhelming sorrows, the Sculpture does its sacred duty, helping us to honor those people who were lost and provide comfort to those left behind. The Hebrew saying and its translation over the doorway is a prayer for us all. –Hazak, hazak, v’nitkhazekBe Strong, Be Strong, and May We Be Strengthened.” Strong enough to stick to our resolve to never allow such an atrocity again. 
The Jewish Chronicle – Holocaust sculpture dedication draws large crowd

Dance of Destruction: A Response

A particular pleasure in the early morning hours, when I visit my family in the high desert of California, is to walk the labyrinth my son and daughter-in-law built in their desert-landscaped backyard. I didn’t see the space before they began what must have been a mammoth construction job – removing debris, pulling weeds,  relocating sand and rocks to create a smooth level surface.  Walking the curvilinear pathways of their version of this ancient ritual space this morning I marveled at the careful and painstakingly precise placement of rocks and solar lights directing my footsteps.

desertlabyrinth

This sense of order may have seemed particularly satisfying to me because a recent event had caused me to become extremely aware of its opposite. Text messages, emails and phone calls throughout the weekend were continually informing me of the details of the vandalism and destruction that had taken place in a condo that a group of us had recently remodeled in northern California. After the verbal descriptions came the images of towel racks ripped from the walls, a floor covered with broken glass, and blood splattered on furniture, fixtures and walls. Just viewing this senseless devastation brought visceral pain to my stomach and a taste of disgust to my mouth. A man who had done repair work on the place told me when he entered the room and saw the scene, he felt as though he had been raped. vandalism.IMG_3121

My mind darts about to understand why someone would do such a thing. What could be gained by destroying what others had so carefully and lovingly assembled? A woman who has stayed in the space while visiting her brother in a nearby hospital described it as a “quiet Oasis,” another guest used the words, “comfortable and elegant.” Where does the impulse come from to replace beauty and order with filth, ugliness and disarray?

Does the drug paraphernalia found at the scene of the crime hold the answer? Just as I walk the ordered space of the labyrinth to access my own inner peace, others use substances to change their brain chemistry in a different direction.  As a culture, we all pay the price for actions taken under the influence of recreational drugs gone awry.

297713_465971046766643_1940077911_nFortunately there are people willing to work to clean up the mess and reconstruct the space back to its previous orderly condition. If we use a wider lens to view the impact of drug use on families, communities and nations, reconstruction teams aren’t going to be short on assignments any time soon. But as one friend texted me in the midst of that day’s discouragement – “Remember, there is not enough darkness to overcome your light.”