Just Keep Swimming…

“Exercise – a more powerful drug cannot be prescribed.”

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I honestly would not have survived these last three years without exercise and working out.  It has been one of my most loyal allies, getting me through the days that I had no choice but to just get through.

It was while running, three months after my wife’s death, that I found my first glimmer of hope that life could, indeed, go on – maybe even with joy again. It was in the weight room at 5:30 a.m., even on the mornings after a sleepless night, where I found the strength to get through the next day, or the next task, or the next hour. It was running at midnight – to clear my head, to avoid a meltdown, or because I didn’t know what else to do – that I avoided making many a situation worse. Sometimes I just needed to run away for a bit. Often times the only benefit was just being too tired to worry about things until the next day. In fact, physical exhaustion from working out was often times the only way I could experience any sleep at all, in the early stages of grief.

I also believe exercise is what prevented me from slipping into chronic depression. The blues are a normal part of the grieving process, but my daily dose of natural endorphins are what staved off a trip to the doctor’s for anti-depressants.

Exercise combats depression by enhancing our natural endorphins, chemicals that act like morphine and other painkillers. There’s also a theory that aerobic activity boosts norepinephrine, a neurotransmitter that plays a role in mood. And exercise helps the brain grow new neurons. I didn’t know this at the time I was grieving; I just knew it made me feel better.

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We are triumvirate beings – body, mind and spirit must all be cared for.  The body is often forgotten in times of grief and depression, but it can carry us through the lows if given the proper opportunity. The body has wonderful rejuvenative capabilities, and often times it can lead the mind and spirit to follow.

Life isn’t always easy, loss and stress can overwhelm. Not doing anything about it can lead to chronic depression and loss of will. Regular exercise can lead you back. Yes it takes effort, you may not feel like it, especially at first, but stick with it, develop a routine. Just Do It, to quote Nike.

Here is some professional advice on exercising while grieving and dealing with loss, from Dr. Mercola:

You needn’t get bogged down with the details… simply get moving. Any activity that appeals to you is worth it – hiking, swimming, yoga, group classes, dancing, bicycling… whatever will get you moving is great. Once you have begun to heal, however, I recommend incorporating the following types of exercise into your program in order to truly optimize your results:

1. Avoid Sitting for More Than 15 Minutes. I usually set a timer for 15 minutes or so while sitting, and then stand up and do one-legged squats, jump squats or lunges when the timer goes off. The key is that you need to be moving all day long, even in non-exercise, or as I now like to call them, intermittent movement activities.

2. High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Compelling and ever-mounting research shows that the ideal form of exercise is short bursts of high-intensity exercise that I call Peak Fitness. Not only does it beat conventional cardio as the most effective and efficient form of exercise, it also provides health benefits you simply cannot get from regular aerobics, such as a tremendous boost in human growth hormone (HGH), aka the “fitness hormone.”

3.Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury, and help you gain greater balance and stability.

4. Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body’s natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.

5. Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you’re really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also “up” the intensity by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.

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The Wind

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“For what is it to die, But to stand in the sun and melt into the wind?”
– Kahlil Gibran

A great blue heron stands sentinel in the creek at Plum Creek Cemetery, hunting, his elegant, long blue neck feathers rustling in the wind. He doesn’t flinch as I drive by, intent on the small fish darting among the shadows, eyes laser focused, the wind not even noticed.

But I notice. It is a welcome respite from the summer heat and humidity. It tells of storms coming, of the energy soon to be barreling down upon us from above, as so many of our storms have been recently. It blows the purple plastic windmill on my wife’s grave at full speed. I wonder if it will uproot and take wing in the gale.

Nobody is here this early in the morning.  I am only here at this time because I’ve just dropped the boys off at football practice. I’ve got a couple hours to myself; I like that. I like being here now too, and Deb’s tombstone posts a permanent reminder that it is very close to the two year anniversary of her passing.

I have all the windows down on the Camry, the sunroof open too, and my “Grief Songs” cd playing at full volume. Jackson Brown, Cat Stevens and Scott Miller’s voices fill the air and ride the thermals, the volume undulating with the gusts, wafting over the tombstones and flowers. I imagine Debbie listening to the songs with me, as we often did, curled up in front of the stereo with a glass of wine and the lyric sheet on a Friday night after a long work week.

I have this annoying habit, of really digging into an artist that catches my attention, that strikes a chord with me. Warren Zevon was such an artist, an offbeat, eccentric dude, full of faults and warts and surprises that many didn’t like or understand, probably because it takes time to appreciate his subtle genius. I devoured everything Zevon, spending hours with each disc, with every song that spoke to me.

And I would share these passions, these discoveries way in the back of the catalog, these gems most people missed, with Debbie. I’m not sure she appreciated them as much as I did, but that’s not the point – she sat and listened, let me ramble, let me gush, and recognized and shared my joy. Big smile.

I miss that, though…

Warren Zevon floats with the wind now, over the cemetery grass. Warren died in in 2003, of cancer, too, at age 56. The cancer gave him ample warning, and took its long, slow, sweet time, debilitating his body one cell at a time. But it allowed him time to write and record one last album, on which the song that is playing now closed the disc. “Keep Me In Your Heart For Awhile,” from his last disc, entitled simply, “The Wind.”  I think Warren understood Gibran’s words.

I remember distinctly the wind the night Debbie died. Same as today, violent storms had washed away the oppressive summer heat. I remember watching the tops of the cherry trees dance in my yard, I remember the feeling of being free, released to the winds, I remember thinking Debbie was dancing with the white butterflies that flit through the branches. I am sure the wind tossled the herons’ feathers that day, too, and I am sure he didn’t notice it then, either.

A yellow butterfly floats by now, going the breeze. which has settled a bit. The butterfly is noticed by a silent, cross-legged observer, sitting barefoot in the grass, acutely aware of the wind moving through him…

Sometimes when you’re doing simple things around the house
maybe you will think of me and smile.

Warren Zevon

Grief Work

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“… even out of unspeakable grief, beautiful things take wing.” – AR Torres, “The Lessons of Loss”

“Wow it looks like it snowed!” shouts Hunter, and indeed it does, the hillside covered in white as far as the eye can see. But it is mid-May, the temperature in the 70s, and we are walking a wooded hillside trail in Twin Lakes park. It is not a late snowstorm, but an effusive, magnificent display of giant white trilliums. Tens of thousands of the three-petaled, yellow-centered ephemeral wildflowers blanket the forest floor, which just weeks ago was mostly brown leaf litter. We walk up a trail until we are immersed in the flowers, surrounded by beauty. Wow, the wonder on display overwhelms my senses, warms my heart.

My heart wasn’t warm when I woke and started this day. Unexpectedly, as I rushed through my morning trying to get ready for a busy weekend, with a sick child and too much to do and too little help, I realized I was angry again at my wife for passing, and leaving me with a life upside down and overwhelmed. And then I realized on the long drive to the park that tomorrow was Mother’s Day. This would be the boys’ second Mother’s Day without their mom, and I had to fight back the tears of sadness remembering the conversation I had with my youngest son about how he felt having to make a Mother’s Day card in school. Anger and depression, two emotions I thought I had worked through, but here they were, back again, sigh. And that seemingly step backwards in my grief work put me in a bad, fowl mood. Good lord, hadn’t I done all this, hadn’t I processed all these emotions more than once already? Hadn’t I earned the right to move on and just be happy now? And really, I am going to lead others on a Healing Hike, when clearly I haven’t healed myself?

I know all about grief, from an academic perspective. I have attended the group therapy and counseling sessions and read the books and marked the anniversaries and performed the ceremonies, and I understand what needs to be done. I know I have to accept the reality of my loss, I know I have to experience the pain of grief, and I know I have to adjust to my new environment without my wife, and I believe I have done most of this. But I also know that the wheel of grief spins between the five stages, denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance, and I know firsthand that that wheel can land on any of those stages at any time. I just thought I had a better handle on it, almost two years hence. I understand what I have already done, and I thought I was tough enough now to start helping others, to start sharing what I have lived and learned. I’m feeling like a hypocrite as I pull into the Twin Lakes parking lot.

But as I step out of the car, the birds are singing, and the treetops are filled with colorful spring migrants, brilliant scarlet tanagers, orioles and warblers. And then I come to the trillium display, and my heart does melt, and I know this is the place I need to be today.

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Grief is hard, its emotions baffling, and the jumping between stages and the gulf between where you are some mornings and acceptance seems impossible. That is why it is called grief work. You really do have to work at it. But I have discovered many things that have helped me, and I want to share these things with others who are hurting.

I know that nature can help; she certainly helped me through my grief. In nature, the cycles of life and death are on crystal clear display, all the time, as are the regenerative powers of nature.  Even after catastrophes, it seems unlimited. And I know the emotional connection I feel with the earth and Mother Nature is real too, felt deeply inside, and in my special places and in times of quiet contemplation in my backyard.

I know that performing ceremonies, marking my grief and working through the emotions that accompany anniversaries and special dates is important, for it lets the trapped emotions free. And I know that sharing my feelings with others helps tremendously, too, for the same reason of feeling the emotion and then letting them go.

 

It is a diverse group that sits amongst the trilliums. Folks who have lost their spouse to suicide, to cancer, who have lost a child to a sudden heart attack, a young boy who has lost his dad but still sees a snowstorm in the white wildflowers. I can feel their sadness, and sometimes the tears flow like the intermittent rain that follows us today.

But I like the rain, I like walking in the rain, it clears my head, and I like the fact that the rain has brought these flowers. This group doesn’t seem to mind the rain today, either. We have all been through hell, a little bit of rain doesn’t seem so bad. Loss of any kind has the tendency to strip away the bullshit, to get down to the bone and marrow of what is important, to re-focus your life and priorities, as many folks share when they tell their tales of moving forward after their losses. It is inspiring.

It is funny too, we have stopped along the trail, in this patch of white, next to an old fallen tree covered with giant mushrooms. Mushrooms, the forest janitors, cleaning up the death and decay of the forest, but also preparing the soil for the next generation of trees and wildflowers. We all marvel at the intricate patterns and beauty in the mushrooms, and the juxtaposition of the mushrooms and trilliums is beautiful, too. Death is a part of life. So teaches Mother Nature, everyday.

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We move to Reflection Island, a memorial area designated for quiet reflection and meditation. The area has a butterfly garden, a healing water pond (loaded with tadpoles, as Hunter points out!) dedicated to the memory of unborn children, a Mother’s Grotto in honor and memory of all mothers, a Father’s encounter deck overlooking the lake in honor and memory of all fathers, and a Contemplation Walkway honoring all whose names appear here. The whole area has a peace and energy to it, what a wonderful feature of the park!

We had planned on spending some time here in quiet, individual contemplation, but the rains return, heavier this time. So we move into the covered gazebo, as the rain patters and the thunders lightly rolls, and a wood thrush sings his flute-like song. Sitting in a circle in this perfect setting, the sharing just comes naturally. We share stories of our losses, our challenges, what we have overcome and what we still struggle with. I feel so much more normal after haring everyone’s tales, and sharing a few of my own. Tears are mixed with memories and even laughter, but there is a genuineness amongst all; again, loss strips us down to what is important, and it is important to share these stories. “Grief shared is grief diminished.” I am honored to be a part of this group, and they are helping me too; my melancholy from this morning, and trivial worries and fears, are absorbed in the real love and healing felt amongst these brave souls.

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The rain lets up in time to walk back to our starting point, where we gather at a deck along the lake. Everyone picks a flower, something that reminds them of their lost loved one, and we say a silent prayer of remembrance in their honor. Deb offers a closing prayer, and we set our flowers adrift on the reflective glass water. I close with a reading about the first time I realized I could experience joy again after my wife died, and we end our letting go ceremony with hugs, cookies and brownies.

Ceremonies were never something I appreciated in my younger years. I viewed them as something archaic, something that didn’t really apply to my life. But a wise person pointed out to me that I could create my own ceremonies, and I have taken this to heart, especially in my travels with grief. It has been a tremendous healing tool for me also.

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And so the next day, we walk in the Race for the Cure, as has been our family tradition for fifteen years. We started this tradition to honor mothers and breast cancers survivors, long before it got too personal when my wife was diagnosed with the disease. Last year was the first year we marched in her honor, and it was emotionally charged and draining. This year is a little easier, because I am more on my feet finally.

But after the Race we head out to my wife’s grave, for a tombstone dedication ceremony. Beautiful words are spoken and memories shared, under the flowering dogwood, and I ask everyone to plant a vision of Debbie in the garden of their memory. I share my vision of Debbie, because I know from my my experience with my dad’s death 32 years ago, his tombstone so close to my wife’s here in Plum Creek, that memories fade. I want my boys to keep a memory, all their own, of their mom. I know this ceremony is painful for them, and certainly it was hard for them to make the Mother’s Day cards in school and write the notes that they have brought with them. But they need to feel the pain of loss, they need to experience it, if they are to heal. There is no way around, only through. And it will be worth it when the memories they keep evoke smiles, not sadness.

I want them to heal. Their mom wants them to heal. She wants them to grow and love and experience all that this beautiful life has to offer. She wants them to keep their beautiful memories of her love alive inside of them, too. You can’t keep the pain buried, it will only comes out later, and prevent you from loving the present.

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And so we all shed some tears, we all feel some pain, we all wrestle with the confusing and heart-breaking emotions of grief, all in our own ways, all wherever we are at this time in our own wheel of grief. But we have so many tools to help us navigate, from counseling to prayer to meditation, walks in the woods with the trillium and mushrooms, to gatherings in the woods and at the Race and in the cemeteries, where we give life the ceremonies we need to work through the grief. And when we have done our grief work, we too will come to acceptance and live again, just like spring does every year, when the trilliums and dogwoods bloom again after the long, cold winter.

PS – Two days after the ceremony at the cemetery, my oldest boy pulls me aside in private and thanks me for what we did on Mother’s Day. I know Debbie, God, is guiding us again, all we have to do is listen, and trust that traveling through the pain will be worth it.

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A Smile Set in Stone…

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Pause, stranger, when you pass me by,
For as you are, so once was I.
As I am now, so will you be.

It’s a bright, sunny day, even a bit warm, the first nice day we have had in a long, long time, following a long nasty winter.  Is it coincidence that Debbie’s marker is finally installed today?

It has been a long and meandering journey for this stone, so far now from it’s quarry.  It’s traveled two oceans and two continents, sat for months in an unheated shop, too cold to carve.  This color stone, a warm reddish that cuts pink, comes only from the other side of the world, and had to be custom cut in India before beginning its journey to its final resting place.  The angel design is custom and proprietary, too.   And there were hours spent sorting through thousands of images and pictures – and tears – to find just the right one.

It has been six months since it was designed and ordered.  It is important to get it right.  I think I did.

But there are few things in life harder than getting a tombstone for your spouse…

The sun was warm on my face this afternoon, the day as bright as Debbie’s smile.  And her smile, now etched in stone, still makes me happy.

And that is a good thing.  The memories, they bring smiles now, not tears, rememberance of the warmth and sunshine of so many good times, so many big smiles and laughs shared.  The tears will still crop up too, I suppose, but like making it through a long hard winter, I have paid my dues, I have done my grief homework, and I choose now to enjoy the sunshine with a smile of my own…

God bless you, Debbie.  Love you always and forever.

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To Live Again…

“A widow’s refusal of a lover is seldom so explicit as to exclude hope.”  – Samuel Richardson

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I’m sure it looks like any other normal family dinner at a nice Italian restaurant – a mom and a dad with four kids, two girls and two boys, enjoying a fantastic dinner of pasta and salads and steak (and of course pizza for the little guy!)  There is laughter and sharing and lively chatter and smiles.

But the guest of honor at this special table tonight is Gratitude; for a normal family meal did not seem possible even a few short months ago…

Nothing is taken for granted anymore by this hodgepodge group – for there are two empty chairs at the table tonight.  These chairs can never be filled; forever there will be an important piece missing from every family meal, from every milestone celebration, from every family vacation and from every one of those times where you just want to share with your best friend, where you need the guidance and comfort of mom or dad, when you’ve just had an impossible day, when you just want to be a normal, complete family again.

Cancer is a terrible disease.  It can and does strike anyone, even those who least deserve it, indiscriminately cutting short brilliant, loving lives, and robbing their families of so much more.  Those left behind are befuddled, staggered, angry and confused, lonely, and afraid.  What do we do now?  How do we carry on without mom, without dad?  Who will take care of us?

It has been over one year now for the Brunson family, who lost John, age 48, on July 3, 2012, leaving behind Kimberly, and children Claire and Emily; and over one year also for the Walko family, who lost Debbie, age 45, on July 8, 2012, leaving behind Joe, and children Jake and Trevor.

This past year has been numb, terrifying, sad, sometimes hopeless…  How are we supposed to carry on?!?!

But you do carry on, because you must.  You do begin to work through the sadness, through the tears that at first seem like they will never stop, through the heaviness that threatens to crush you at any moment.  You work through it mostly because you have no other choice.

And you work through it because life is still good, so very good, even when the sunset is watched alone, through swollen, wet eyes.  Deep down you still know this, it has just been buried recently by the grief.

And you work through it because these young people, they need you, they need hope, they have so much love and so many good things to experience, as Debbie and John certainly knew, and as they so would want their children to know.

And you work through it because so many people care.  There are rides to school functions when mom is stuck at work, there’s someone to cheer on the boys at football and baseball games and take them out for ice cream after, someone to watch the kids when mom or dad just needs a break.  There is a box of school supplies delivered anonymously on the front porch, gift cards in the mailbox, little notes to let you know others are thinking and praying for you, fantastic dinners cooked for us on busy days.

And tonight, complete strangers at an Italian restaurant share the gift of a great meal that no one has to cook, that no one has to clean up from, and that all enjoy – it warms my heart when it has been broken for so long.  It’s a homemade chocolate chip cookie fresh from the oven, stringy chocolate sticking to the plate, the kind mom always made when I came home bruised and battered…

I think back to the incredible events that led us here…

The phone call last Saturday was unexpected; patrons at the Olive Garden in Monroeville, PA read my blog, and passed on to the staff at the restaurant the story.  The staff, in particular Chris Painter, wanted to do something nice for us, and offered me a meal for up to 8 people.  Of course I immediately thought of the Brunson family, who are in just as much need as the Walko’s. 

After my wife’s death I was compelled to start this blog, despite having never done something like this before, despite having never written with purpose before, to express and share my feelings, to heal, and maybe to help others through the sharing.  “Grief shared is grief diminished”, I quoted.

 A friend of Debbie’s from her church was reading this blog, and also knew about John, and thought that maybe Kim might benefit in some way from our shared experiences.  Through mutual friends, my blog and email address were exchanged…

I did not know that Kimberly, who also lives in my community but whom I had never met,  was reading my blog, and was feeling the same emotions I was in dealing with the loss of a spouse and the challenges of single parenthood and the running of a household and desperately trying to hold onto a full time job and keep the grass mowed and bill collectors at bay and the laundry pile manageable.

 She read to herself for a while, but eventually had the courage to reach out to me, and we started communicating electronically.  We actually met a few months later in a grief counseling group through the Hospice organization at Forbes Hospital. 

It is amazing how much common ground we share and how much we have helped each other and our families through this tough time…

And our meeting certainly seems guided by a Higher Power, much  like these “random” acts of kindness, like this beautiful meal.  

And perhaps it is just simply Destiny – for our deceased spouses met before we did – they are buried right next to each other at Plum Creek Cemetery, plots 22 and 24 in Section 24, picked out long before our paths ever crossed…

I have this vision, clear as day, a vision of Debbie and John, young and in their prime, big hair and even bigger smiles as they introduce each other and share conversation and a beer or  two,  sitting on that beautiful hillside above Plum Creek, between the dogwoods and below the towering oaks.  Bathed in The Light and The Love, they are whole, they are happy, they are aglow; laughter and honesty are exchanged easily.

But they also still so love their families, and don’t want to leave for their sake.  As they look down at our pain, at our struggles, which they now understand is necessary for our growth, they still want to help, as was both their nature.

So they concoct a plan, to guide us, to help us to help each other, to help our children.  The signs are so obvious that even two headstrong survivors, hearts shattered, souls torn and  frayed and splayed open to the universe, and heads finally empty, pay attention.

And help it does; healing begins …

Debbie and John are certainly filling those empty chairs tonight, and they too, are most thankful for this generosity and further confirmation in taking care of those that they love tonight.

And right now, at this table, immersed in the smells of warm bread and steaming pasta, the tastes of rich sauces and red wines, amidst the clatter of dishes and the laughter of our children, captured in the knowing glances Kim and I share across the table, and in the tears of our wonderful  server Cory (Cordell Smith, who stayed two hours after his regular shift, just to wait on us) when we tell him this story, I can’t help but think that maybe things will be okay.

Things happen that weren’t expected, and people drop into your life from outer space, bringing their special gifts, right when you need it the most.  And you meet others who are going through the same thing, who have the same hurts and the same struggles and who truly feel your pain; and the sharing lessens the hurt, and it brings hope, it brings strength and renewal.

And I am grateful.  So grateful…

Grateful for the small victories amidst the larger “tragedy”, grateful for getting through each day, grateful for those so willing to help, grateful for people like Chris Painter and Cory and the Olive Garden staff.

Grateful to the family and friends who have been by our sides through thick and thin.

Grateful to the special strangers who enter your life because they are supposed to.

And mostly tonight, so grateful for just a normal family dinner, something that never seemed possible ever again a year ago…

It makes you start to believe you can carry on; maybe even thrive again; dare, even love again…

And you do.

Grief and sadness knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can; and common sufferings are far stronger than common joys.

– Alphonse de Lamartine

Dirt and Sky, Part II

Give up the feeling of responsibility, let go your hold, resign the care of your destiny to higher powers, be genuinely indifferent as to what becomes of it all and you will find not only that you gain a perfect inward relief, but often also, in addition, the particular goods you sincerely thought you were renouncing. -William James (1842-1910)

sunbeams-through-trees

Okay, I am back this morning, finally…

Yesterday I let myself be dragged down into the depths of worry and despair.  A depressing conversation about my health insurance options, a similar discussion about my life insurance, the realization that there are a ton of legal obstacles standing between what I want to say and actually saying it in a book, and a mild case of writer’s block.  Sigh, poor, poor pitiful me, and isn’t the world in a terrible place?

That attitude carried over into my personal relationships yesterday, leaving a sour taste, and before I went to bed I realized that the joy that had been so profound recently… was gone.

And that truly is a reason to sigh.

I recognized instantly my fear – fear of the uncertainties in front of me, fear of not having a well laid plan, fear of the unknown – all of my usual fears, built up and made worse than they actually are by years of habit, years of not trusting myself, and I so easily  slipped right back into those patterns yesterday.

In this past year, grief has forced me to confront so many of my fears, to look them straight in the eye.  Death was always one of my greatest fears, and the fear of losing a loved one seemed insurmountable.  So I chose not to look at it.  I gave it power by avoiding it and not letting myself recognize that it was only my fear, and that others, like Debbie, didn’t have it.

Fear is the opposite of joy, the opposite of love, and fears come in all shapes and sizes, some bigger than others.  But if death can be reckoned with by some folks, certainly figuring out life insurance and how to write again is surmountable.

And I know now, in my heart, that I want to live joyfully.  Like I have been these past couple of weeks; not fearfully, like I had for so many years.

So I decided I wanted my joy back.  I didn’t know how right then, and I was too tired to try at that point anyway, but I threw out a prayer for a joyful return, and then went to sleep…

And sleep I did, right through my normal 5 a.m. wakeup time.  Hmmm, that’s weird, I know I set my alarm, but the clock is flashing and three hours slow, like the power went out.  But no other clock in the house is doing that…

I was kicking around possibly sleeping in anyway, so I guess that has been decided for me, and now it is too late to get my run in before the kids need up and readied for school.  But to be honest the extra sleep felt really really good – maybe I needed it.  I certainly handle things better when well rested.  So I will run later after the bus picks up Trevor.

Running always calms me, always resets me, always slows me down, especially my racing mind; maybe someday I will actually be able to outrace my mind!  But that is not necessary today, I just need to feel my muscles moving and my heart pumping and my lungs filling deeply.

And the endorphins kick in, and I settle into a meditative pace.  And I leave the subdivision to run through the woods of a local park.  The grass is still wet with morning dew, and the bright sunshine on this clear crisp day is a long way from burning the moistness off; it seeps through my shoes and socks.

The sensation awakens me.  I notice the dampness, I appreciate the slightly chilled air, the golden sunshine, the birdsong.  And then it hits me like a ton of bricks – I hadn’t noticed it before…

I have been up for a couple hours, mindless going through my routine, getting the kids ready, small talk at the bus stop, making plans for the rest of my day, not really feeling anything, like watching a movie.  I didn’t even notice this gorgeous day…

Tell me, what is more joyful than a morning like today?  Bright sunshine, no humidity, white puffy clouds and the energy of fall migration in the air, the promise of colorful leaves and campfire smores, the slowing down of fall?  How many times had I driven to work the past 25 years longing to do what I am doing today, walking my boys to the bus stop and then going for a run?  How is it that I am so wrapped up in my thoughts and worries as to not recognize the gift of this morning before this?  I am ashamed…

But I forgive myself quickly, for the day is too bright, the joy is too real.  I can feel the water enveloping my feet, my breathes are fresh and clear, and the blood courses vibrantly through my body.   I am alive!

I strikes me now that there really is only one true “sin”, the sin of not really living, of just blindly running through it.  And sin is not the right word because it is really just a forgetting – forgetting that simply living our joy every day is enough.  It is so easy to get distracted, so easy to get caught up in our worries and fears.  But this comes with a steep price – you might not notice the sheer joy of the moment.

I grew up near the woods I am now running through, and I pass a clump of sumacs in a field.  I remember as a boy climbing into a similar clump of small trees, and just sitting there.  I had entered a new world, a world that completely changed its perspective from the wide open fields around it.  This world was bounded by the tangles of stems and trunks, and formed a green universe unto itself.  I entered by worming through a portal at the base of two of the larger trees, and then I was just still, taking it all in.  Soon this new universe accepted me, and it came alive with its own presents.  The sounds in here were different, filtered by the leaves, and the light more muted with no direct sunlight, and it had different insects and vegetation.

It was peaceful, too, self contained, and I was filled with the anticipation of new discoveries.  And as I was still, just observing, just being with this new universe, a common yellowthroat entered too.  Since I was now a part of this world, it did not mind my presence, and flitted through the undergrowth, its natural habitat, right up to me.

What a handsome bird, bright yellow breast and leaf green back, broken by a jet black mask from bill to wings!  And so alive, a bundle of energy, always moving, its aliveness brilliant as it stared into my eyes from only a couple feet away.   And we connected, this tiny creature and I, and I felt his aliveness, and I felt his joy, innate joy, in being alive…

I feel it again, right now.  And no kidding, as I round a bend on my path in the woods, the sunbeams burst through the canopy, the diagonal white translucent spears piecing the morning fog from cloud to earth, the perfect picture of God and joy and sunshine and renewal and Jesus laughing and common yellowthroats and dew on the grass and fresh air in my lungs.  I run into the sunbeams.  And I laugh, I laugh out loud, and I raise my hands in joy, pure joy!

I am back, back to my place of joy, back to where I asked to be last night.  And the worries are put in their place, they will be taken care of when the time is right.  And the words flow freely this morning.  And I wonder, how did my clock get messed up?   For had I run at my normal time, well before dawn, I would have missed the sunbeams…

 Common Yellowthroat

Live Laugh Love

Life is short, so live it.  Love is rare, so grab it.  Fear controls you, so face it.  Memories are precious, so cherish them.  We only get one life, so live it!

dance naked

My neighbor passed away today, unexpectedly.  She was 70, and had experienced some health problem recently, but it was still a shock to hear the news; I just talked to her walking her dog yesterday.

Her husband was out of town, and called a neighbor to check on her when she didn’t answer his calls.  My other neighbor, 88 years old, made the terrible discovery and had to be the bearer of such halting news.   He was clearly upset when I ran into him, just an hour or two after, and before the authorities had even arrived.  88, health problems of his own, his own mortality now thrust front and center, visibly distraught.

I always thought that when you reached his age, you had already made your peace with your own demise, without any effort, like hair turning gray.  Clearly that is not the case.  We must all struggle with the inevitable, and age has nothing to do with it.  Some of us are forced to confront this much earlier than others, but even living a good long life doesn’t mean you ever want to let go; life is good, and there is so much beauty, even in the struggle.

But our bodies have limits, and the rules of biology and physics must be honored, and life and death is the realm of the gods, not us mere mortals.

What is up to us is how we react to these limits.  Once again I am humbled and awed by the courage and acceptance that Debbie displayed when faced with these inevitabilities…

I stopped down tonight to visit my distraught neighbor, his first night joining me in the Gibralter Drive Widowers Club.  The house will be quiet tonight, too quiet; it will feel like everything is wrong.  And it is; you just don’t spend 90% of your years with someone and then suddenly adjust to their absence.  It won’t feel real; he will be trapped somewhere between a bad dream and disbelief; we always think we have one more day.  There is not much that needs said at this time, because we both know what it feels like; and sometimes you just need to sit with those feelings for a while.  So we embrace and I honor his wishes to be alone tonight, and I certainly understand that, too, as memories of my first night alone flood back…

I stop in to see how my other neighbors are doing, too – you just don’t live next door to someone for 41 years and not feel the loss, too.  He and his wife graciously welcome me into their home, clearly happy for the company tonight.  We talk; about our neighbor and his wife, all the good times they shared, all the changes they have seen over the years.  We share a beer and memories, the memories of what makes life special – pride in 59 years of being married to your sweetheart (and a big 60th anniversary coming up in December!), pride in raising their two boys, pride in their hard work and accomplishments throughout their working careers, pride in their neighborhood and their humble house full of love.

Stories.  They are what make us human, what makes us unique.  In the end, it is all that we have; but it is all that we need, if we have written ours in full, if we have truly lived.  I am honored to have shared tonight in my neighbors’ stories, and the spark in their eyes recounting these cherished memories does not go unnoticed.  Indeed, it burns as bright in the eyes of someone who is 88 as it did the days they were made.

I can’t help but imagine a time much earlier, bodies young and muscular and functioning perfectly, hearing and eyesight still good, the new lime green carpeting in a brand new house full of dreams lit up in the hopes and dreams of an evening sunset streaming through the front picture window, just like tonight’s…big smile.

Life is precious, even if you are 88.

And life is short.

So write your story, everyday.  Visit your elderly neighbors and relatives while you can, while they are still here to share their hard-earned wisdom.  Comfort those who need a shoulder, if you have a shoulder to give.  Enjoy every sunset, especially the ones that light your dreams and memories.  Smile until your face hurts, cry when tears need shed.  If you are lucky enough to love someone, tell them.  And when times are good, sing out loud, no matter how off key, and dance, dance naked and rejoice!

Live, laugh, love…