Getting Lost…Getting Found

CHASM WATERFALLIt’s Christmas Eve day today and for me, that means a veritable smorgasbord (I have to use that word…I’m Norwegian bred) of beautiful rituals and some work for me as a pastor, even if I am mostly retired. I am one of the lucky ones. This day – this eve – has deep meaning for me after 77 years of life. My gratitude is on overdrive. I carry with me not only nostalgia and some sadness, but also the wonder of my present life into the swirl of memories and hopes that go along with this time. I am immensely blessed.

 

I belong to a closed group on Facebook called “Elder Orphans.” It serves those of us who are 55 or older and who have no family or no nearby family to be of presence or help to us as we age. There are over 9,000 members and we come from all over the world. Only a relative handful post there regularly but they are remarkably open and vulnerable. So many find this site to be a haven and support for the complex mix of issues that arise from aging itself to aging alone.

 

Many share their loneliness and depression, and others flock to encourage and commiserate with them. So many speak of how important these online friendships have been for them. We are a community in the best sense of the word, even with a few quirks in the system now and then.

 

This holiday season brings forth especially powerful feelings and concerns that are unique to us “orphans.” Many have found interesting and imaginative ways to bridge the gulf between what they wish this season could be and what they are planning to do to make up for the loss of their favorite hopes. Many are lost for now in the dark and not able to find a way to get through the pain and darkness of this singular time.

 

We all know the fear and the pain of feeling lost and the breathlessness of longing to be found. Somehow. Some way. Some day. No one escapes the waves of yearning to belong, to be loved and valued. To see faces brighten when we come into a room just because we are there. We all find ourselves at home when we are loved.

 

Many years ago, I found a deep well of healing and understanding when I engaged in the practice of unguided imaging meditation. That was during a particularly complicated time of life when I had no idea what lay ahead, but knew that something had to change.

 

That’s when I discovered the power of restlessness! I hated the feeling, but there it was. I had to enter into the uncertainty of this impatient restlessness before I could find the resting place that could hold me. Unguided meditation became the key for me.

 

The desert – a wilderness – was often the setting that presented itself, usually lasting for weeks before I found my way back to some vestige of civilization and new life. That’s what being lost can look like. That’s what it can feel like. An endless and unmarked wilderness.

 

There were no verticals to break up the horizontal expanse of the endless sand. No signposts. No directions. Only the endless horizon. Standing still was not an option. I had to walk, to pick a direction – any direction – and just head out. Day after day. Week after week.

 

Every time my meditations placed me in the desert, I was aware of  a mysterious guide who followed far behind and who would eventually lead me out and back to the world at hand. Every time, I found answers that were the open door to a new beginning.

 

Each of us, when we’re faced with this unwelcome restless place in us, seeks a way out. It is the time for new lessons, new opportunities, new people, new tasks, new attitudes, new hopes, new manners of finding ourselves found again. It can seem to last forever – indeed, sometimes it takes years to walk through it. But walk through it we must if we do not want to get stuck forever.

 

So here’s the upshot: when we’re found, we always find ourselves in a new place. It can be scary because so much of it is strange and unfamiliar, but the thing about the journey there is that being found is also incredibly enchanting…if we’re willing to take the chance of living there now. “You’ll never know until you try,” is still my mantra. It has never yet failed me, so I’m sticking with it!!

 

It’s almost a new year. Life just keeps moving forward. There’s no going back. So…if this is a time when the restlessness has taken hold, this might be the very time when we’re ready to find that new place, the time when we’re ready to take that first step…when we won’t know until we try. If and when we’re ready, there are some ways to begin:

Stay with the dream…and then doggedly follow it to where it could lead…

take a chance…

attentively await the new purpose…which will show up eventually…

have patience with time…while using impatience to keep moving ahead…

take a leap of faith…the chasm may look wide, but the other side is reachable…

challenge the restlessness…

invite a dream in…allow it to unfold…

do battle with the lingering fears…

ask for help…

ask for the wonder that is out there for the taking…

take a chance on being found…

Pick one. Pick some. Choose them all. Whatever fits. When it’s time to try.

 

Restlessness is one of the Big Things that’s brought me to where I am now. And I’m very okay with that! Being lost has always turned out to be blessing. Being found has always been worth the desert. And I’m very okay with that, too!

 

If you think you might qualify for Elder Orphans and you are on Facebook, just search for their name. There is a “free” group and a “paid” group that is more comprehensive. Start with the free one.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Ritual: Making Friends with Life

 

Seventy-seven and a half is, by any measure, a long life. By the time we get this far along the spectrum, we’ve lost important people we’ve loved. We know how to grieve. And we have learned how to sit side-by-side with it – more or less, anyway. By age 77, it’s familiar territory.

 

Oh, who wants to talk about grief, anyway? It’s so depressing. Well, yes it is, in part. But it’s also common enough in our elderhood that pushing it away can keep us from discovering some surprising lessons. Like the presence of beautiful moments in the midst of grief. Like the sudden surge of an unexpected elation that knocks our socks off. Like the quiet calm that can descend when the storm has abated and the latest tears have been spent. Like the power of creating ritual to honor that which has been lost so that some of it can be found again.

 

Creating ritual. I did just that recently. I’m so glad I did. It was for the fifth anniversary of the death of my husband, who was my soulmate, my best friend, my biggest cheerleader. Somehow, five years just needed something extra to honor 22 years of loving life together. I just wondered if I could do it justice. Then I thought of my newest motto: “You’ll never know until you try.” If that was potent enough to get me to start a blog, it was a strong enough to handle this. So how to begin…

 

It needed something visible. It needed something palpable. 

 

Megan Devine has become my go-to guru for all things grief journey related, and her website, www.refugeingrief.com, has taught me well. Recently, just in time for the approaching date, she posted this:

“No matter what you’ve planned, you can change your mind at any time. Keep checking in with your heart about what you might need in any given moment. None of this is easy, even if what you’ve planned goes beautifully.” My ritual needed heart.

 

That gave me the courage to give it a try. I began to check in with my heart. And lo and behold, it showed me the way. It wasn’t depressing. It wasn’t fearful. I wasn’t telling myself I couldn’t do it. I needed to do it. I wanted to do it.

 

Step by step, the ritual came into view. It would begin in the evening, since by mid-evening on December 2, 2013, I knew that the end was not going to be long in coming. I would sit vigil this night for 5 hours…the time of waiting and watching.

 

Heavy Swedish glass candle holders (bought in ancestral Sweden on our magical trip there in 2002); the best pictures gathered together; favorite music (YouTube has never had a better use than it did that night); a favorite dress and times of naming gratitude and remembering the best of who we were – surrounded me with a peace that I could not have imagined. Prayer and meditation knit together the past and the present and I was gently and quietly held in the power of love.

 

It did go beautifully. And it was painful when the time showed 12:34 am, December 3rd. But the pain of marking that moment was but a short part of the vigil, and what remained was the sacredness of the whole time and the deepest kind of peace that passes all understanding.

 

See? That wasn’t so bad, was it?

 

We homo sapiens love ritual. We thrive on it. We’re programmed to be ritual beings. Perhaps that’s because we need to be connected. We have to be connected to something, to someone to find meaning and purpose at every stage of life. And ritual is one way that we do that.

 

How many of us have holiday rituals? Christmas, spent with my extended family when I was growing up, was filled with little rituals, and deviating from any one of them was heresy!  Fourth of July is full of patriotic rituals, connecting us with our national roots and identities. You get the picture.

 

Funerals and memorial services. Religious worship. Weddings and baptisms. The candlelight vigils after a communal tragedy. Family trips. Reunions. All of the trappings, all the devices, all of the words and music connect us with each other and with the things that most deeply matter in human life: love and commitment; generosity and service; life and death; victory and tragedy; compassion and embrace.

 

In elderhood, I’m finding that ritual takes on a new depth and a new importance because so much changes in our older years and we can easily struggle with how to live with some new realities that catch us unawares. Ritual can be one way to make sense of new life questions and unanticipated changes. 

 

Something as simple as the decision to take a walk every day becomes a ritual of paying attention to what surrounds us in the big, big world. A Facebook friend who has difficulty walking posted about an unexpected adventure that happened when she had an unusually strong day and decided to chance a walk around a nearby lake. She was rewarded for her persistence when a beautiful blue heron wound up walking near her in the lake – for an hour! Walking is ritual when it connects us with life in all its many forms, with the grand theater that is just waiting for us to get up on stage!

 

Something as elemental as joining a new group, taking a trip, learning a new hobby, volunteering in a new place, taking on new work all become part of the rituals of our everyday life. Interrupting the familiar flow becomes an adventure, and the meaning of this strange time of life slowly shows its beauty.

 

Elderhood becomes a special new experience of life because we have been forced to find new ways to connect – to the world, to people, to time, to hope, to the reason for why we’re still alive.

 

At some point, we learn how to create new rituals that help us to make sense of new realities. Physical limitations, living alone after being partnered, increasing dependence when we’ve had a lifetime of independence all face us with making friends with what life is now. It’s a hearty work that we’re called to do, but doing it is life-saving.

 

It’s all a part of how I got here, surprised at 77 by the new ways I have found meaning and purpose. And new friends and companions on the journey. And I’m very okay with that!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The First Real Snow

There it was: WINTER STORM WATCH: SAT 6AM-SUN 12PM. 4-8″ OF SNOW, BEGINNING WITH FREEZING DRIZZLE. ADDITIONAL DETAILS: TRAVEL COULD BE VERY DIFFICULT.

 

For all of my breezy affirmations about being at home with my elderhood, this is the one anticipated but dreaded banner that messes with the best of my intentions. The worst words: travel could be very difficult. “Very.” No kidding. This is Minnesota. This happens.

 

“So why now?” I ask. I’m supposed to travel on Sunday morning. Only 20 miles, to be sure, but be out on the road I must. In my retirement as a pastor, I’ve been preaching at a small church for a few weeks while they are seeking a new pastor. I love it. Except when travel could be difficult. Even for just 20 miles. So today, I’m fretting. Just a bit. Occasionally reminding myself to breathe.

 

Snow-accumulated and possibly slippery roads are nothing to sneeze at. But we northerners have learned how to navigate them when they are navigable. We drive more slowly, keep a longer space between us and the car ahead, begin to come to a stop sooner, and know the drill about how to manage a skid. And how to call AAA when we find ourselves hopelessly stuck. (How did we ever get along without smartphones?) And hope that the winter heroes got their plows and salt trucks out early enough. That’s the life we choose when we live in the north. And I’ve driven bad winter roads enough times in my 77 years of life to know what I’m fretting about!

 

This is what it means to stay in the north all year round: pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps from time to time; facing the frigid winds and the dropping temperatures; checking weather reports against what we’re seeing out our windows. Making sure our survival kit is stashed in the car (chocolate anyone?). For property owners, it’s snow blowers and shovels and keeping the furnace exhaust from getting plugged by snow drifts.

 

For all of us – taking out the baskets of gloves and mittens and elaborate long scarves; snow suits for the kids and some of the grown-ups; earmuffs and down coats and lined boots and wool clothing. And layering. Best to be layered. We made it a fashion statement.

 

What a way to live! I know. We who live it grouse about it, and those of you who are farther south think there’s something either amazingly heroic or insanely stupid about choosing to stay here in winter. I know. Still…lots of us do it year after year. The question is, why?

 

In 1961, I traveled for 6 weeks in Europe with my college choir. (6 weeks??? I know!) We did a concert one evening in a spectacular Romanesque cathedral in communist East Berlin, in sight of the Brandenburg Gate which divided it from West Berlin. It was only 2 weeks before the Berlin Wall would appear overnight, separating the two sides and all its people from each other for more than 28 years.

 

We had a chance to visit with 8 or 10 young students after the concert. We had toured East Berlin earlier in the day. We had felt the oppression. Yet, here they were. We asked how often they would go into West Berlin, knowing that it was possible and assuming it would be highly desirable to escape the grey limits for at least a few hours.

 

“Never,” they replied. “If we want to work, we have to sign a paper that says we will not go to West Berlin. We have to work, so that is what we have to do.”

“Then why do you stay,” we asked in our naivete. Freedom and all…

“Because this is our home,” they calmly answered. Soon it would be their prison. I fret about snow and ice. Some of them may have died behind that wall. But it was their home. And this cold, snowy winter piece of the world is mine. So I stay.

 

Perhaps that says a lot about why we amazingly heroic/insanely stupid people stay here. This is our home, this cold, wintry, snowy, icy, wind-blown north that keeps us here. Yes, it has its challenges and it stretches our endurance sometimes, but it gives us gifts, too.

 

Yes, there are the snowbirds who leave for Florida or the Southwest for the coldest, snowiest months, but they’re another breed and we love them in spite of it. You might call them the only sane ones. And there are the ones who simply move to the south for good for year ’round sun and warmth, and we forgive them because a part of us understands.

 

But it’s also magical here. And it breeds hardy stock and brave people who throw their long scarves around their faces with abandon and turn them to the wind because they are going somewhere they need to be.

 

The lights of winter really do sparkle more brightly and magically against the white snows. We get into our warm cars and tour the city to see them because they feed our souls.

 

The shoosh-shoosh of skis going downhill or cross-country,  and skaters doing graceful turns on the ice are sounds of being fully alive and fully present. The skating rinks and hockey arenas are energetic community in action. Snow persons and snow forts crop up in neighborhoods and an ice castle and ice sculptures bring us out to embrace their frigid beauty. And laughter outdoors is so singularly bright and infectious!

 

The chills of being outside are all the more tolerable when the warmth of indoors greets us with welcome and the promise of comfort. And a nearly frozen nose and chilly fingertips know the deliciousness of thawing out. How often does the familiar, “Brrrrr!!!” show up with a grin? More often than you might think. The aromas of hot cider or hot chocolate warm the insides and greet us with the reminders of other loving places of our past.

 

We can’t wait to shed all the winter gear in the spring. It is a pain to put on boots, gloves, scarves, coats, wool socks, sweaters and sweats every single time we go out. But there’s something cozy and comforting about being safely wrapped up against the elements. And energetic about stomp, stomp, stomping to get the snow off our boots.

 

The happiness hormones get a massive winter workout here because we are so often overcoming , transcending and working out our resilience quotient! And all of that fills us up with the wonder and excitement and fullness of being alive!

 

This is where our hearts are. That’s what home is. No geography is perfect. No building finally houses the deepest meaning of what “home” is. It’s the people who share the struggles of every place together and find joy together in the midst of them. It’s where familiar takes on meaning.

 

The details of how we do it are the outward and visible signs of an inner grace. And that’s the definition of a sacrament. Sacred spaces. Sacred time. Sacred living.

 

It’s all a part of how I got here. And I’m very okay with that! And I’m still breathing.

 

Update: Church was not canceled. The highway was plowed but we all took it easy. And magic appeared as we gathered in this “home.”