Meditations of the Heart and When the Heart Speaks, Listen

One of my favorite Howard Thurman books is Meditations of the Heart.  It was the first of his more than 20 books that I purchased which I gave to my husband as a present.  But then I started reading it and knew that I wanted to know more about this profound man and his life.  The meditations spoke to the core of my being as Howard Thurman asks his readers to ponder more deeply what is at the heart of our daily living.  Are we willing to open our hearts and listen more deeply to the call of the Eternal?

As a spiritual director/companion and retreat leader I am often asked what drew me to the spiritual path after leading a life as a driven, tough, no nonsense professor and college administrator.  I’d been interested in spirituality since I was first introduced to meditation in college.  Like Howard Thurman,  I realized that I was enamored with silence, stillness and solitude and understood that my spirituality was flavored with a contemplative bent.

Despite my spiritual inclinations, my life was dominated by a strong, competitive, type A ego.  In the midst of my drive to achieve fame in the field of psychology, at age 40 I was catapulted into a physical and spiritual crisis.  The diagnosis that a lifelong heart condition had become a life-threatening cardiomyopathy and required a heart transplant triggered the terror which lies in every ego and sparked my spirit simultaneously.  What aided my survival was a re-focus toward inner listening.  This shift manifested as a series of conversations with my old and new hearts as I traversed the unknown and frightening world of a heart transplant recipient.

It all began when I sought therapy because the symptoms of heart failure—shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen ankles, weight loss began to permeate my life.  I could no longer deny that my body was deteriorating.  My therapist who specialized in clients with chronic health conditions and whose approach tended to be eclectic suggested that I utilize a Jungian technique labeled “active imagination” and talk with my heart.

What I imagined would be a solo conversation evolved into twenty-two months of conversations with my hearts—the old one that I lost and the new one that I gained with a transplant.  Their guidance was unparalleled as I rode a real life roller coaster. Despite the fact that I wrote these dialogues to maintain my own sanity, I shared them with a few friends who urged me to distribute them more widely by writing a book.  Perhaps others could benefit from my suffering as well as my triumphs.

The conversations in When the Heart Speaks, Listen-Discovering Inner Wisdom showed me how to uncover the peace and joy in my heart similar to the deep peace and joy I feel when reading Howard Thurman’s Meditations of the Heart.  With both books, there is an invitation to engage in deep inner listening each pointing to a heart that is always available for solace, guidance, consolation and wisdom.  As Thurman writes, “In the stillness of the quiet, if we listen, we can hear the whisper of the heart giving strength to weakness, courage to fear, hope to despair.”  I hope both of these books will inspire you to listen and talk with your heart so you too can uncover more of the peace and joy that lies within.

When the Heart Speaks, Listen—Discovering Inner Wisdom and Meditations of the Heart are available online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Books A Million and can also be ordered through your favorite independent book seller. 

Follow the Joy: An Autumn Musing

I recently finished a lovely book, How the Light Gets in—Writing as Spiritual Practice, by Pat Schneider.  As you can see from the picture pasted below, I underlined and tagged many pages.  How the Light Gets In earned a place on my favorite books shelf.  I love books that are part memoir and part instructional manual.  Schneider takes readers on a journey of her life and highlights the links between writing, spirituality, and healing.  In the final chapter, she makes several poignant statements about vocation or calling.  Schneider suggests that each person, no matter what the social category; age, gender, race, or social status possesses a calling.  

Similarly, I would argue even more passionately that each of us is constantly being called.  But most people appear confused about what a vocation or calling is.  My former students believed that vocation or calling are terms only applicable to the ministry.  As I tried to disavow them of this misnomer, I wondered what would happen if educational institutions took the discernment of a vocational or calling as serious as seminaries do.  As an academic adviser, I hoped a structured discernment process existed for students interested in all occupations.  Moreover, the issue of calling arises many times over the course of a lifetime.  Currently, questions about calling dominate my conversations with adults of varying ages, even some I perceive as elders in spiritual direction/companioning.   Pat Schneider maintains one method of discovering a calling is to pay attention to what brings you joy. 

This idea is very similar to Howard Thurman’s famous quote:  “Don’t ask what the world needs.  Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it.  Because what the world needs is people who can come alive” or Joseph Campbell’s admonition “Follow your bliss.”  What would the world be like if every person could listen for and become engaged in work or activities that brought them joy.  Yet the quotes by Thurman and Campbell allude to a different term; passion.  Are they the same or interchangeable experiences?  Synonyms of passion include fervor, enthusiasm, zeal or an intense desire while descriptions of joy include delight, pleasure, happiness, and jubilation.  Is there something special about the feeling of joy that is different from passion?   

I see this contrast playing out in my life.  I held a passion for teaching but now I know deeper joy.  It almost feels oxymoronic for me to declare the delight I feel when I arise to work.  Eagerly I sit down to my desk to write or to greet those who walk through my front door for spiritual direction/companioning.  I look forward to the retreats I lead and talking with spiritual seekers.  What characterizes my present work that seemed absent in my past labors?

Since retiring, I have carved out a set of activities instead of adapting to the tasks associated with my job.  For example, I noted earlier one of my favorite aspects of my profession was advising students.  I could have advised students all day, every day.  I felt especially jubilant when I witnessed a student discover a calling.  What helped me to determine if a students had unearthed a hidden occupational delight?  Often I posed a series of questions and observed their behavior.  I would inquire,  “What would you do if you lacked any constraints, if you had all the time and money in the world?”  “What kind of work would you do for free?” “Which activities bring you joy?”

I noticed as students, seated across from me on a couch or chair, talked about a variety of possible careers, there was a moment in the conversation when they lit up like a Christmas tree.  The light in their eyes and the joy in their voices provided the mighty clues that we had stumbled upon a calling.   

A few students would note their own inner excitement, and pursue that path.  Unfortunately, I also encountered students who could or would not follow their dreams.  Many chose careers that their parents wanted for them or fields of study that might generate the most income.  I would remind them that whatever vocation they chose, it would need to get them out of bed for the next 30 or more years.  I counseled further that some occupational choices would be more difficult to undo than others.  Becoming a doctor for example, involves a deep investment of time, energy, and money.  Further, once students start families and begin to purchase cars and homes, changing careers becomes far more challenging, if not impossible.  What is most remarkable is that my advice was quite similar to Patricia Schneider’s or Howard Thurman’s even though I neither knew of or had read anything by either author at that time.

The experience of joy is important for daily life balance as well.  The frenetic world we live in, burdened with overactivity, overstimulation, and relentless distractions requires counterbalancing.  Joy helps to uncover the counterbalancing activities.  What is most joyful—watching a movie, sitting outside in nature, listening to music, dancing in the living room, or reading a book?  Regardless of the activity selected, it is essential to surround ourselves with our delights.  Otherwise if we become stuck on the treadmill of life, the endless tasks will wear us down.  We must get off for some rest and fun.

Where is joy beckoning you?   Following it whether it leads you to the kitchen to bake cookies or brownies, to the swings in a park, to a sporting event is what gives you vitality.  Perhaps taking a moment to observe the changing colors of autumn leaves or watch hummingbirds and butterflies, will provide the joy that is the perfect antidote to what might ail you.  Following your joy will definitely lead you to feel more of the peace and joy in your heart.

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Arriving at Some Moments of Self Surrender

Winter Stillness

Sometimes, winter, a season filled with mostly grey skies and bare trees evokes a sense of gloom.  This time of shadowy days matched my mood as the new year began.  I spent New Year’s Eve in a hospital room.  I felt deflated as I watched television—the ball drop, people kissing and champagne flowing from bottles.  Unfortunately, my formal wear for the evening was a hospital gown accessorized with an IV.  No matter where I looked, I couldn’t generate the exuberance that is often associated with New Year’s.

I complained bitterly about the uncomfortable bed and the constant interruptions often during the middle of the night—to take blood or check my vitals.  Frequently, like an apparition, a strange voice barked through the intercom awakening me during my futile attempts to sleep.  Apparently crossed up telemetry wires led the voice to inquire loudly,  “Is anyone there?” rather than directing a nurse or nursing assistant to check on me.   I wondered how I would ever recover from the awful cold virus that held my body hostage if I was getting only 2-3 hours of sleep each night.  As I continued to ruminate about my state of discontent and medically unnecessary hospital stay, my young African American evening nurse offered another perspective with her response, “But we would have never met and we wouldn’t have all the conversations that I needed so badly.”

Surprised and shocked, my mind quieted.  Deep below the chatter of my petulant complaints a small voice added, “Maybe this trip to the hospital isn’t just about you. It could be serving a larger purpose.”  I thought back to my older, Euro American daytime nurse and our discussions around her potential retirement.  When I mentioned that I had stopped working nearly five years ago, she brightened when I suggested the book, The Third Chapter: Passion, Risk and Adventure in the 25 Years After 50 by Sarah Lawrence-Lightfoot.  “I am going online and download it tonight,” she noted.  “I am really struggling with this decision and I think reading that book will help me out.”  Here was another exchange that would not have occurred if I had not been admitted to the hospital.

My next opportunity to express my dissatisfaction came when wrapped in several sheets and a blanket I sat shivering in a wheel chair outside one of the echocardiogram rooms.  Inwardly I wailed about how my miserable cold landed me in the hospital for two and a half days for an echocardiogram!  My inner agitation added to the chill in the air.  I asked myself, as the standard issued hospital gown with hospital socks and the blanket began quickly losing their heat, “Why aren’t they taking me, what is the delay?”  Then it occurred to me that the staff might be working with a patient much sicker than me.  After all, I could walk around and although I suffered with a very bad cold, I wasn’t short of breath or retaining fluids.  Besides, I was going home in a few hours so what was the rush?  Once again, I remembered that the current situation wasn’t just about me.

As I moved back into my own bed at home with many more days to recover, in the silence that surrounded me I began to reflect on how often I, like many others, focus mostly on myself; on my schedule, my life, and my family.  I frequently observe drivers swerving in and out of lanes, causing others to brake suddenly so they can arrive at church “on time.”  I am guilty as well of rushing to arrive at a doctor’s appointment only to sit in a waiting room for 10-20 minutes.   Like my compatriots, I stand impatiently in the grocery store checkout line, or at the post office, thinking about the time I am wastingAnd to what purpose I ask inwardly would I devote this precious lost time if I could regain it?  Would it be used to sit with a sick friend or spend more time on Instagram or Facebook, to bake dinner for the widow next door or binge watch the latest popular television show?  Had I ever thought to surrender in any given moment my nicely covered egocentrism in favor of a plan that worked best for everyone, for people that I may not even know?

I pondered about how I arrived at this place on my journey where my desires reign supreme and occupy my mind throughout the day.  Reflecting on my past, I remember being more thoughtful as a child, helping mostly my Mom by starting or cooking dinner for my family, a unit that operated best when everyone worked together.  My family served as a microcosm for the many more communities I would belong to; my classroom where I helped other students with assignments, my school by selling candy to fund field trips, my neighborhood where we took care of each other through crises like job losses, divorces, and deaths, my country by voting and volunteering and my world by praying and lightening my carbon footprint with recycling and using less water.  Had I lost this caring spirit that encourages me to move beyond “me” to “we” or does it remain within patiently waiting for an opportunity to emerge?

When I pause and think about how I might move beyond my self-centered motives, or combine what I need with the needs of others, I feel more peace and joy.  I also feel a sense of wholeness.  Yet I know such thinking and actions require me to surrender my little self to a much larger one.

As the year continues, I hope to inspire others to reflect on the primacy of self sometimes to the detriment of the common good and how different it feels to live from a more expansive life view.  I know there is something special about living from an inner sanctuary that allows me to experience how interconnected we are and helps me to feel more Peace and Joy in my heart.  What about you, what might you need to surrender to feel more of the Peace and Joy that resides in your heart?

Photo courtesy of Columbus H. Brown, Candid Imagery Fine Arts

Looking Beyond to the Collateral Beauty

“Don’t cry because it is over.  Smile because it happened.”

Dr. Seuss

Although the Academy Awards have come and gone, conversations about the Oscars spur me to view as many of the nominated films as I can.  However, one of my favorite films last year, Collateral Beauty was not considered for any awards.  I didn’t understand the horrible reviews and small audiences for a film with such a profound and deep message.  I concluded after a year in which most media outlets devoted their time to trash, to the very base instincts of society, that people are addicted to fear, insults, fake news, and social media overload.  Thus, I suspected that Collateral Beauty, a movie that contains no sex or an overabundance of violence (i.e., no kill count), seemed boring to many.  Yet when I looked beyond the unrealistic storyline, I found some engaging dialogue and an overall message of love designed to speak to our souls and uplift our spirits.

What is collateral beauty you might ask?  I had no idea how the concept was being framed for the movie, in fact I hadn’t thought about what it might mean until the end.  I had heard of collateral damage, defined as the ”general term for deaths, injuries, or other damage inflicted on an unintended target.”  In military terminology, it is frequently used to account for “the incidental killing or wounding of non-combatants…The unintentional destruction of friendly targets is called friendly fire.”

I’ve always felt, though, that collateral damage is a euphemism designed to distant or distract people from digesting the real death toll and destruction wreaked on the lives of “unintended targets” who find themselves in unwanted wars and physical conflicts.  I wonder if people who engage in domestic violence in front of children, or gang members whose bullets miss the intended victim and instead kill or maim a child or elderly person, consider the long-term consequences of the damage they inflict. The deception of describing the loss of innocent life as incidental, just a person at the wrong place and at the wrong time, keeps us all from feeling the brunt of such news.

Given that definition, then, could collateral beauty denote?  It is that stubborn new growth that occurs after a fire has destroyed a forest or a community of homes.  Sometimes the new growth manifests as the loving actions of those who are moved by a tragedy to offer their help by making meals, bringing clothes, warm blankets, and water to fellow human beings who find themselves in a tragic situation.  I find collateral beauty everywhere.

When I think of examples of collateral beauty in my life, my transplants and recovery from various illnesses immediately come to mind.  My donor family lost a beloved daughter and sister and in the midst of their grief, they chose to donate a heart, liver, two kidneys, and some cornea that immediately brought new life to five people.  One family’s heartbreaking loss became a joy and relief for another.  And as I suffered through my recovery, friends, colleagues and new acquaintances emerged from their busy lives to offer prayer, food, company, and rides to and from the transplant clinic.  Incredibly, six women from my former support group in Detroit each chose to take vacation time and travel by plane, train and bus to spend a week caring for me after my mother exhausted her unpaid family leave.

Collateral beauty frequently appears during the terminal illness of a loved one.  Elizabeth Lesser writes about her experiences of donating bone marrow to her sister in the memoir, Marrow: A Love Story.  Lesser describes the poignant healing that came as a result of conversations with her sister which resulted in their reconciliation after a lifetime of conflict.  Sometimes collateral beauty appears in just those moments of presence, the baring of souls when people realize that their time together is limited and waning.  In essence, collateral beauty is the love that emerges in the midst of devastation, whether it is in the loss of a loved one, destroyed homes, or a tragedy that affects an entire community.

In addition to introducing moviegoers to the notion of collateral beauty, the movie also elicited questions about how do we spend time, what love looks like in our lives, and what does life mean when one realizes their death is inevitable and possibly imminent?  Recently I spent a week being present with my older brother who was visiting.  We are both older and less physically vibrant than we were a few years ago.  He suffers some effects of a stroke he experienced six years ago and I deal with chronic medical issues as a transplant recipient.  We shared stories.  I cooked for him and we reminisced about the events that bonded us for life.  I knew that clearing the calendar and sharing this precious time with him was what love looks like and the best use of our time in the midst of our mutual physical suffering.

It takes time to see collateral beauty and frequently I don’t possess the patience to pause long enough.  It requires looking beyond what I see with my eyes or hear with my ears.  It allows a glimpse into the often unseen love that permeates all.  Wherever there is seeming devastation, there is also collateral beauty—the healing, the joy of what has been, the celebration of a certain heavenliness on earth.  If I stop for a moment to savor all of the beauty and goodness of life rather than focusing on what is missing or how I might want it to be, I gain a certain sacred perspective.  It reminds me that beauty can be seen in anything as long as I allow my heart to see it, to feel the sadness and the joy, to perceive the whole rather than the fragments.

I believe Howard Thurman would characterize collateral beauty like this:

The seed of the jack pine will not be given up by the cone unless the cone itself is subjected to sustained and concentrated heat…It is not too far afield to suggest that there are things deep within the human spirit that are firmly embedded, dormant, latent, and inactive.  These things are always positive, even thought they may be destructive rather than creative.  But there they remain until our lives are swept by the forest fire: It may be some mindless tragedy, some violent disclosure of human depravity or some moment of agony in which the whole country or nation be involved.  The experience releases something that has been locked up within all through the years.  If it be something that calls to the deepest things in life, we, like the jack pine, grow tall and straight against the sky!

Meditations of the Heart, p. 82-83

Where are the moments of collateral beauty in your life?  Would pondering such times or being present to others bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

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Howard Thurman and the 2017 Presidential Inauguration

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Lately I’ve been pondering what my historical mentor and spiritual guide, Howard Thurman might say as we inaugurate the 45th President of the United States.  I suspect he would not be on Twitter or any other social media platform.  I don’t think, like me, he would be blogging about it either.  But I believe he would have an opinion and perhaps some recommendations about how to live in the current social and political atmosphere.

Dr. Howard Washington Thurman experienced great social transitions in his lifetime.  Born in 1899 in Daytona Beach, Florida, Thurman lived through the severity of Jim Crow legal segregation, state sponsored domestic terrorism, and a host of racial insults and indignities.  He spoke of the time when he had been invited to give a talk at a major meeting only to learn that hotel would not serve him lunch in its main dining room.  Thurman was so enraged that he decided to forego eating and walk through the city instead.  I sense that during the walk he heard some of what he would later talk and write about in his classic book, Jesus and the Disinherited.  This same book inspired Dr. Martin Luther KingJr., to begin his civil rights work and he carried Jesus and the Disinherited whenever he marched.

In preparing to live through the Inaugural weekend and the days to follow, Howard Thurman would likely advise us to; 1) use our outrage constructively, to better someone else’s lot rather than become bitter.  2) He would discourage the use of violence and instead admonish us to use our energy to educate and enlighten, and to wake up those who sleep in the fog of racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia, classism, and materialism.  3) Thurman never thought that changes in laws and social policies meant much if they did not change people’s hearts.  He would want sustained, regular exchanges between people who are different because he felt this would create the Beloved Community that he and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., dreamed of.

Howard Thurman knew from spending time with his grandmother, Nancy Ambrose, a former slave, that what sustains people through challenging, difficult and sometimes horrendous conditions is their internalized knowledge that they are holy children of God.  He believed this spiritual self is what Jesus was trying to awaken in his own oppressed Jewish people in the hostile Roman society they lived in.  Clearly right now in 2017, there are so many who need such an awakening, a shift in personal identity that includes an exploration of a deeper spiritual nature, especially among those who perceive themselves to be powerful as well as those who think of themselves as powerless.

If I were fortunate enough to have lunch today with Howard Thurman, I think he would suggest a few antidotes to the media circus, confusion, and chaos of actual news, fake news, and tweets in lieu of actual conversation.  I imagine Thurman would smile and instruct me to be still.  Take some pause pockets so I can create a deep, peaceful sanctuary within my mind and heart.  Create my own inner retreat, a sacred space that I can return to again and again and again to dim the lights and lower the volume on the cacophony of the outer world.

Next, Thurman would sit back and quietly suggest that I go outside and commune with nature.  Certainly walking along a beach, taking in its quiet calm, and watching the birds glide across the azure sky with billowing clouds, or observing how gently snowflakes float to the ground would engender some peace.   Feeling the cool breeze and watching the trees sway in the wind, noting their strength even in the midst of storms is how Thurman sensed a Oneness with everything.  This connection with the All helped him most when the “tempests of life” as he called them blustered through.

Finally, after finishing a luscious dessert, I suspect Howard Thurman would lean in and remind me to increase my practice of inner authority.  Inner authority is just another manifestation of living from a sense of authentic Self; the one God created and a Self deeply embedded in the Presence.  Mastery of this principle is vital for people who suffer any form of discrimination, particularly individuals from visible stigmatized groups, because although a body may be assaulted or a mind temporarily disturbed, “The inner sanctuary cannot be breached without consent.”  It is only by our own inner authority that we allow it to be disturbed.   By being rooted in and living from the Spirit of God, whether that Presence is within us or in nature, one can develop the “authority” to move against oppressive forces in one’s life.*  Thurman portrays it best in this short excerpt from his book, Meditations of the Heart.

The Inward Sea

There is in every person an inward sea, and in that

sea there is an island and on that island there is an

altar and standing guard before that altar is the “angel

with the flaming sword.”  Nothing can get by that

angel to be placed upon that altar unless it has the

mark of your inner authority.  Nothing passes “the

angel with the flaming sword” to be placed upon your

altar unless it be a part of “the fluid area of your consent.”

This is your crucial link with the Eternal. (p. 15)

In summary, Howard Thurman would believe that contemporary times are ostensibly no different from the times he lived in—just the players on the stage have shifted.  Even if laws or policies are altered, a real change won’t occur until hearts soften and we learn to embrace each other—enemies and friends—with love and compassion.  He would certainly admonish me to pay attention to my thinking, because that determines what I see in the world, and to cultivate a greater rootedness in God rather than putting my faith and power in elected officials.

Howard Thurman would also remind me

 to be still and listen each day for what my role is

in the change I wish to see in the world.

I am certain he would know that quiet, inner listening

brings more peace and joy to the heart.

 

If  you would like to spend some solitary and contemplative time, listening and learning about Howard Thurman, visit the Howard Thurman Retreat Day (available online until March 31, 2017), sponsored by the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation.  For more information and to register, visit the Shalem website, shalem.org.

*Lerita Coleman Brown, An Ordinary Mystic: Contemplation, Inner Authority, and Spiritual Direction in the Life and Work of Howard Thurman.  Presence: An International Journal of Spiritual Direction, 18, 14-22, 2012.

A Lifetime of Gratitude

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I don’t like the custom of sitting around the holiday table and sharing that for which I am thankful.  I always feel self conscious and believe I need to express something spectacular or worth mentioning.  Having heat in our home when so many go without shelter or the fact that we can afford to pay the utilities top my list of blessings.  The mere fact that I am alive and able to prepare some portion of the meal always seems like an obvious choice for sharing.  Yet when it comes to gratitude, I can think of a thousand things a day that inspire my awe and thankfulness.  Right now I see remnants of fall, tall oak trees retaining their leaves until new ones buds, shrubs that vary in color from a rosy salmon to deep plum.

I remember many years ago when I was nearing age 40, I decided to throw a party for myself.  It had become clear that I needed to learn to celebrate myself instead of bemoaning the fact that no one was surprising me with a celebration.  I diligently made a list of about 90 people, some friends, others colleagues to invite.  I showed it to my friend, Terry, who smiled and gently said, “Lerita, you cannot fit 90 people in your town home.  Why don’t you invite the 40 people who helped you to make it to age 40?”  I thought it was a brilliant idea.  Thus, a simple and elegant party with friends from my varied life of work, church, sewing, and book club became one of my most treasured memories.

Now that I am past the season that emphasizes shopping and baking I find myself yearning for more simple moments of gratitude.  Pausing for some reflection on this and the 22nd Anniversary of my heart transplant, I decided to make a list of the top five people or occasions that fill my heart with joyful appreciation.  These are moments of light or enlightened people who brightened me in the darkness and who made me the person I am today.  Here is what is on my all time gratitude list.

1) My parents, but not for the typical reason people give. Certainly, I wouldn’t be here without them but I thank my parents most for being so hard-working, devoted to their children, and self sacrificing so my siblings and I could attend Catholic or Christian school.  Catholic school is where I learned to be disciplined and to orient my day around the Great Spirit.  At an early age and in this setting, I became aware of an unseen but very present Spirit available for comfort and guidance.  Thank you Mom and Dad, for all of the financial, physical, and emotional sacrifices.  I wish you were still physically present so I could express my thanks with many hugs and kisses.

2) A heart transplant 22 years ago.  I cannot think of anything that is more transformative than to face death.  I realized that I had to shift from being a driven workaholic to thinking about something and someone other than myself and my career.  Despite the terror and outright physical suffering involved, my transplant triggered a spiritual awakening in me that is beyond measure.  The trauma demanded that I cultivate trust, create an awareness of the love and care from others and generate in me a totally different way of viewing life.  I now understand that life is about forgiveness, healing, love, connection, peace and joy.

3) Fall. The simple, elegant, and natural beauty of fall leaves me in awe each year.  It is by far my favorite season (with the exceptional beauty of spring following in second place).  Each October-December, I look outside of my bedroom or office window into a yard of varying colors of greens, yellows, browns, and fiery red leaves.  The Japanese maple trees were particularly spectacular this fall.  So many of them look like they were on fire.  I cannot believe that people rush past them or can drive down a tree-lined street without being moved by the colors.  Quite frankly, I pause, frequently because I find it disheartening to see something so beautiful without acknowledging its existence.  I suspect the same could be said for falling snowflakes and new snow.  But there is some special about yellow, orange, and tan leaves across a backdrop of green leaves and forest green pines.

4) My spiritual teachers.  I still remember when, Jan Willis (author of Dreaming Me: Black,  Baptist and Buddhist—One Woman’s Spiritual Journey) taught my college roommate and me, how to meditate.  We didn’t have any idea what we were doing as we sat cross-legged on the floor, with our beads, chanting a Sanskrit mantra for Dorje Sempa, the deity to end all suffering.  The practice of finding a way to quiet my mind, whether through chanting, focusing on my breathing or being still, opened me to an entirely new world of readings by wisdom figures from all over the world.  Since that time I’ve been moved and blessed by the teachings of Howard Thurman, Thomas Kelly, Rumi, Hafiz, Richard Rohr, Nan Merrill, Joyce Rupp and a host of others.  Now when I take my daily quiet time, I read a prayer or inspirational reading in English with the same intention; to heal, to be a healer and to end all suffering in the world.

5) An awareness that there is something more in the world than what I see with my physical eyes.  I know there is an energy force of Love that permeates everything and that Stillness holds it all together with a deep peace.  I feel happy that I can dialogue with Something more vast than my mind can imagine.  If I had to choose just one thing to be thankful for, it would be a growing awareness of the Presence and that I can turn inward at any time to access whatever guidance I need.

This deep sense of gratitude is what is motivates me in this new year and on this special day in which I honor my heart donor, Jody Goetz and her family as well as hold my kidney donor, Jennifer Lund in that gift of a heart.  During the holiday season I tended to rail against all of the commercialism, emphasis on gift giving, and seemingly temporary concern with those less fortunate.  Now I don’t have to focus on what I don’t like when I can concentrate on what easily pleases me.

I will always be grateful for my parents, heart and kidney transplants, fall, spiritual teachers, an expanding spiritual awareness, and the people who have helped me to remain alive and thrive.  I find the love sparks great peace and joy in my heart.

So what’s on your top five list of people, places or events that create a deep sense of gratefulness in you?  Can you nurture this spirit in yourself today and maintain during 2017?  Will creating an all time gratefulness list and sharing the spirit of gratitude bring you closer to the peace and joy in your heart?

Cultivating Patience II: The Gift of Waiting

As someone with a chronic illness
I needed to cultivate patience
From the beginning of the perpetual diagnosis
To the endless minutes, hours, days, months, and years of
Waiting

Patience is waiting…

Waiting to go on the UNOS list
Waiting for the beeper to alert me to
A future of waiting

Waiting in waiting areas and hallways
Waiting on exam tables
Waiting for teams of doctors, nurses, residents, social workers
Their voices hushed
“It is day 7 for patient, Coleman, Lerita”

Waiting in freezing cath labs
Waiting for warm blankets
Waiting to be called for the next peering into my body
Sounds waves of my heart, x-rays of my lungs
Enlarged heart masking the exhausted gasping into breathlessness

Anxious waiting by the phone only to hear
“You’re in rejection.  We will increase your medications
Please report to the clinic next Wednesday at 7:30 am to repeat your biopsy…”

Waiting to be home again, really home
With no threat of a return to
Beeping monitors, early morning blood draws
3 am awakenings to a cold x-ray plate poked behind my back
Relentless repeats of Law & Order playing on the TV perched in front of my hospital bed
Sweet young people shaking me from stolen rest to check my vitals

Waiting to sleep in my own bed
To sit across from my husband at my table, in my kitchen with colorful wall paper
To eat my own food on my pretty plates at any time I want
Not 8 am, 12 pm, and 5 pm with eggless eggs, cold toast, too much jello, turkey and gravy
A dose of evening meds with stale crackers doused down with ice chipped water

Yes patience, not seemingly a gift at first
But earned on the path to a recovered verve and a gradual spiritual awakening
Which comes only through waiting and waiting and waiting…

Where are you on the journey to patience, to learning the balance between taking charge at every step and surrendering, receiving the gifts that only waiting can provide?  Like a train stop on the road to a new inner destination, how is patience being nurtured in you?  How is patience working to unearth more of the Peace and Joy in your heart?

Cultivating Patience I

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I haven’t posted to my blog in a few months.  I miss writing about maintaining peace and joy.  I was forced to shift my attention elsewhere when I began a protocol to wean off of prednisone.

For organ transplant recipients, prednisone is a steroid used to suppress the immune system and prevent organ rejection.  When I first began taking prednisone some 21 years ago, I took a fairly high daily dose although for the last 10 years it has been reduced to 5 mg/day.

Over the years I’ve received the “prednisone blast” for various bouts of rejection.  In most transplant centers, a serious rejection episode elicits 1000 mg of prednisone I-V (known as solumedrol) for 3 days in a row.  Because my early rejection issues weren’t treated aggressively enough, in 2000 from January to June I received 13,000 mg of solumedrol.  My body, inundated with steroids felt like an overblown, bloated balloon.  Over a period of about four weeks, each day I could feel a tiny trickle of steroids slowly ebb from my head to my shoulders, passing through my back and abdomen, down my legs and finally seep out of my toes.  Unfortunately I’m allergic to contrast dye so each year for my annual heart catheterization, I receive a very high dose of prednisone as a way of quelling any reaction.  Such blasts led to debilitating fatigue because the adrenal glands are most susceptible to the prednisone beatdown.

I’d wanted to stop taking prednisone for a long time but was always fearful that discontinuing it would trigger another rejection episode and as a consequence I would have to take more.  Long term use of prednisone frequently causes weight gain, fluid retention, increased blood sugars raising the probability of developing diabetes, early cataracts and glaucoma, osteoporosis, mood changes and adrenal gland suppression.  I had experienced all of these and knew I did not want to become a diabetic, break any more bones, or undergo cataract surgery.  This year felt like the right time to intentionally change the course of my health by requesting that I eliminate prednisone from my medical regimen.

Since that time, my listless adrenal glands so used to the prednisone working for them, have failed to secrete ample cortisol.  They have been unable to resume their role as producers of the natural steroids that give me the zip I need to get through the day.  Feeling extremely exhausted I’ve lacked the energy to write, sew, cook or do much more than read or rest.  Fortunately I haven’t suffered much stress lately because my adrenal glands are in no shape to mount a response to any kind of trauma.

In continuing my life-long recovery, I’ve learned many lessons, and the biggest is about patience. I’ve been reminded during this now more than two month ordeal that patience is about timing but typically not my timing.  Patience is about waiting and I, firmly immersed in our fast paced world, find the practice of patience exceedingly challenging.  Earlier in my life, when I pushed through college and graduate school, and even attempts to obtain tenure, I felt I had mastered delayed gratification.  As I’ve gotten older I still find I must muster up patience with myself, with others and the slow process of healing.

I thought I would have cultivated the art of patience by now especially since I’ve been presented with so many opportunities.  I think of the time I’ve spent waiting; waiting in doctor offices, post-op recovery rooms, and pharmacies.  I am grateful, however for the progress I’ve made from my initial days as a transplant recipient.  I used to sit in clinic, watching the clock, often growing resentful about what I could be doing with all that time I felt I was wasting waiting.  Sitting on the burgundy and navy blue leather chairs and couches, with lamps and indirect sunlight I pretended to read, but what I really wanted was for someone to call my name so I could finish the x-ray or speed up the echocardiogram and get on with my day.  Now I realize that waiting is just as important to life as the things on my preferred “to do list.”  When I reflect on my state of impatience, I feel the poignancy of my self-absorption, emotionally and cognitively.   I was thinking primarily about me, my time and my life.

But what about all the others who shared this waiting space with me in clinic?  What about the newly transplanted, anxiously awaiting news about possible rejection or those in heart failure wishing and hoping to just qualify for the organ waiting list that they might have to occupy for years?   It occurred to me one day that perhaps I could use the waiting time to encourage and uplift recent transplant recipients with my stories of triumph, I could demonstrate to those waiting for heart transplants that there is the possibility of a good life once they receive a new heart.  Often I elicit surprise and shock by my healthy physical appearance, at the spark I radiate after being a heart transplant recipient for over 21 years and a kidney recipient for over 11 years.

Now I wait with much petitionary (“Please somebody give me some energy!”) and contemplative prayer (being still and listening for guidance), and I’ve started to receive answers.  First I learned that cardiologists are not endocrinologists and although my transplant team believed they were weaning me off prednisone at a reasonable schedule  (2 months), I learned from an endocrinologist that people who have taken steroids as long as I have cannot be weaned so abruptly.  It actually takes more like 4-6 months.  She assured me that my adrenal glands would wake up eventually but I need to give them more time, time for a gentle stirring, a gradual awakening.  Yes, more waiting, a seeming metaphor for my life and my spiritual journey.

I am struck by this notion of a gradual awakening of something that has been asleep for a long while.  I suppose just like my adrenal glands lulled to sleep by prednisone many years ago, I am also waking up to a new spirit or sense of who I am.  Of course I want the spiritual awakening to move much faster, perhaps in a flash or overnight.  My arrogant ego wants to orchestrate the awakening perhaps thereby blocking something more intelligent and grander which may be working simultaneously to diminish my suffering.

I am comforted by the notion that I am not the only one resisting the liminal space, the only person sitting in a perennial holding pattern, waiting to wake up in a new expanse of Peace and Joy.  Whether it be hospitals or monasteries, war zones or prayer circles, there are so many communities of people, waiting.

What is it that you are waiting for right now?  How is patience being cultivated in your life?  As you pay closer attention, what is life showing you through the waiting?  What are you being called to do or be in the waiting time?   Perhaps there is some way to inspire and encourage others who share your path of waiting.  There is a reason why patience is considered a virtue and often its cultivation may help to uncover more of the Peace and Joy in your heart.

Photo by Columbus H. Brown of Candid Imagery Fine Art.

Give Life

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April is Donor Awareness month and a time to promote the DONATE LIFE movement.  The term “Donor Awareness” serves to remind us of the thousands of people awaiting life-saving organ transplants.  I am eternally grateful to the Goetz family for donating the heart of their precious daughter and sister, Jody to me more than 21 years ago.  And I continue to thank my “kidney sister,” Jennifer Lund for rescuing me from renal failure in May, 2005, nearly 11 years ago.  I love the logo and label DONATE LIFE as a representation for the miracle that transplantation is.  During my transplant journey I learned a lot about the gift of life and how each of us can give life every day.

Although we frequently equate life with the body, the gift of life reflects something far beyond an organ donation.  With my transplants, I received more than new organs.  I gained a certain vitality, energy if you will from many sources.  After the heart transplant I noticed the over 250 cards and notes some sent from people I didn’t know or had never met.  My mother set them out anywhere she could find a spot; on bookshelves, window sills, on top of the television, nightstand, my desk, and on the kitchen counters.  Each one gave me a spark of energy, of life.  I felt loved knowing that people thought enough of me to take the time to purchase a card and write encouraging words.  Other folks brought food, visited and sat with me, arose before dawn to transport and accompany me on clinic visits.  In fact, each woman in a support group I belonged to many years ago in Detroit took a week of vacation time to care for me when my mother’s family leave ran out.  They traveled by bus, train, airplane, crossing over during  weekends like nurses changing shifts in the hospital.  They cooked meals, made beds, washed clothes, propped up pillows, entertained visitors, talked with nurses and handed me pills with water.  Each friend brought me the gift of life by sharing extraordinary love in their ordinary actions.

This scenario was repeated with slight variations after I spent a month in the hospital in 2003 in heart transplant rejection, after surgery for a kidney transplant in 2005, and heart valve replacement surgery in 2006.  People brought lunch and dinner for weeks.   I felt soothed by the nourishing, life-giving food that neither Warren nor I had to prepare.   Other friends and acquaintances offered respite time for Warren by taking him fishing or allowing him to go to the barbershop, run errands or tinker with his photography.  They sent books, quotes, emails, and pictures, while allowing me to rest when I needed to.   Again the loving energy conveyed in these acts of kindness enlivened me.

I realized that people do not have to be seriously ill for me to give life.  A certain zest is exchanged when I smile and acknowledge a stranger.  Or if I am intentionally kind to an anonymous, fatigued clerk in the store, I know I convey a vivacity that spreads like a virus spurring energy from person to person.  When I take a moment to listen deeply, to take a genuine interest in another person I know my action triggers a certain verve.  Now I enjoy accompanying family and friends to medical appointments and outpatient procedures.  Besides paying the kindness extended to me back, there’s a certain joyous contentment that pervades our time together.

Perhaps the larger theme embedded in the Donate Life campaign is that there we have so much life to give.  We come alive when we connect and share whatever we have with others whether it is an organ transplant, food, time or joy.  Warren, a site leader for a  community garden, likes to grow organic vegetables for our table and also for the local food pantry.  Each year the Stone Mountain Community garden donates about 1000 lbs. of fresh, organic vegetables for people with vouchers standing in line to feed their families.  I like to pray and send positive vibes to strangers.  I recently encountered Mary who like me was recovering in the heart catheterization lab during my annual heart transplant check-up.  Her husband told me she was going to need surgery for an aneurysm they had discovered in her heart.  I assured him I would pray for her.  Other times I create names like “Bob,” “Tim,” “Gloria,” or “Susan” for the homeless people with signs on the side of the road or pushing grocery carts with their belongings down the street and add them to my prayer list.  I believe when I pray I am sending each person some life energy.  Helping, giving time, love, and energy or praying for others promotes life.  On the contrary I notice that confrontations and conflicts that I might have in person or on the phone sap my energy.

Often as a culture, we tend to reserve the giving spirit for certain times of the year like Thanksgiving and Christmas.  But look at the countless ways we can “donate” or give life to others.  Possibly you’ve considered becoming an organ donor and have signed up on the Donate Life website.  Thank you.  Maybe you cannot donate or have not encountered a situation where an organ was needed.  Yet opportunities to give life abound and in giving life, you receive it back—you observe in yourself a certain vigor and vitality that may have been absent before.  It is in the giving spirit that you truly receive the gift of life.

C. S. Lewis said, “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of your self less.”  I would add that instead of trying to get more out of life, when I give more life it returns to me more than ten fold.  And to give life in all the ways it has been given to me leads me to the peace and joy in my heart.

#DonateLife     #peaceforhearts

Engraving Integrity on Your Heart

Last week marked three years since I ceased working at Agnes Scott College (ASC) in Decatur, Georgia.  Spending my final years as a college professor/administrator at this fine small liberal arts college for women was truly a blessing.  After 32+ years of college life, I finally left campus.  One of the most memorable things I remember about helping to educate these sharp, curious, and creative young women was the notion of honor and how integrity was interwoven into the mission and life of the college.

I was fortunate in that I sat on the committee who languished many months over what is now the college’s one sentence mission statement;  “Agnes Scott College educates women to think deeply, live honorably and engage in the intellectual and social challenges of their times.”  To live honorably is a remarkable aspiration for women, for anyone.  Imagine a college that creates not only female global leaders, but honorable ones.

I remember moving to Atlanta in 1999.  I had just married Warren who held a government position here.  I took a leave from my job at CU Boulder hoping that I might locate something intriguing to do.  I was worn out from the large research-intensive institutions I had inhabited for the first 20 years of my career.  Agnes Scott College was an unknown to me before relocating to the southeastern US.  Astonishingly, a job for Associate Dean of the College appeared in the Chronicle for Higher Education four months after I arrived.  I decided to investigate the College as I prepared my application.  I mentioned to Warren as I perused the ASC website that it was a college with an honor code.  Shocked I asked, “Are there still schools that actually promote honor as a value?”  I knew from my graduate years at Harvard that if a student was caught cheating, he or she was automatically required to take a year long leave.  But I didn’t know of a college that espoused honor as part of daily living.

The College’s self scheduled exam system serves as a primary example.  Over a ten day period students can select whichever class they want to take an exam in.  Maybe a student decides to take her French exam first and perhaps save the biochemistry final for the last day.  Or she could take all of her exams over a two day period.  The system is based on a strict code of honor; as a student you cannot discuss the contents of an exam.  Other aspects of the system include an honor court, activities and talks about honor and even some incentive for students to confront each other if found cheating.  The system doesn’t operate perfectly but it seems to support a culture of honor among the entire community including faculty and staff.

I still recall my first interview with the search committee.  We sat around a meeting room eating amazingly delicious food, unusual for a college I thought.  I could taste the love by long standing members of the kitchen staff imbued in the green beans, the rice cooked just right and the freshness of the greens, tomatoes, cucumbers and carrots in the salad.  As the initial inquiry began, a student member of the committee posed a question for me.  “We have an honor code at ASC.  What do you think about honor codes?”  Without a thought, I replied, “I think if you do not have integrity engraved on your heart, life is going to be a long haul.”  And I meant it.

I learned many lessons about honor and integrity over the years.  I will never forget that I cheated perhaps more than once on my high school chemistry exams.  I terribly wanted to have excellent grades so I could attend an outstanding college.   As I completed that class, I felt awful, ashamed and ignorant about the material.  When I took basic college biology, I felt the sting.  I couldn’t remember much about the periodic table, positive and negative ions, or other elementary chemistry.  I later learned how related mastery of chemistry is to biology and physics.  I never cheated again.

Once I became a professor, I would share a few words about cheating before every first exam.  I told the students I knew some of them would be tempted to cheat, however I would report them if I discovered it.  I explained was that cheating breeds incompetence.  If you cheat, you haven’t learned the material and I don’t want an incompetent surgeon operating on me, or an inept lawyer arguing my case or an unqualified teacher teaching my children.

In my first 20 years of teaching, I reported 2 maybe 3 obvious cases of cheating; two guys with verbatim wrong answers and in a class of 250 students, a student printed out her roommate’s paper and changed the first page.  I often wondered why students thought professors and teaching assistants didn’t carefully read papers and exams.  Now of course there are computer programs that can find all kinds of plagiarism with just one click.

I witnessed the most tragic case of cheating when I served as the associate dean at ASC.  A senior I’ll called “Joan,” already admitted to law school and about to graduate with honors plagiarized one of her final papers.  She was academically dismissed, did not graduate nor could she ever apply to law school again.  Joan provided a dreadful example of how costly one devastating error in judgment, a serious lapse in integrity can be.

I will never forget the very bright, inquisitive, and hardworking students I encountered at Agnes Scott College.  I have particular fondest for the ones I taught in the Senior Seminar in Psychology.  They were courageously creative, unafraid and unapologetic.  Once a student remarked in class that she didn’t believe in organ transplants—that if people were going to die, we shouldn’t be trying to extend their lives by taking organs from other people who were dying.  “No disrespect, Dr. Brown,” she commented “but that’s just the way I feel.”   Horrified by the comment, I applauded her honesty and appreciated her keen intellect.  I later became her mentor and strongest advocate, writing letters of recommendation for her for graduate school.  We still keep in touch.

As I reflect on my time at ASC I will always be grateful for the wonderful student assistants who combed the library for books, tracked down articles, and coded and analyzed data for me.  We shared laughter, family stories and I knew that my mentoring would bear a great harvest.  Even students I would describe as, “plucking my last nerve” with excuses for late papers or no papers, who didn’t attend class but expected to pass anyway still elicit a smile when I learn on Facebook or Linkedin that someone has acquired a promotion, married or recently had a child.  What impressed me most about the women of Agnes Scott College, however, was that by the time most graduated, they had engraved honor and integrity on their hearts.  Honor and integrity—what peace and joy these attributes bring.  Can you think of a time when honor and integrity brought peace and joy to your heart?