End of school year: time for talk about transition and loss


Sad and happy birds wearing bows. Natalie, 5 years young

So let’s settle it right now: Life is tough. Hard lessons are part of our days and, I believe, life's invitation for inner growth.

I notice signs of unsettled children in classrooms and homes. I feel it myself. 

Change is in the air: the school year is ending, goodbyes to classmates are coming, a new summer routine is just around the corner.

It is a perfect time for a conversation about transition and loss.

Janice Mattina, founder and director of Center Montessori School, wisely raises awareness in her students that losses are part of life. She listens to them. 


A school year ends. 

Friends graduate and go to new schools. 

A parent takes a business or pleasure trip. 

Not getting a desired something. 

A pet dies. 

It's time to move to a new home or place. Even moving into a new bedroom at home is a chance to practice letting go.

A family member divorces. 

Grandmother passes. 

Janice moves the children from awareness to acceptance and understanding about change through conversations which require listening from the heart. Her intention is to help them embrace loss as a lifelong healing companion.


Loss as a learning and healing companion is an idea introduced to Janice and upper elementary and middle school-aged Center students by Karen Warren-Severson, MEd, NCC, a counselor and coach. Karen came into the classroom to teach a “Mending Hearts” workshop. 


Karen asks students questions such as “What do you believe about loss and grieving?
 And then, “If you accept loss as a lifelong companion, how will your grief change?” There's a pause between questions to give space and time to invite response from the kids. 

An honest, open discussion comes forth. Feelings such as relief, acceptance, and peace arise.

Karen leaves the students with heart-shaped pieces of cloth. The hearts have cuts in them, cuts that the children mend or sew closed as a metaphor for their healing process. After the activity, more cut hearts are placed on a shelf for later times. Wounds surface throughout our life. The activity is ready for whenever anyone is willing to reveal and heal.


It is not surprising that these children are able to more readily and openly talk about their losses after this workshop. 


After the workshop, when a child shares about loss, Janice listens and asks “Can you work with that?” And here is the miraculous wonder of children. The common reply is, “Yes I can work with that.

Willingness.

With willingness, it is possible to feel, share, mend, and let go. She listens. And then the heard student heads to the shelf to sew a heart.


A Wild Thing: when scared, instead of fleeing, I join the (feeling) rumpus


Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator

(I wrote this post almost three years ago just before moving from Texas to Florida. I'm posting it again today, April 23, 2017. These past few weeks I've experienced a similar hurried and "too-busy-to-live-life" pace. When that happens, I know that I'm running from something. When I'm aware I'm in this hustle, I'm grateful I notice.) 

I have a problem.

It's hurrying.

Even though I changed my pace while at a retreat, I’m back to mindless quick-there’s-somewhere-to-go or something-to-do.

Gulping quickly chewed food. Walking fast. Getting “it” done. I even ran my grocery cart on the heels of a forgiving woman. After that, I took a breath. Ten minutes later I entered a line for check out, backed out, and then backed out again.

Where oh where is patient, do-one-thing-at-a-time, take-it-slow, me?

The good: I noticed.

Others noticed too.

I recently paid $280 for doing two things at once. I was talking on a handheld cell phone while driving by my neighborhood elementary school.

(Fortunately I was only going 14 mph, or I might have had to take out a loan to pay my citation.) Multitasking, I was totally oblivious to obeying the law.

That was a few weeks ago.

Yesterday in a slowed-by-yoga saunter back to my car I had an insight about my hurriedness.

First, let me back up.

I’m moving from Texas to Florida. I’m heading to a place I call home and eagerly look forward to new experiences with my husband, and time with my daughter, son-in-law, their children, and family and friends. I also long for the water, sun, sugar-fine white sand, crystal light, and birding joy such as watching the scare tactic of “wing flinging” by wood storks in the back yard (it’s how they catch fish). 

If I measure my delight about this move with a pendulum, give it a mighty and vigorous swing, and then watch that pendulum swing equally in the opposite direction to then have a measure of my feelings about letting go of all I like about being in Denton.

Though I live life as an adventure and view my home as wherever I place my head at night, I’m uncomfortable. Five years in Denton is long enough to fall in love with new friends.

So what does this have to do with hurry?

I realized I’m rushing to make time pass quickly and to slow other time down. Get it all done, stay busy. Or, hurry to make more time.   

Silly me. What illusion of control.

Hurrying doesn’t release the discomfort of being in between here and there.

Moving is in the realm of loss, positive though it is.  And experiences of loss hold hands with other losses. That means that when I feel what comes up about leaving Denton, bits of past losses come up. Death claims a child. Letting go of a terrific job, a home, a conservation group, a business. A marriage is over. A pet passes. A joyful experience ends. Health fails.

A wise teacher once told me that if a feeling is more than two on a scale of one-to-ten, then the feeling holds more than the current event that triggers it.

Sometimes it’s not easy to feel. My long-held habits centered on a need to control to push away discomfort. My patterns are stoically hardening, moping, complaining, woefully explaining or justifying. However, each time I allow myself to feel, these patterns lessen.

My hurrying is a disguise. 

I see a sign from the reliable guide of awareness. Hallelujah.

My less-than-best-self thinks there isn’t time for this grief stuff. Grabbing for denial, I think: “Hey, Susan—you intellectually know what’s going on my mind chatters, so get on with packing or doing this or that. Feel good now that you thought it.”

Thinking and feeling are different.

Being emotionally open and free means letting go of thoughts like:

“I’m not that kind of person who feels like that.”

“I should be over it.”

“No one wants to hear about these feelings.”

“I don’t have a right to feel hurt; it isn’t fair to everyone else.”

“I’ll only open old wounds.”

“The past is the past” (Deepak Chopra, The Book of Secrets, p. 57).

Those thoughts deflect, suppress, and repress.

Emotional freedom is when one of Maurice Sendak’s wild things (Where the Wild Things Are) shows up to scare me, to scare me out of feeling. And instead of fleeing in fear, I inwardly declare I'm not afraid and realize I am the rumpus.

I don’t need Max’s crown. I need to slow down, call on some ordinary courage, and feel.

My blog, WONDERMENTS, continues...


Hi, everyone—

I am super-excited to tell you that my blog WONDERMENTS has a new home at Wonder Anew.

Wonder Anew is a place I created to process personal challenges using eight open-ended questions. Think of Wonder Anew as a place where you can do what I have done on this blog: work with personal experiences—especially difficult ones—with curiosity, awe, and wonder to uncover your own wonderments.

xo Susan


Ten years ago Michael left, and love grew.

Clouds eyes. Terry and I walk the beach (8/21/16).
I took this picture at the place we put Michael in the sea.

Today is a special day. Ten years ago Michael passed on.

This morning when I woke, I smiled. No tears. I feel grateful.

My first thought was for someone I love.

My second thought was for someone I love.

And then, as if I created my own gratitude feast, I remembered so many others who were there for me this day ten years ago, and since. Because I’m aware that I’m not alone in my life experiences, that all others experience loss and joy, I understand that you likely know people like this in your own life.

So…

Is there someone in your life who no matter how many times you ask to be held and listened to is there every single one of a zillion times as if it’s the first time and most important moment, and that you know he’ll be there for the next zillion?

Have you ever found yourself looking at your daughter, and all at once see her as a child, sibling, spouse, mom, aunt, cousin, sister, friend, and teacher? You know—for a moment you get a glimpse into what it looks like for a human being to have unfathomable love, willingness to learn, strength to persevere, humility, and an ability to accept life in all its marvel and messiness. Have you ever seen your own child like this?

Have you ever paused for a moment when you do something of merit and think of someone you really care about, someone who married and loves your daughter and their sons, and remember with gratitude and joy to dedicate that merit to him?

Sometimes do you stop whatever you’re doing because you remember that there is someone who was there for you on the hardest day, which was probably her hardest day, too, and somehow she took the lead? You know, like looking up at geese in formation flying a rigorous route north and she sees a need to take the apex of the arrow despite wind shear. And then she holds the apex for a long, long time, even letting a tired bird fly on her back. Do you know someone like this?

Do you know someone who would respond to an unexpected death of a loved nephew in his home and then, unable to reach the parents, attend to what needs to be done as if that nephew is his own child?

Is there someone in your family who has a blend of tenderness and strength, someone you want to hug and hug and hug who no matter how much of a shit a cousin can be, loved him, and feels he is her guardian angel?

Have you ever had a moment when you remember calling a friend asking her to drive you to the airport and that friend is at your door five minutes later, silently holding your unbearable sadness with grace and a comfort that carries over year to year?

Do you know someone who has the ability to sit quietly with loss? Like a friend who sits with you the day after your son dies and a few days before your son’s funeral saying nothing except when you say, “I don’t know if I can go to his funeral,” and she replies, “You’ve lived your hardest day. Every day from here is easier. You can do this.”

Is there someone in your blended family who during an unexpected event steps forward and says, I can help, and she does the work of organizing a funeral?

Do you ever look at your children, and even though you’re not married to their dad anymore, feel so much gratitude for that relationship because of those precious children?

Do you sometimes experience overflowing best-thing-everness when you hear stories about what others love and see in the people you most love? Or you're at a memorial like my son's and through their eyes you hear the kind, silly, fun, loving things he said or did and feel so grateful for their stories?

Are there listeners and teachers in your lives who know when to hug, when to offer another perspective, when to show up, when to let you wrestle with angst, and when to send messages that they love you to bits and are there for you?

Have you ever realized that you probably didn’t adequately thank the people you work with when something happens that meant they needed to step-up and into doing their job and a little bit of yours for as long as is needed?

Have you ever had a remembrance long after someone took responsibility to do a task you couldn’t do, like make and pay for a flight, and then realize that you forgot to thank that nephew?

Have you ever received a book that holds teachings that reach out from the pages and somehow help your heart soften when you feel yourself growing bitter and angry and years later begin studying with that teacher?

Do you ever think how fortunate you are to have siblings who have shared your childhood and understand in a way no others do?

And then, do you think about the gift your sibling's children are to your children and how working with these family relationships is practice for relating to families everywhere?

Is there a person who when you feel horrible, finds and says while hugging you, "You're doing great," and because it's her and you feel her love, you wear that mirrored message with a bit more bravery?

Are there people in your life who when life dips dangerously deep, write cards and messages to you, and then you realize that for over 57 days straight, someone wrote to say "I see you"? Have you had this experience?

How about this, I wonder, do you have people who on the anniversary of an event are there to creatively say, "I'm here," or "I remember"? 

Do you know people who, because you decided to show yourself in all its muddiness, ask you to be with them because they know you'll listen and hold, not fix, their hurt? Has that happened to you?

Have you ever been part of caring groups who know how to hold the good and the awful, and listen, and be, and listen again, and again, and again, and sometimes call you sweetie, love, dearheart, honeybun, or Sue?

Have you had the experience of finding a friend who in some inexplicable way becomes a conduit of connection and opens you to wonder about the energy of love, and then somehow you feel like you hear the wind talking or something like that?

Have you experienced the death of a child only to discover that he lives on? And then to discover that as he lives on and grows inside of your heart, his love also grows inside every being he ever touched and every being that person ever touches, and yes, on and on? That legacy is so much bigger than passing on a family heirloom? 

Do you think about death as an awareness of life, and like me, begin to realize the preciousness of knowing that your legacy is love?

And then this, do you think about things you learn from relationships?

I do. 

Here’s one.

I’ve learned that when a relationship (people, places, things) ends there is an opportunity to use my pain and all the difficult feelings to deepen my relationship with life—to be with whatever life brings

It might appear that my practice living with this thought has improved my life. Maybe it has, though I no longer face and feel pain or joy to better myself. It works for me to think of my life experiences this way:

“A difficulty visits? Use it to be awake to life itself.”

And live.

High school students' anonymous comments about Wonder Anew


Terry Barrett, photographer. One in a series of realistic, unaltered photographs of surfaces of the ancient walls and doors in Italy. 
From the Wonder Anew website. 

I offer the 8 open-ended Wonder Anew questions to anyone who would like to unravel and gain clarity about a personal difficult experience. Sometimes I work with high school students and at the end, I ask what they think about the experience.

Briefly, the experience looks like this:

I begin with a short meditation before I suggest that they write answers to the questions. I tell them the process is an opportunity to hear themselves and gain clarity about their difficulty. Writing responses usually takes two 50-minute periods, on separate days. Students write anonymously. Sometimes I read their responses and add additional open-ended questions that may help. Some students create artworks that reflect an aspect of their writing.

Just before I leave, I ask two questions: 

Are you likely or not-so-likely to use the questions to explore another difficulty? What have you learned about yourself?

My impression is that high school students benefit from knowing that problems are a part of life and crave a chance to express and process them. When I suggest that the problem isn't the problem, the problem is their response to the problem (Satir), I see curiosity in their eyes.

Their comments fascinate me, and reveal something I believe—adversity is a gateway to insight. In other words, our problems have something to teach us.

LIKELY – 68%

“I have many feelings that I just push aside, but writing them down on paper really opened my eyes.”



“Writing the answers relaxes me and let’s me think about my patterns with less emotion.”



“I realized how much stress I actually have and how I really need to find time to relax. It is all right to relax.”



“I need to calm down about school.”



“I worry too much about things that are not under my control. I need to stop and think things out before reacting to them.”



“I discovered that stress = anger.”



“I have learned that I try to be in everyone’s favor but sometimes that’s not possible. Now I just try to be me and go with what I believe is right.”



“It’s hard to change other people’s minds. It is nearly impossible at times. The solution sometimes is to just let the predicament go.”



“Meditation is a challenge, but slightly liberating.”



“The answer to my problem (how I would work with it) became more clear because I waited a day and didn’t rush to answer that question.”



“I hold things in for no apparent reason.”



“I didn’t really meditate, but I did sit by myself and breathe. It was calming and I intend to do it more.”



“I learned that I am an introspective person and able to look deeply at myself.”



“It was eye-opening to analyze my own issues and to try to help myself. I learned that I am too concerned with others’ problems and that I let others’ issues trouble me too easily.”



“By writing, I learned that others also have very complicated issues and I have found that they sometimes take it out on me.”



“I didn’t learn anything about myself so much as I realized the extent of traits I already knew I possess.”



“I learned that I feel inadequate with free time. When I sit still or meditate or when I’m doing nothing, I think I am wasting time.



“It felt good to put my emotions and situation into words, almost like a rant, and then I realized that my difficulty isn’t what I thought it was.”



“I learned that self-realization can be a communal effort.”



“I learned a lot about how to deal with my difficulty rationally.”



“The answer to my problem became more clear as I stopped to think and write about it”



“The questions help me evaluate the situation.”



“These questions were beneficial to how I thought about my problem”



“Wonder Anew helped me dig deeper into my personal feelings”



“Interesting and personally insightful.”



“I learned that grades and performance dictate my view of myself.”



“The question process made me sit and think about what is bothering me and to realize what is really on my mind.”



“I learned that I can’t blame others for my faults.”



“Using the questions allowed me to get on better terms with my dad. I learned to calm down and think of nothing. I learned that I can be cruel at some points but also capable of sharing my feelings. I got to see my problem with my dad from my dad’s perspective.”



32% - NOT-SO-LIKELY, and their comments:



“I have learned that I don’t like opening up at all. I am logical and practical. I am extremely skeptical about the efficacy of this process. This might work for people who are artistic and imaginative, just not me.”



“I am incredibly stubborn and this process was very long and I really had to think to come up with answers. The meditation honestly made me more tired than I already was so yes, it was calming.”



“I prefer not to talk about my problems.”




“I did not enjoy this process. I did not enjoy meditation. I learned that I’m not very forgiving.”



“It is hard for me to keep still, but it was all good. It was hard for me to write about my issue. I’ve learned I’m mostly negative. And that other people have problems too, similar issues, not just me.”



“I learned that I do not like meditating essentially as it just makes me think more.”



“I don’t really like meditation because I always try to take advantage of every second of life and look at the fruits of my life so I don’t see a purpose for it. The process of writing answers to the questions was good once I took it seriously. I learned my current situation isn’t as bad as I thought it was and I take my life for granted. I also learned that other people have greater problems than me and would probably enjoy living the life I have.”



“This was interesting, unusual, and relaxing. I learned that my problem is all in my head.”

The awful of us

Photograph of a gargoyle by Terry Barrett

I sat in my chair reading about the concept of karma (or the golden rule). It’s not a new concept and I felt a bit of arrogance, sort of like I know this, but then I read:

“When you feel you are being harmed by someone, remember that the harm that person may be inflicting on you (or someone dear to you) is the direct result of you yourself having harmed others in the past (p. 156).”

I paused. I felt something shift inside of me.

For a long time I've understood the karmic concept. But when I read those words I personally felt its meaning. I suddenly saw—no, I felt—my deepest challenges as the hurt I’ve caused.

Like coming up for air after being under water to the point of drowning, I let out a wail. In my wail I thought, "I must have been a tiger who ate children." The feeling compounded later that day when I learned of the alligator that took a boy from the shore at nearby Disney World in Orlando while the parents watched.

I saw myself as the alligator.

Having once lost my boy swung like a pendulum to me hurting a child.

In the middle of the night, dread came again. I went to my cushion.

For hours I tonglen-breathed in the pain of those parents, the pain of physical harm to a young being, and my pain of awareness about the hurts I’ve caused. For each in-breath, I breathed out relief, then comfort. I breathed in pain and breathed out patience for all. I breathed in hurt and breathed out tenderness to the hurt and the hurters.

My drowning gulps softened into rhythmic breaths that carried and calmed me.

I remained sitting till a glimmer of dawn.

The horrid feelings melted and passed.

Do you know what was left?

This seems incredulous but I feel compassion for that alligator, which says something because I know the loss of my own child who died unexpectedly ten years ago, and having an incurable cancer I have more awareness about loss of my own life, so in a way I know some hurt of being consumed.

Now I better know the losses I've caused. 

I am hurt and I am a hurter. I believe all of us, yes—all of us are the alligator and the child and the parents of that child.

With gratitude for this breakthrough, I have more clarity about what it means to be patient and the commitment it takes to work towards being less reactive and not overcome by anger, hatred, and despair. Instead, I see a new way of being with awfulness, mine and others’. I open my mind and heart to kindness for all beings.

All.

Even those who shoot, run over, bomb, and behead.


Pema Chödrön's book "When Things Fall Apart" changed how I see and live life


The inscription, When Things Fall ApartPema Chödrön.

I recently discovered that Pema Chödrön's book When Things Fall Apart is available in a 20th edition. 

That caught my attention.

A friend gave it to me the week my son passed unexpectedly. She said, “This book might help you.”  

On the day we memorialized my son, I had a profound experience. That morning I read the part in the book where Pema says, “Life is a good teacher and good friend” (p. 11). When I read those words, I was so distraught, I raised my arm to throw the book.

But I didn’t.

I kept reading a few more sentences where Pema encourages us to stay with our broken heart.

After the ceremony, we gathered in my sister’s home for lunch. I remember sitting in a chair in the far corner of her home, upstairs, listening to family and friends talking downstairs. I felt sad, bitter, and angry, and my heart hardening.

Miraculously, I remembered Pema’s words to stay with my broken heart. I stayed with my hurt. I sat still and let myself feel. I sobbed and softened. Later I stood up and went downstairs where I noticed that every person at the lunch had heartbreak.
And later as I studied more, I saw that every being has heartbreak.

It was that connection on that day that opened the door of my heart and mind enough to be with my hurt, and to use what I experience to connect with all others. I began my Tonglen practice

August marks ten years since that day and I am awed at the possibility of understanding life as a good teacher and good friend. I would never have imagined that my loss could partner, unfold, clarify, and become a transformed karmic seed. I am utterly awed. 

So, when I opened the newly printed When Things Fall Apart and saw the inscription quote Pema chose, I smiled until a tear dropped. It begins, “Life is a good teacher and good friend....”

I purchased two copies. One to take into my heart, the other to send or give to another. Sort of like Tonglen.

NOTES
I first shared this story with Margie Rodgers who I met at Omega when I wandered into the cafe to explore the offerings of Pema's Foundation. Margie is vice-president of Pema's Foundation.

Today is July 7, 2016. Pema's 80th birthday is soon (July 14, 2016) and she asks us to join her in a day of practice. In a few hours, I'll participate in a live call with her and others to ask questions as part of an intensive study and contemplation of Tokme Zongpo’s Thirty-Seven Practices of a Bodhisattva. How fortunate I am.