Be Still, Mijo

Though hardly five feet tall, my mom could fill a room. Whether her whooping laughter, or her quiet presence that had gravity, she drew attention. One way or another, you knew she was there.

It was this quality that dimmed the most when the cancer spread to her brain. Further, the radiation treatments sucked dry whatever reserve of energy she had left. Thus, when she was subjected to repeated lung taps to drain the fluids from the growing tumors, she would lay in bed for days.

It was 2001 and she had not given up on the idea that she could die on her own terms–in her apartment and definitely not in a nursing home. It was then that I began the weekly trips to the Seattle area on Fridays to spend the day with her, do her dishes and take her shopping.

On one particular visit, I arrived at her apartment to find it a disaster. Having missed the prior week’s visit due to business travel, the apartment showed every bit of the fourteen days since I had been there last. Dirty dishes were piled high, the cat box was overflowing and Mom had spilled one of her funky protein drink concoctions on the carpet in the hallway. The crusty spot, crimson from the paprika in the shake had dried and was virtually impenetrable to anything I could find in the cleaning closet. Mom was asleep in her room when I arrived so I went to work cleaning the apartment, vacuuming and scrubbing until it looked somewhat presentable. Mom was still sound asleep when I finished, so I went shopping for food and more cleaning supplies. Returning to the apartment a while later hoping to find her awake, the apartment was still quiet as I entered.

“Mom?” I called out.

Silence.

I unloaded the groceries and then checked in on her. She was lying quietly on her side, staring placidly out the window.

“Mom?” I whispered as I kneeled beside her bed.

“Hi, love,” she said.

“How are you?” I asked. She paused to fix her eyes on me, and gently smiled.

“Ok.” She gazed at me quietly as my throat grew hot and tight, and I blinked the tears away.

“Mom, the place was a mess. And what did you spill in the hallway?” I asked, exasperated. Not pausing for her answer, I proceeded to lecture her on asking for help from the other siblings for the cooking and cleaning. “They’re only a phone call away,” I said, doing a poor job of hiding the frustration in my voice.

I hadn’t noticed her hand reach for my forearm until I felt the grip. Her touch was cool, but firm. Strong enough to silence my reproach.

“Mijo,” she said. “Be still. You are with me now. That is all that matters.” She withdrew her arm and closed her eyes. I watched her sleep for the rest of the afternoon, her pulse slowly tapping it’s beat in her temple. She woke briefly late in the day and I helped her to the bathroom. Sipping on hot broth in bed, we shared the quiet moment together and then she went back to sleep. I kissed her forehead, the few straggling hairs she had left brushing my nose, and I left for home feeling heavy and helpless.

Seeking distraction on the radio, I happened on an interview with Ahmed Kathrada, a fellow ANC activist and prison mate of Nelson Mandela. Imprisoned at Robben Island for twenty five years, Kathrada spoke of the experience and his time with Mandela with such energy and positivism that the interviewer eventually remarked (note: I am relating this interview from memory…), “You seem to have such joy in how you speak of your imprisonment.” Kathrada laughed. “It wasn’t always so. I was miserable for many years until a priest began to visit the prison and asked to meet with me. Soon we struck up a friendship and I looked forward to his visits. We would talk and I would share with him my misery of being imprisoned, and then at some point he said to me, ‘Ahmed, there is a Chinese fable I want to share with you. There is an old man in a village. It is winter and it is very cold. The old man who has no shoes or socks and complains to everyone in how miserable he is. And then he comes upon a beggar with no feet.'” Kathrada laughed. “I understood at that moment my the true nature of my circumstances. Though I am imprisoned, I am alive. And unlike my ANC brothers and sisters dying in the countryside, I am fed and have a roof over my head. It did not mean that I felt any less strongly of the injustice of apartheid, nor of the circumstances of my imprisonment. But it allowed me to see the blessing in being alive.”

My thoughts went to Mom as I reflected on Kathrada’s story and it became quite obvious to me where the blessing was in my situation. It came in the form of a dying mom, in one of her last acts of motherhood that she could muster to teach her son a lesson. That the most important and profound thing we can do for one another is to simply, be present. To be still. To be all in with each other.

Anything else falls away like dry husks.

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On Judgement, Forgiveness, and Icebergs

Things happen in my life, some good, some bad. Some in between. The truth of it is I have very little control over what happens to me. And yet, what I do have control over, I give that up too by choosing to believe that I am defined by what happens to me.

If I kill it at work, or with a new client, or on a run or turning laps in the pool, then I feelScreen Shot 2014-01-12 at 7.35.11 AM outstanding and I see myself in that light. And then the other shoe drops, when I have a crappy day and get my ass kicked by a disagreement with my wife, or the stock market dumps, or I am betrayed by someone close to me, then I define myself by those events as well. And so it goes, swinging from one definition to the other, judging myself by these events and all the while, giving up the essence of who I am.

How do I get off this roller coaster? In truth the emotion, whichever direction it is heading, is often more seducing than the antidote. And further, the forensics of unpacking my pathology can be even more beguiling.

“Why? Why? Why do I do this?” I lament, while quietly fawning over my self-absorption.

Forgiveness. It is the knife that cleaves the busyness of the mind, from the essence of who we are.

Forgiveness

I forgive.

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I forgive who, and what happens to me.

I forgive myself for wanting to believe that I am that which happens to me. 

I forgive myself for wanting, for it means that I do not see who I am.

I forgive.

This is not to say that I do not feel outstanding when I have a great day, or feel like shit every time something, or someone, conspires against me. But, that I do so with forgiveness. And the ship heading for the iceberg is not me, but me that is the iceberg.

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An Inordinate Faith – Part 3

“The truth will indeed set you free…but first, you will suffer for it.” – Dr. Cornell WestScreen Shot 2013-12-27 at 6.50.33 AM

I learned about archetypes several years back from a Wayne Dyer tape a friend lent to me. He described the various phases we transition through as we age, or at least hope to transition through–child, cowboy, warrior, statesman, sage.

The 90’s was my warrior phase and my wife was dragged along for ride. We built a house, started a family, became a business owner, killed it in the stock market…all the things that every other overzealous middle-adult-child-of-an-alcoholic did. Bigger, faster, better. And I projected this energy into every aspect of my life. Including my faith life.

We were attending a small Episcopal church in our town and I was asked to join the Vestry which is the lay leadership council. Soon I was Senior Warden, the big shit, weighing in on decisions, feeling self-important and learning all the right things to do and say in the Anglican liturgy. Well, almost all the right things that is. The Suffragan Bishop paid a visit one Easter to preside over the vigil service. I volunteered for cantor duties as I was full of confidence from diving into just about everything else with the attitude that I would grow wings on the way down.

I should have practiced.

Three bars into the Vigil I realized I was over my head. I badly faked my way through the rest of it. Bishop Hampton, a tall and lanky silver haired Dr. Welby mid-westerner type was kind and didn’t protest. I think he prayed for me.

Undeterred, I reveled in the hierarchy of the church, even attending a couple of the annual Diocesan conventions as a delegate. Rubbing elbows with the movers and shakers from Seattle made me feel important and I was immersed in what I thought was important work. In all of this however, there was this undercurrent–an inkling of sorts that there had to be more to a faith life than this. As if I were play acting. I talked out loud to God about this, mainly in the car when I was driving by myself, but they were nothing more than one-sided conversations. Absent of anything else to do, I continued on, questioning.

Then September 11, 2001 came and initiated what I have since coined the grand trifecta: First the the terrorist attacks, which left me feeling numb and angry. Six months later my dad died from Alzheimer’s. Though we had expected his death would come sooner than later with his failing health, it still came as a surprise and made the surreal even more so. Six months after his death, my mom died from metastatic breast cancer. As with Dad, we knew her time was limited when her cancer returned, however this was different.

With Mom’s death came a sense of urgency and clarity about my life, about who I was and what I was put here to do. More to share later, but suffice to say her death brought on a reconciling of sorts about my faith. In particular, with Jesus. He had always been a part of my tradition, but in a history book, mythic figure sort of way that I would awkwardly pray to because that was what I was taught to do. Pray that is…when I was in church at the right moment in the service, or before I went to bed just in case I died in my sleep. Because that is what I was taught.

But I was also being pulled in different directions of spiritual contemplation, much of it influenced by Mom because she was a seeker of spiritual truth from many different faiths and that impacted me. I rather fancied the diverse approach as well, picking and choosing bits and peices of faith truth, like grazing at the salad bar. The problem was, that approach wasn’t transforming either. Mind you, I was not caught up (nor still am) in the theological cluster-F-of-an-argument around John 14:6 that many of my staunch Christian brothers and sisters aggressively defend. But still, I was yearning for a critical mass to my faith.

And I kept coming back to the history book. The mythic figure Jesus to pray to, and especially in the days and weeks following the trifecta, I was asking Him some hard WTF questions like, “who am I supposed to I follow?”

And He finally responded. Like a hoot owl calling in the quiet foggy morning.

He said,

“You have to choose, Rick.”

I paused, for a minute, or maybe it was a month, or a year, and then in a bread-in-the-toaster, morning-coffee-moment sort of way, I responded.

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“I choose you.”

And then I said,

“I don’t get the cross.”

And the Owl hooted back,

“In time, you will know.”