Cousin Louise

I awoke to a voicemail this morning informing us that my husband, Walter’s 106 year old cousin passed away in her sleep overnight.  What a blessing it was to peacefully let go of her body in the comfort of her own home.  No unfamiliar facility or beeping machine with doctors and nurses hovering around or even a long list of medications.  “Cousin Louise” as we referred to her lived a long and fabulous life.  In many ways I am not sad.  In fact I want to stand up and give her a standing ovation for the kind of living she modeled.  I want to applaud her for the peace and joy I am certain she felt and expressed with her heart.

I often wonder about the ways in which people “transition.”  I purposely choose the word “transition” because I am not certain if our spirits, that essence or energy that gives life to bodies ever “dies.”  Yet I understand that the human body like all other kinds of bodies—birds, dogs, horses, fish, insects die.  I suspect death occurs because bodies serve as the vehicles that allow our spirits to move around in the physical world.  But why do some people leave this place as a result of an automobile accident, drowning, sustained illness, or shot by a family member or in a war?  Why aren’t more people able to die peacefully in their sleep like Cousin Louise?

I also believe Cousin Louise passed away with a happy, peaceful heart.  In the few years that I knew her, I never heard her say an unkind word about anyone.  She was full of stories many of them from the Civil Rights Movement in which she and her husband played active roles.  Although I am certain she encountered some frightening situations and in some cases, downright hostility, she seemed to hold a positive attitude about it all.  Cousin Louise felt bad for hateful people instead of being outraged by them.  She understood the relationship between ignorance and fear that quite often leads to bigotry and discrimination.

In addition, Cousin Louise taught English Literature to college students.  She loved poetry—Shakespeare, Tennyson and Chaucer and tried to ignite that love of literature in her students at Morris Brown College in Atlanta, GA.   She also loved playing the piano and continued to do so until she was 105.  When Walter videotaped her on that special birthday, he asked her how it felt to be 105.  She replied, “ Splendid.  It is just splendid!”

Her favorite scripture was Psalm 139, which she repeated often.  She was certain that she was held by some Presence no matter where she ventured.  Active in civic and social groups and her church as well, Cousin Louise rarely missed a Sunday at Big Bethel AME Church in downtown Atlanta until she became too fragile to attend.  Grateful for visits from her pastor that connected her to a church family, she also continued her monetary support until the end.  Her legacy includes her love of helping people especially encouraging young people.  She realized early that life was about service to others and living became even sweeter when her passions were combined with her desire to give.

Cousin Louise drove until she was much beyond age 95, in part because she fudged her age a bit.  It’s not clear if her husband, a few years her junior ever knew that she was older.  Yet because she was raised with Walter’s grandmother, the two being born just 2 weeks apart, we always knew her true age.  So when Cousin Louise turned 100, Walter and I took her dinner on her birthday and she admitted that it might be time for her to reveal her true age.

I’m not sure if I will live to 106 or if I want to.  But I know that in whatever time I have remaining on earth, I want to maintain the poise, elegance, and attitude of this great woman with a heart brimming over with love for others, a desire to help, and the radiant joy she emanated in living with a peaceful and grateful heart.

How might you describe your heart right now? What is it full of?  How do you think you would feel at 106?

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Silence is like Fertilizer for the Soul

As I emerge out of a long, dreary, and frightfully cold winter even for warmer climates my thoughts turn to spring and the reminder that flower and vegetable gardens are on the horizon.  Today I prune the roses and the warmth of the sun shifts my thoughts to providing them with an offering of fertilizer to stimulate their new growth.  Pouring a special solution of vitamins, minerals and disease prevention around the roots of each bush, I sense that souls are like gardens and the adage, “Silence is like fertilizer for the soul” returns to my mind.

I made this statement to someone recently who immediately wanted to tweet it. The idea came from my own practice of Silence one early morning and I realized it was an apt description about what silence does for me.  I can always tell when my soul is well-nourished.  My spirit expresses great gratitude through felt expressions of peace and joy.  I am not speaking of an ecstatic response to some external event like the jubilation that comes with buying a new car, acquiring a new job or the excitement of an anticipated wedding day.  Typically, that kind of euphoria soon dissipates as ecstasy becomes anxiety.  Worry sets in as I think about the cost of car maintenance, insurance, and gas or all of the details of planning a wedding day.  Yet Silence for me morphs into an uncontrolled sense of joy emanating from within. Bubbling up like a natural spring out of the ground swell of my being, I smile for no apparent reason.  I suspect many people want to know how silence nurtures the soul and what needs a soul has.  Yet I notice that most people support their bodies and minds and either resist or aren’t aware of, or don’t consider feeding their souls.

Everyone seems to be on the health and fitness bandwagon.  Well, maybe not everyone since obesity rates for all ages are still on the rise.  And there are so many ways to take care of my body.  I frequently hear about walk/runs, neighborhood fitness centers, local gyms, special programs for women, people rushing to yoga and tai chi classes.  And when there’s even an entire clothing industry of body wear to accompany our increased focus on fitness, I know there’s a movement underfoot.  My husband, Walter even requested tai chi pants for Christmas a few years ago.

Then there are sports drinks.  I walked into Whole Foods the other day and stood paralyzed in front an entire aisle devoted to sports and energy drinks.  There were innumerable possibilities to choose from in nearly every flavor—actually some flavors I‘ve never heard of.  And water has been elevated to a new level.  I can have it in any flavor, with or without vitamins, alkaline, or from some rare spring.  Or people sit pitchers of filtered water in the refrigerator or use a special filter connected to the kitchen faucet. Growing up in California we always had an Arrowhead water cooler in the house and my mother even cooked with its water.  She too, a native of Hot Springs, AR grew up drinking spring water.

I also grew up with supplements as Mom became a Shaklee dealer just so she could keep us supplied with vitamins.  The growth in this industry is so vast that there are entire stores just devoted to supplements.  I see or read about vitamins and herbs that either weren’t discovered or certainly weren’t previously marketed to regular folks but are now common parlance (e.g., acidophilus,  folic acid, and COq10).  So it appears that everyone I know from newborns to those who are terminally ill take supplements.

Then there is nutritious food.  I loved vegetables as a child and that desire for them continues. However, as a child, I don’t remember seeing kale, swiss chard, butternut squash, or arugula gracing our dinner table on a regular basis. Walter, now a master gardener and site leader for a large local community garden brings home more leafy greens than we can properly digest.  I am grateful for all of the organic vegetables including rattle snake beans (a little sweeter than a Kentucky Wonder), three different kinds of lettuces, beets, Yukon gold and sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cauliflower, bell peppers, and brussels sprouts.

Clearly, I know how to take care of my body.  It’s unclear though if I take care of my mind with similar enthusiasm.  I often wonder why I fill it with news of disasters and gossip about celebrities that pervade the television and radio.  I listen to audiobooks just to escape the overstimulation of my brain brought on by a television screen that contains too much action.  Sometimes there are four talking heads, action on another split screen and a crawl at the bottom. Admittedly, I have friends who devour books especially during the summer months when the living seems less frenetic.  On occasion we entertain dinner guests and find a good old discussion makes my intellect very happy.  Attending theater and dance productions, poetry readings, art openings, fabulous films also provide ways to stimulate my mind but I notice that they also nourish my soul.  An excellent musical gives me a thrill for many days and makes my heart sing.  With some plays and movies, the acting is so good that my soul tingles.

Ah…finally back to the soul.  I wondered what most people did to take care of their souls.  I posed the question to a group of friends last week. “So what have you done for your soul lately?” and besides the blank looks I received, they remarked, “Do you mean when is the last time I attended church?”  No, not exactly although many people feel fed by some form of communal worship.  Maybe a walk through a beautiful garden or arboretum, a hike on a mountain trail, a bike ride or taking in a beautiful sunrise or sunset, or a simple pause from all of the doing so the soul can just be is what came to mind.  Seeing or creating beautiful art also moves me in a way that feels like my soul is being watered.

So what does the garden of the soul need to grow? It needs water (sorrow) to rinse away the soot of life and it requires sun (encouragement and affirmation).  Weeding (set-backs and letting go of unnecessary people or things) is essential as well.  But fertilizer is that extra component that helps growing things like flowers, trees, and vegetables develop even stronger root structures and bear larger flowers or vegetables.  Thus, like the flowers and vegetables in my garden, I know my soul needs more. Just like my plants need some nitrogen or magnesium, the soul needs a boost, some extra nutrients to enrich it.

I believe the best food for the soul is stillness and silence.  Often I engage the stillness which is all around when I observe the flowers along the walk, stop to listen to the birds chirp, lie on patio chaise or hammock and watch the clouds slowly move across the sky, take in a gorgeous multi-color sunset or stand before vistas of mountains.  What also helps is to turn off the iPod, shut down the tweets, get off of Facebook, turn off the phone, radio, television and take a few moments to pause.  When I shut it all down, that’s when I hear my soul whisper, “Thank you.  I need this time to exhale.”

In order for our souls to flourish, like our bodies and minds, we don’t necessarily have to be “doing” anything in church or any place else.  Actually I think our souls desire regular attention in the form of a contemplation that may not necessitate more than pausing from time-to-time to acknowledge its existence.

Early mornings even before I check my smart phone or go outside where the stillness awaits me to admire the roses, zinnias, cosmos, rattle snake beans, or basil, I try to feed my soul with 10-20 minutes of Silence.  Afterwards I begin the day and all that awaits me grounded and well-nourished. I also try to stop throughout the day to pause and give my soul some quick nourishment with a minute of silence. In fact there are times when I try to build up a reserve so on ridiculously busy days, I have some peace and joy to lean into.   And I know that the Peace and Joy that often bubbles up after Silence is the way my soul chooses to say, “Thank you.  I love the quiet.  I yearn to be fed too.  I am ready to expand you—to enhance your inner sanctum.”

Do you think a few moments of silence, of soaking in the stillness around you will feed your soul today?  Would some Silence help you to unearth the Peace in your heart?