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?

Scan 3

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?

Recovering the Joy of Christmas

How do you feel about the holidays?  When I was a little girl, I could hardly wait for Christmas.  The entire season seemed to be filled with anticipation and wonder.  Everywhere twinkling lights, sparkling Christmas trees, and joyful singing set the season apart. People felt different, nicer and Christmas marked the time when my immediate family gathered with extended kin.  Granny Coleman from Arkansas or Aunt Marye and her family might appear for a special visit.  On Christmas Eve, my brothers and me would jump in our beds early hoping that Santa Claus might know and bring our presents sooner.  I couldn’t fall asleep because I was so excited.  I tossed and turned still unsure if I would discover some gift I wanted under the Christmas tree.  Regardless, Christmas brought a very special day filled with Mass, a few presents, lots of food, and phone calls and visits with aunts, uncles, and cousins.

I’m not certain when I lost the wonder and joy of Christmas and the holiday season.  I suspect it began to dissipate with my discovery of the myth of Santa Claus and the realization of my role in producing the Christmas cheer.  As the oldest daughter, I was expected to help shop for and wrap presents, decorate the tree and assist in the preparation of Christmas breakfast and dinner.  I didn’t mind helping Mom but after about twenty or more years of the annual grind, I began to feel resentful.  My innocent little heart initially overflowing with genuine joy and silent serenity turned into a cranky, exhausted version of that child self wishing that Christmas came once every five years.

The holidays are difficult for many of us and for a variety of reasons.  The season often triggers sadness or resentment because of the unpleasant undertones of households we grew up in—maybe mom couldn’t cope or did so by taking more than a few sips from that bottle she hid under the sink.  Or perhaps an absent father suddenly appeared on Christmas Eve only to remind us of how much we missed him.  Maybe Christmas elicits unhappy feelings because Mom and Dad divorced, or one of them began ill, passed away or in some way was unavailable to share the fabricated happy family moments we see in the annual Christmas specials on television.

One woman described recently in a listening prayer group why she loves Christmas so much and how she decorates every available spot in her house.  “Christmas was the only time we could be happy in our home.  The remainder of the year was a holy hell characterized by abuse and dysfunction.  So at Christmas I could escape into a fog of temporary happiness if only for the few weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.”

I hear many stories about holiday experiences as I sit with individuals in spiritual direction.  In between sibling arguments or total breakdowns in communication among family members, we are barraged with relentless commercials urging us to buy presents when what most of us truly desire is love and connection. So how do we stay in tune with the peace and joy in our hearts at this time of the year?

I’ve struggled to abandon my bah humbug attitude in favor of some unbridled joy.  Even I am tired of being a scrooge so I decided to create a new script.  What I’ve been inspired to do this year is to make a list of things—activities or experiences that would ignite the inner joy that I know already exists within me.  Here is my of my short list of action items that I plan to execute for more holiday cheer:

  1. Drink some hot chocolate or tea in front of a fire.  Who cares if it is 00 or 850 or even if I have a fireplace (there is always one at some restaurant during winter or I can find a TV station with one).  There is something soothing and delightful about pausing to have a cup of tea or hot chocolate and look into a blazing fire.  Even the smoldering embers offer a gentle luminosity that warms me from the inside out.
  2. Holiday music, anyone?  Yes, I get sick of Christmas music.  Some radio stations blast more than I can take, and my honey, Warren loves to play it from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day.  If I cannot escape hearing it, at least I can choose to listen to my favorite artists singing my favorite Christmas songs.  From Nat King Cole singing the classic, The Christmas Song to a more recent Christmas tunes by KEM or Susan Boyle, playing my Christmas favorites comfort me in my selected cooking tasks and gift wrapping.  My all time favorite is the Messiah—it sparks a serene, compassionate mood while also allowing me to feel like I am conducting a major orchestra.  I’ll also throw in some spontaneous dancing in the living room, kitchen, or in front of the bathroom mirror.  I love to dance to “The Mistletoe Jam” sung by Luther Van Dross which triggers fun, happy memories when I “danced with my hands in the air like I didn’t care.”  No, I don’t need extra egg nog to pull this off but if it helps and you don’t get too carried away, I say, “Go for it!”
  3. One of my greatest joys is to contact a friend, relative or even an old roommate just to check in.  I recently called Rose, who is now 95 year old.  We started a book group, The Boulder Briarpath Literary Society in Boulder, CO nearly 25 years ago and she still attends.  I could hear the smile in her voice, the genuine gratitude coming through a semi-chocked up, clearing of the throat sentiment because she was so touched that I took the time to call and chat for a few minutes. I plan to call her again.
  4. I also plan to bake some cookies or brownies to give away.  Surprising a neighbor or anyone with a batch of brownies, sharing a meal with a someone who lost a parent or family member recently—these things bring me joy.  Baking is my thing but when short on time I’ve picked up some baked goods at the local grocery store.  Sharing food or drink with others keeps me from having the holiday doldrums because it’s not about the food really, it’s the connection.
  5. Finally, I intend to take some leisurely walks.  These walks are not for exercise or to achieve any fitness goal.  It’s more like a meandering down the street so I can inhale some fresh air, capture the holiday decorations, and marvel at how branches of leafless, naked trees look as if they are inviting me for a hug.  I notice it every winter; trees with branches extended nonverbally saying,  “ Hey, I see you. Come here.  Let me give you a hug.”  And when I’ve hugged a tree, I feel an energy pulsating within— it’s almost electric.  I also wave at my neighbors that I rarely see in our “crazy busy” world.

I am determined to shake the bah humbug funk.  I will not get sucked into holiday stress.  I am pacing myself so I can en-joy the holiday baking. I want to feel the happiness that the season is meant to inspire.  This holiday season what I want to focus on is the connection—the bond that keeps Warren and I together for whatever time we have, and similarly the links that I desire to maintain with family and friends.  For me, Christmas is not about the gifts but the connection.

So what can you do this season to remember, to capture the excitement and wonder that you felt as a very young child?  What experiences will help you to uncover the peace and joy in your heart this holiday season?