Tag Archives: all our relations

Life Lessons From the Forest

IMG_3222This city girl, just back from my yearly spring visit to the Piney Woods of East Texas and my women’s spirituality group retreat, has been re-reminded of the wisdom and life lessons inherent in connecting with nature and the natural world. It’s helpful to re-appreciate the larger forces; some might call them spiritual that are inherent in the cycles of life of which we are a part. 

The natives call them “teaching trees.” On walks in the woods, elders use them as exhibits and examples of the unfathomable resilience of nature. They encourage children to notice how a tree’s trunks and branches adapt to what the wind, weather, time, and neighboring plants and insects send their way.

A storm breaks off a major parallel branch and the tree’s life force sprouts a new one rising in an upward direction. Not the original intention, but it works out fine. Two trees consistently pushed together by wind and rain eventually intertwine, growing together to become a symbol of how much stronger individuals are when holding on to one another.

Insects borrow underneath the giant trunk’s bark, eventually pulverizing it to saw dust, yet her wounds do not define her. The grandmother tree stands tall, continuing to put out glorious new leaves to the very top of her crowning glory.

Even disasters have positive consequences. The lightning strike that started the fire that took the life of the pecan tree left it standing mute in the center of the evergreens. Now it provides a useful climbing pole for some ground cover as it continually reaches toward the sun. The stepping aside of the larger trees consumed by the flames now provide new seedlings their time to grow in the sun, an opportunity to become the adults in the next generation of full-bodied trees.IMG_3225

In the woods, edible and poison berries grow side-by side leaving birds, butterflies, and humans the task of deciphering and selecting what to ingest that could be helpful and what to leave well enough alone. Ah, how I wish I were better at making that judgment in my personal pedestrian life. Perhaps as I give my prayers feet on my daily morning walks I should be treading more lightly on an earthen trail rather than on the harsh cement sidewalks of the cityscape of my Pittsburgh neighborhood.

Excerpt from “Warrior Mother”

People would often say to me, “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be, children dying before their parents.” They said it when my thirty-one-year-old son, Kenneth, died of AIDS and again, seven years later, when my forty-two-year-old daughter, Corinne, died of breast cancer. When Corinne died, I got a phone call from my cousin, who had lost her own daughter in a car accident twenty years before. “This shouldn’t be happening to you,” she said, in an effort to comfort me. When I asked whom it should be happening to, she said, “Someone who hasn’t already lost a child.”

But I prefer not to think this way. When I am in that place of questioning the circumstances of my own life, I picture the gravestones in the historical cemeteries my history-buff father took us to visit as children. We kids would run from gravestone to gravestone, doing the math and discovering children our own ages or younger buried there. I remind myself that it’s only in recent generations and in a country as fortunate as our own that parents can expect to raise all their children and to predecease them.

So I set out to write about my experiences as a mother who has lost two of her three adult children to horrific diseases. I voluntarily reentered those years of anxiety, trauma, and hope to better under- stand what transpired there. I realized that those of us who survived have been profoundly changed, and so I have written partly for my own healing and partly to share with others the learning and strength I discovered. Many people did not understand my spending so much time writing about this, especially my husband, Richard, whose style of grieving was entirely different. Rich and I finally came to an under- standing several years into this project.

Rich and I are both behavioral health professionals. We share a conviction that many mental health problems are caused by a lack of connection to people’s spiritual selves. In our work and for our own personal development, we use the community- building tools of dance, song, and story. In the jargon of our professions, this is called using the arts for individual and social transformation. For ten years we founded and co-directed a behavioral health care clinic called Iatreia Institute for the Healing Arts. This was the name of the clinic from 1987-1997 until we were purchased by Corphealth. Then it became Iatreia, Inc. You’d think that the experience of our professional careers and the synchronicity of our shared beliefs would have given us some special insight into each other’s grief. Not so.

Five summers ago, Rich sent me off to participate in a writers’ workshop with the comment, “I hope someday you will find some- thing more pleasant to write about.” When I returned from the writers’ workshop in Iowa City, held a couple of weeks after the town had suffered a significant flood, I brought back two empty sandbags, like the thousands of bags of sand stacked as barricades against the rising waters. My empty sandbags had been decorated and made into handbags by artists in the com- munity and sold to raise money to help the local Habitat for Humanity fund the cleanup efforts. At home I laid out my decorated sandbags alongside a folder of my writing. “My writings are my sandbags,” I told Rich. “We have to make art out of what happens to us, or at least some- thing useful, and we don’t get to pick what that is.”

People have asked me how I’ve survived all the tragedy and loss in my life. Perhaps I’ve written the stories of my journeys with my children, other family members, and my best friend to answer that question for myself. Witnessing how hard both my children fought to stay alive and all that they were willing to endure to gain more life has defined my grieving process. I never wanted to dishonor them by wasting one moment of whatever precious life I am given.

Like a prospector searching for gold, with the help of my journal, I have panned and sifted through these experiences—of birth, death, and the places in between. I have shaken the sieve in such a way as to uncover, among the dirt, pebbles, and debris, the valuable shiny elements in these stories. This sifting and sorting has been, like the experiences themselves, tough at times, but also enlightening. I’ve come to appreciate the many ways that people confront illness, diagnoses, treatment decisions, and, yes, even death, and the many faces and masks of grief. And ultimately, I’ve come to see the demands made on me as a mother as requiring me to become a warrior mother. In our lifelong mother roles, whether our children are sick or well, young or old, like warriors, we engage wholeheartedly in a cause, and like spiritual warriors, we are asked to use our compassion and wisdom to help our children and ourselves grow and thrive through whatever life sends our way.

(from Warrior Mother – Fierce Love, Unbearable Loss, and the Rituals that Heal by Sheila K. Collins PhD.)

Working Birds

I don’t think of birds as workers. Bees perhaps, “worker bees,” but birds? When I went to close my front door the other morning after walking through it on my way to take my dog for his morning constitutional, I gasped in surprise. There in the small space between the door wreath and the door was an elegant, architectural wonder constructed in a single day and night.

The size of my two hands cupped together, it demonstrated a masterful use of recycled found objects held together by minute repetitive drops of mud.  I noted its construction materials included twigs and grasses, leaves and tiny plant limbs, with a strip of silver tinfoil artistically woven through it all. 

I’m not tall enough to see inside, but later my husband tells me there are no occupants as yet for this home propped up by mine. Realizing that it is the middle of May already my mother worry gets activated. Isn’t it late in the season for building a nest, for starting a family?

Several years ago another bird, or perhaps the same one, made a nest in that very spot. Our wreath must invite such inspiration since, even though its small pink blossoms are made of fabric, its frame is constructed of actual slender tree limbs, wound and wrapped to create a circle. That time, earlier in the season, we were honored to help protect that home leaning for support on our home. While the birds were incubating and during their early bird rearing period, we used another entrance. We placed a sign on the porch column a few feet in front of the door, “Shh, baby birds sleeping.”

On my walk I marvel at this blessing that has arrived on my doorstep. I wonder if this mother bird, being “one of our relations,” as the native people say, knows that my son’s partner is becoming a mother too. And that this house, marked by a bird’s nest on its front door, is also the home of grandparents in the making.