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A near life experience in Calistoga

Traveling to new places gives me an opportunity to learn. It might be talking with someone I’ve just met or learning when I travel with intention to explore a new idea.

I’m a big believer in the connection between the mind, emotions and body. I’ve walked on hot coals in Chicago, practiced silence for a weekend in McLean, VA, and used the intuitive power of horses in Point Arena, CA. Recently, I found my breath in a yoga room during a wellness program in Calistoga, California.

I started meditating and focusing on my breath a number of years ago in Hugh Byrne’s mindfulness meditation classes in Washington, DC. Hugh is a skilled and inspiring teacher and author of The Here-And-Now Habit, which applies mindfulness to habit change. His weekly night classes helped me cope with a busy mind and I highly recommend him if you’re in DC.

This year I discovered Max Strom and my breathing practice reached a new level. Over 200 days a year Max travels the world teaching breathing techniques. I happened to be in California at the same time he was teaching a wellness program in Calistoga. Not knowing what to expect, I arrived at the long weekend retreat with some trepidation. Most of the participants were yoga instructors who had learned under Strom. I shouldn’t have worried because Max took time to instruct us individually on ways to open our hearts through breathing. You can learn more about his breathing techniques at http://maxstrom.com.

Max talked about a near life experience during the class. While near death experiences are rare, he said, near life experiences are much more common. It’s the missed opportunities that haunt people when they get older. When we get to the end of our lives, it seems we forgive ourselves. We know we did the best with what we had, but it’s the missed chances that we remember. I shouldn’t have worked so hard. I should have traveled more. I could have gotten by with less money and had a lot more time to spend with people I love.

It’s a good reminder. No more woulda, shoulda, coulda. I’m refocused again on a full life experience.

 

 

On being mortal

When our future son-in-law proposed marriage to our daughter, my husband and I were there. We weren’t literally with them the moment he asked her to marry him, but we were on the Sausalito ferry knowing that he would ask her to take a walk with him. When they came back we were lucky enough to experience her tears of joy. It was a very special day.

Later that week Tony and I drove to Carmel-by-the Sea for a short getaway. This picture was taken on our drive down the coast. Although he had survived heart surgery to repair his mitral valve two years before, I never thought we would lose him so soon. We remembered him this month on the first anniversary of his death.

I was blessed to welcome the birth of our grandchild four months after Tony passed. Blessed in the sense that this baby boy brought more joy than I could ever have imagined. He was and is a magical distraction. Yes, I still wish he could have known this grandfather and I still have moments of heartache, but time is healing.

I don’t know how long it was after Tony’s death that I read Being Mortal by Atul Gawande. It couldn’t have been more than a month. This wasn’t a book I was searching for or even knew anything about. It was sitting on the steps in my mother’s home waiting to be returned to her friend. My mother hadn’t thought to mention it to me and I didn’t recognize that reading it could be fortuitous.

Gawande is a surgeon who has written about the power of medicine to keep us alive and how medicine can also jeopardize our end of life quality. It haunted me to read about the dire conditions in so many of our hospitals and nursing homes where the inevitable push to keep us alive can also damage the human spirit. The author talks of finding ways to make the end of our lives more comfortable and meaningful.

I spent nine months watching my husband suffer in the hospital under the worst conditions. I try not to blame myself for urging him forward, not wanting him to die, because I know he wanted to live. But at some point, after watching him struggle, I wish I had had the presence of mind and the guidance from his medical team to consider hospice. If it is what he wanted,  I would have stopped the constant assessments, the procedures, the ICU runs. I would have set him free. But we never had the conversation.

While I did not have Being Mortal to educate and guide me in the most emotional period of my life, I am now more informed about how medicine can enhance the end of our lives. I now realize the dying have a choice. Regardless of how devastating it might be to discuss death with a loved one, it can be a precious conversation and a gift. If the situation warrants it, counter the caring doctors who do everything in their power to keep us alive, and advocate for the wishes of your loved one.

In hindsight, of course, we can clearly think through what was a blur of emotion in an earlier moment. If I’m honest with myself, I don’t think I could have talked with my husband about dying. I just couldn’t imagine life without him. Our daughter, who is a doctor, couldn’t watch him suffer anymore. She talked to him and told him we knew he was getting better, but if there was ever a time he couldn’t go on, we would support him. He thanked her and told her he would be thinking about their conversation. He died a month later.

I now know how important it is to give someone you love the opportunity to express themselves, to share their fears and wishes, even in the midst of emotional turmoil. Have the conversation so you both know how you think about this inevitable part of being mortal.

 

 

In our new reality, do not let fear take over our hearts

I had considered a pilgrimage walk on the Camino de Santiago after my husband died a year ago. My research confirmed that it would be an important and unforgettable trip. As it turned out, though, I never made it to Spain. I found the contemplative path driving across the country, heading west.

During his ten months in the hospital battling heart failure, my husband was discharged only twice for short periods of time. He never regained enough strength for a heart transplant and several days after his death, I flew from the east coast to northern California to be with our children. When my trips back and forth across the country became more frequent, I realized I would need my car in the Bay Area. I also knew that the time alone, being with and feeling all of the difficult emotions, was an important step for me.

My drive began from Virginia at the end of Oct, 2016 and I arrived in San Francisco ten days later after traveling 3,300 miles through 15 northern states. It gave me the quiet time I needed to reflect, laugh, pray, and cry as I remembered the past, thought about my life, and tried to stay in the moment. Along the way, I rediscovered, once again, my own center and inner strength.

I was in San Francisco for less than a week when I felt the challenges of starting over in a new environment. My friends and family were in Washington DC and I didn’t know many people beyond my children in California. All of the uncertainty was compounded by the emotional impact of the presidential election a week after I arrived. The path I had forged during my long distance trip was beginning to unravel even before I had a chance to settle in. Then, in conversation with a friend, I discovered Spirit Rock.

The Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California focuses on the teachings of the Buddha. One of its founders, Jack Kornfield, who has taught alongside Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, would be leading the first class that I had planned to attend. He must have been the impetus for the 400 people who showed up that night.

After leading our meditation, he asked the audience what topics they were interested in having him discuss. Without hesitation, participants shouted out their words: despair, anger, disbelief, racial attacks, global warming, human rights. He wrote down what he had heard and then shared his stories and encouragement.

Kornfield spoke about The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, written by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, two individuals who have suffered exile and violence and, yet, have remained very joyful. Kornfield talked about having the courage to be true to yourself. Don’t let the fear take over the heart, no matter what the thought. Carry a sense of happiness and joy in the midst of sorrow, and delight in being alive, no matter what happens, he told us.

The uncertainty that permeates our country has led to fearful emotions that were reflected in our group that evening. Kornfield asked a rhetorical question: What do you do in times of despair? The first act of courage, he said, is humility. You show your humanity. You show your vulnerability. Stay present and still, even in the midst of uncertainty.  Be present for the way things are and listen. Ask “what do you want?” And, then listen. Don’t act until the right act comes forward.

We’re in the middle of something vast and we need to find a trust so that we can do our part in this. Do your best, he suggested. Your voice, your spirit is available. One person with courage is the majority. Others may be cruel; we will not. You can be fearful or you can have a separate consciousness that opens the freedom of your spirit, no matter what, he said.

Despite where we started that evening, many of us left feeling uplifted. We had work to do to make sure our voices were heard in between the anger, fear and frustration.  His talk reminded me of the contemplative path on my drive west. When you open the freedom of your Spirit, you feel the inner wisdom and guidance from within.

My connection to Spirit ebbs and flows and requires a reminder for me to refocus. I get frustrated when I often forget so much of what I’ve learned, but something always materializes that pulls me back to my center.

I would have undoubtedly been complacent if my candidate had won. Instead, I have a renewed energy and sense of urgency that had been missing. I plan to take advantage of my new condition, staying committed to taking the high road. I remain open to the idea of not letting fear take over my heart, or my voice.

How to find your voice to heal our planet

In this 10th-anniversary year of the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, the debate between those who believe in global warming and those who do not has reached a critical stage. President-elect Trump, who has said climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese, has threatened to end all funding and ignore past pledges of President Obama’s administration.

Those passionate about saving the planet from the effects of global warming face off against others who believe, just as passionately, that there is nothing to save since earth’s climate changes every few thousand years. Chances are you have an opinion, but is there a way to understand the other side and cross the divide?

When Gore’s film first came out, I watched the trailers and suggested to my husband that we watch the movie. Tony was not that interested. This wasn’t a total surprise since we had different opinions on a variety of topics, including our every-four-year presidential voting patterns. Yet, I couldn’t understand his disinterest when he had been committed to the environment for much of his life.

He joined the Peace Corps after college and moved to a small village in Burkina Faso, Africa to help people learn how to dig wells for better access to water. Tony wanted to travel the world and give something of value to those who had very little. His 2.5 year stint in Africa was such a defining experience that 45 years later, at the end of his life, he had returned to his interests in Africa and the environment, and was working with a German partner on plans to combat water scarcity and land degradation.

My first reaction to his resistance ten years ago was to be upset that he wasn’t willing to be educated. I believed An Inconvenient Truth had important data that we both needed to understand. Tony felt the film might be biased and perhaps not factual. He talked about Ted Kennedy and Al Gore wanting to limit fossil fuels, but when it came to putting wind turbines in his Hyannis Port backyard, Kennedy fought the idea, and Gore jetted around the world burning more fuel than we ever would.

We let our disagreements cool off for a bit and then we tried again. It wasn’t always easy, but when we remained curious and intently listened, one of our minds was often changed. Holding tight to the ideals we were passionate about often left us unwilling to listen to anything that challenged our beliefs. We debated all kinds of topics and often I was the one who learned an important lesson. On this environmental topic, however, I was pleased that he agreed to watch the film, telling me afterwards that he had gained a new perspective.

When he and I stopped talking about climate change and focused on the very possibility that humans are contributing to an accelerated global warming, we began to see eye to eye. The terminology had been tripping us up. We all can find common ground when we listen in these passionate conversations.

In 2014, Tony wrote a post on his environmental blog entitled, Change in Philosophy. In part, he wrote, “While this has been a challenging year for humanitarian issues around the globe, it has also been a watershed period for the occurrence of extreme weather phenomena as well as for polarized attitudes about the implications of these events on the future sustainability of our planet. I have tried to maintain issue neutrality on how these topics would be presented. By seeing both sides of issues, we can hope to filter out extreme ideologies and generate informed personal opinions of their cause and effect.”

Conversations with our daughter, however, made him think about the importance of being more definitive in his views and opinions. He did not want his site to become political or to be read only by readers who shared his  philosophy, but he began to realize that neutrality was no longer an appropriate option.

I know Tony would be very interested in the National Geographic/Leonardo Dicaprio film, Before the Flood. He would agree that the most pressing environmental issue facing our world today is global warming. I urge you to watch this film:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rpCTGicxoso

The gift of spontaneity

This beautiful staircase belongs to friends of ours who bought a small villa in a town south of Sienna, Italy.  I would never have discovered it had I not made a spontaneous decision during our European trip.

My son, Tom, flew to Budapest and picked me up at the Vienna airport to start our first weekend in Graz, Austria where he had taught English for five years. Walking from one end of the city to the other during the days, and sharing drinks and meals with his friends in the evenings, was the perfect beginning to our trip. And, it was the only part we had planned in advance.

It was unusual for me to travel without having places to stay along the way, but Tom convinced me that part of the joy of traveling is keeping your options and mind open for the inevitable surprises along the way. In other words, be more spontaneous! We left Austria at the end of that weekend and made Venice our first stop in Italy.

We found a place to stay outside the city without a problem and the next morning I wondered about some friends who were very connected to Italy. The last time we were together many years ago, he was planning and she was fantasizing about starting their own tour company in Tuscany. Maybe they’re here now, I said to Tom. Send her an email, he replied. To my amazement, not only were they in Italy, they had bought a place in a small town within driving distance of us! They invited us to stay the night and shared their story of how they moved forward on their dream, founded their Renaissance Company (http://www.renaissancecompany.com), bought this beautiful place, and were living there six months of the year.

The only way we would have connected is if I had made the split decision to reach out to our friends at that moment in time. Recent events have reinforced the wonder of spontaneity. Being spontaneous, finding humor in the mundane without judging yourself or others, and letting the true you come out in full force is a powerful way to live. I have discovered that there is a difference between living a productive life and living life to its fullest.

Trusting your spontaneity frees you from the constraints of other people’s judgment and from the judgment you may have of yourself. It is a much more powerful way to live.

 

How food can heal the soul

There were times during my 40s and 50s when I struggled with weight gain, bouts of insomnia and digestive problems. My hair was thinning, my skin tone looked uneven, and it was challenging to keep my energy level up in the middle of the day. I was driving myself hard in a competitive work environment and the distractions of a busy life left me often feeling depleted.

Desperation led me to a year long nutrition course with the Institute for Integrative Nutrition that emphasized the importance of bio-individuality, which means there’s no one-size-fits-all-diet. Each of us has unique needs. I started eating whole foods that come from the ground instead of processed foods and I was cooking more at home. Yet, the biggest change in my health over many years was my growing ability to slow down. Being more mindful of the present moment enabled me to better enjoy life.

One of my great pleasures in life has been watching my adult children find their way in the world, becoming the type of people I would want to be around. They are inquisitive, open minded and kind. I’m always discovering something new about them, as was the case when I recently accompanied my son on his business trip where I learned more about myself by observing him.

We had traveled to Eastern Europe to visit some of his wine customers. After a winery tour in Slovenia, we sat down to dinner in their small, adjoining restaurant. My son encouraged me to order the five course meal with five different wine pairings. I couldn’t fathom that much food and drink, but I trusted his recommendation and we began our first course of pea flan and pork cheek at 7:30 pm.

Four hours later we were ending our meal with white and dark chocolate and grapes followed by a strong digestif. The Slavic food and wine were all new to me and delicious, but most surprising was the lightness I felt at the end of the meal. When you eat over a four hour period, your body somehow assimilates all that food, leaving you feeling satisfied, not gorged. But here’s the healing part: we sat together for four hours.

Never in my life have I spent that much time enjoying the company of another while anticipating the next bite of food or sip of wine. It was amazing. We talked about how Americans are always on the move, never seeming to slow down as so many people in Europe are want to do. I felt at ease to just be in the moment, enjoying our conversation, our silence as we explored our meal, and our ability to connect over a shared experience. It was a healing balm to my soul.

 

Living without regret

Most of us are familiar with the common regret of those who are at the end of their lives. They don’t worry so much about what they did as much as what they didn’t do. It’s the living with regret that seems to haunt the dying. We don’t take the time to reflect on what we haven’t done because, quite frankly, we’re just so busy doing.  Read More

Finding a way after losing a love

When my husband lost his battle with heart failure in 2015, I lost my love and best friend. My children, son-in-law, family and friends have sustained me over the last seven months.

I’ve traveled back and forth to the Bay Area where my children live and I’ve spent most mornings hiking these mountains in the Marin Headlands with the family dogs, Clyde and Wall-E. The beauty and solitude of this area are beginning to restore my soul and strengthen my faith.

I am slowly learning to be grateful again, as much as I possibly can in each moment, and to trust myself, my true self. I still lose my way when I forget and linger too long in the past, but each day is a little brighter and I know my blessings will continue.

Our daughter is recovering from a heart attack after giving birth to her first child. Her renewed energy, along with the addition of our new grandson, have been incredible gifts. I had no idea of the impact he would have on my life.

I’ve had an opportunity to spend special time with my children who continue to inspire me.

I know how easy it is to get sidetracked and frustrated with everyday challenges. I’m amazed at how I appreciate the little things so much more readily now. My husband often encouraged me to slow down and be aware of everything around me. It’s easier now that I am not working and I’m listening to him.

It’s hard to think about the life we could have created had events worked out differently, so I try not to go there very often and instead remain grateful for what we taught each other and experienced together. I still miss him terribly, but am so blessed to also feel him through the little things that materialize for me every day!