Moments of Refuge and Renewal

There is one lesson I continue to learn over and over again.  Seeking answers to the mysteries of life does not have to be complicated or expensive. The great African American theologian and mystic, Dr. Howard Thurman, writes about an oak tree that he turned to again and again for solace and strength.  He said he would talk to the oak tree, sharing his triumphs and sorrows with it.

“I needed the strength of that tree, and, like it, I would hold my ground…I cultivated a unique relationship with the tree..I could sit, my back against the trunk, and feel the same peace that would come to me in my bed at night.  I could reach down in the quiet places of my spirit, take out my bruises and my joys, unfold them, and talk about them.  I could talk aloud to the oak tree and know that it understood.  It, too, was a part of my reality, like the woods, the night, and the pounding surf, my earliest companions, giving me space.”

Earlier, biographer, Elizabeth Yates wrote:

“He also learned from the oak tree that despite the tempest or storms, it stood stalwart.  Somewhere in life, he reasoned to himself, there was a constancy that was not subject to tempests; but whatever it was, it would not be outside a man but with his spirit.  He read that night to his grandmother from the Psalms about a godly man…he shall be like a tree..What was this soil wherein a man’s roots, as those of a tree, could find sure hold?”

As I began to reflect on my own contemplative spiritual journey, I thought about where and when I found renewal and guidance.  For many years I chided myself for lacking the desire to take a pilgrimage, to walk the great El Camino, hike the Grand Canyon or walk the shores near Iona, Scotland.  Sometimes I need not go any further than my own backyard or bedroom.  Below is a description of my spiritual spot, my time and place that is equivalent to Dr. Thurman’s oak tree.  It is my bed in the morning wherever I am.

I turned over in my bed just becoming aware of the early morning quiet.  Awakening among tossed pillows, sheets, and lightweight blankets always offered a place of strength and solace for me.  The tranquility of daybreak reminded me of the times as a child I spent sitting in the wind inhaling the deep peace within it.  As, “Little Rita,” my childhood nickname, I didn’t understand why I was so drawn to serenity or that a bed and the daybreak hush would serve as my anchor for an unimaginable life journey.  

From morning calm, I donned my uniform to march off to master the discipline of parochial school, and later arose to face a sea of white faces, as the lone brown one in my college classrooms. In the newness of morning, I jumped out of the bed to boldly defend my dissertation, and then later sobbed into its fitted sheets when I realized that my tenure denial wasn’t a dream but a real professional and public humiliation.  Still the early morning calm gave birth to the strength and wisdom I needed as a professor to awaken students for more than 30 years.  Virgin time and the caress of handmade quilts created a space where I summoned the courage to face a looming heart transplant, and ten years later accepted the diagnosis of renal failure knowing my recovery would require months of dialysis and another transplant.  Opening my eyes in great joy, I awoke in the freshness of the day to see my wedding dress hanging across the hotel room, celebrating in my new heart my imminent marriage.  After a restless night of grief, I grabbed my teddy bears and tissues, and wailed into the pillows as I felt the sting of being orphaned, now with both parents deceased.  In all of these moments, I knew that the constancy of a sturdy bed whether in homes, college dorms, hotels or hospitals, and the Guidance revealed in a touch of morning stillness would steer me through anything. 

Howard Thurman found peace and understanding from an old, sturdy oak tree near his home.  Memories of times with that tree sustained him throughout his life.  For me, I acquire wisdom and courage in bed in morning quiet to walk the spiritual path.  Where do you go to refuel, to connect with inner wisdom?  When do you pause to capture moments of calm and serenity, and to gather the strength to endure the vicissitudes of life?  How can you experience the peace and joy in your heart?

 

Howard Thurman, With Hand and Heart-The Autobiography of Howard Thurman. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1981, p. 9.

Elizabeth Yates, Howard Thurman: Portrait of a Practical Dreamer.  New York: The John Day Company, 1964, p. 30.

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?

Prayer of Patient Trust

I complete this series on cultivating patience and trust with a lovely prayer by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ.  These inspiring words spark a sense of hope in me especially on those days and in those moments when I feel weary on the journey.

Patient Trust

Above all, trust in the slow work of God.

We are quite naturally impatient in everything

to reach the end without delay.

We should like to skip the intermediate stages.

We are impatient of being on the way to something

unknown, something new.

And yet it is the law of all progress

that it is made by passing through

some stages of instability—

and that it may take a very long time.

And so I think it is with you;

your ideas mature gradually—let them grow,

let them shape themselves, without undue haste.

Don’t try to force them on,

as though you could be today what time

(that is to say, grace and circumstances

acting on your own good will)

will make of you tomorrow.

Only God could say what this new spirit

gradually forming within you will be.

Give Our Lord the benefit of believing

that his hand is leading you,

and accept the anxiety of feeling yourself

in suspense and incomplete.

—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, SJ

excerpted from Hearts on Fire.

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