Monday, December 28, 2015

A Word for 2016 ...

What is your word for the year ahead? 
A word which contains within it a seed of invitation to cross a new threshold in your life?

Christine Valters Paintner

Hello everyone!

Here we stand on the edge of 2016, a new year full of promise and possibility. Thresholds such as these are times when we can consciously choose to relinquish the old, the tired and the overly familiar to step into a new space with arms and eyes wide open, ready to receive whatever gifts await us in the months ahead.

Thresholds are in-between places where the old is gone and the new has not yet arrived. In many spiritual traditions, these thresholds are seen as sacred places where the veil between earth and heaven is particularly thin. They are places where we can pause to reflect upon the past, deciding what wisdom and experiences we want to take forward with us into the new year. They are also places where we can look ahead with intentional openness to all that is to come. The ancient Celts, who honoured such thresholds, believed that there were unseen presences in these liminal spaces waiting to support us as we step onto new paths.

A more concrete support for the journey, one about which I've written in the past, is the process of allowing a word to "choose you" and act as a guide through the new year.  (You can click on the link to see the steps in this process and "receive" your own intuitive word for 2016.) 

As I look back over the past few years, I can see the positive effect wrought in my life by receiving and reflecting upon each guiding word. There is a clear (to me) connection among the four words I've "received" since learning about this enlivening tradition and I can see, in retrospect, how each has built on the one before. The words I've received thus far are act, veriditas, suppleness and alive.  I will be excited to see what my unconscious will produce for 2016.

As we each wait for our word to come clear, let me leave you with one of Jan Richardson's lovely blessings (you know how I love the notion of blessing!) along with every good wish for this new and beckoning year.

Blessing the Threshold

This blessing 
has been waiting for you
for a long time.

While you have been 
making your way here
this blessing has been 
gathering itself
making ready
biding its time

This blessing has been
polishing the door
oiling the hinges
sweeping the steps
lighting candles
in the windows.

This blessing has been
setting the table
as it hums a tune
from an old song
it knows,
something about
a spiralling road
and bread
and grace.

All this time
it has kept an eye
on the horizon,
keeping vigil,
hardly aware of how 
it was leaning itself
in your direction.

And now that
you are here
this blessing
can hardly believe
its good fortune
that you have finally arrived
that it can drop everything
at last
to fling its arms wide
to you, crying

Welcome to 2016, dear friends!

Thursday, December 24, 2015

The Presence of Absence at Christmas ...

I notice your absence.
I notice your non-presence and reflect
on the time when you were present ...

Jarod Kintz

Hello everyone,

I've just finished all the happy "work" of the holidays and now there is time to sit back by the fire with a cup of tea to reflect on the holiday experience thus far

The winter holidays are usually the most joyful time of year for me. I love everything about them - the lights, the colours, the gifts, the music, the connection with family and friends. This year, however, changes in the pattern of life have subdued some of that joy. One sister, who lost her partner last spring, is grieving. The other sister is far away in Dawson City, without her family, working through the holidays. My dear friends, whose daughter is spending Christmas in a hotel room in a small city in Borneo rather than joining them for Christmas dinner, are missing her presence. And my own traditional plans for Christmas Day have taken a different path this year, asking me to spend most of Christmas Day alone.

At one point during the week, I sat down with my journal to better understand the strength of my emotional response to these "absences". I was sad and angry and lonely to a degree that seemed a bit of an overreaction to the actual circumstances. (After all, I am hardly a Syrian refugee being torn from everything I know or a family caregiver saying goodbye to a loved one who will die over the holidays.) As usual, after digging a little deeper, I realized that the intensity of my response came from layers of similar experiences in times past, times when the presence of absence figured strongly in my life. 

Whether at the very beginning of life when I lived as a boarder baby in a hospital nursery or during the many times in my childhood when my beloved father disappeared without warning on an alcoholic binge or throughout the early years of my bereavement following the deaths of my husband and mother, this "presence of absence" has had a strong, if sometimes unconscious, effect on my life. Now, when current holiday experiences trigger the emotional memories of these absences, my old and new reactions can mix together and become a little over-the-top.  

It is in the nature of life that we live in the presence of absence. Something or someone is almost always missing or about to go missing. Most of us build up an internal file folder of "absence experiences" over time, a folder that has the potential to raise our emotional intensity whenever it is reopened by a current loss or disappointment. 

So, what do we to do when this file folder is opened unexpectedly and all those old pages of absence fall out on the floor with their attendant emotions?

The first step is to recognize that this, indeed, is what's happening. This recognition lets us separate present experience from past emotion, allowing us to respond to the current absence with more appropriate intensity.

Secondly, we can reach out for a "presence" to calm and balance the experience of absence. Tell a trusted friend how you're feeling, write in your journal, pray, meditate, lean into the web connecting all human beings for support and comfort.

Thirdly, make a concrete action plan for doing the best you can with the absence situation that faces you. I have a large turkey thigh in the fridge waiting to be stuffed tomorrow morning, a fire all ready to be laid in the fireplace and a new book on hand to open tomorrow afternoon. I've also booked telephone visits with particularly supportive loved ones, spread throughout the day. It won't be the Christmas I want but it can be a better one than the lonely one I'd imagined.

And, finally, after the holidays have passed, you can consider seeing a good therapist to work at emptying your absence file folder of some of its older pages so that your holiday emotions can gradually become less overwhelming.

Whatever the absences present in your life this holiday season, may each of you find sufficient gifts of peace and joy to balance them. 
Merry Christmas, everyone!


Wednesday, December 16, 2015

oops ...

Hi everyone!

I understand some of you are having trouble accessing the song, Joy, from the last post. I've changed the link to the YouTube version so you should now be able to access it through the last paragraph in the December 13th post.

Sorry for the difficulty.

Cheers, Jan

Sunday, December 13, 2015

When Christmas Hurts...

I think there must be something wrong with me,
Linus. Christmas is coming, but I'm not happy. I
don't feel the way I'm supposed to feel.

Charlie Brown

Hello, everyone,

Today has been a wonderful day of trimming the Christmas tree, decorating the house and baking the world's best ginger snaps (if I do say so myself!). These winter holidays are my favourite. I love the cold air and sparkling lights outside and the fire and coziness inside, the sounds of carols in the air and the visits of beloved family and friends.

However, for many, the holidays are not such a happy time. This week, for example, three of my friends and family are having serious surgery, one on Monday, one on Tuesday and the third on Wednesday. They and their families are stressed and worried.

When illness, trauma, loss, worry or chronic sorrow fill your heart, the light celebrations of Christmas and the other seasonal holidays can ring hollowly at best or sound a note of pure pain at worst. One of the hardest things about this kind of holiday suffering is that no one wants you to feel it - so family and friends do their best to "cheer you up". It's such a relief when the rare person comes along who will allow you feel exactly as you do without having to "fix"you. Such people are worth their weight in gold.

While checking in with a few of my favourite websites this week, I came across a young woman who, through her music, encourages others to feel their grief and sadness. Her name is Latifah Phillips of Page CXVI and she takes traditional hymns and spiritual songs and changes their words and arrangements to make them more relevant for today. Recently, she took a popular Christian children's song, "Down in My Heart", a typically "go-ey" tune as my husband used to say, and reinterpreted it as a melancholy reflection of pain and grief, written in a minor key.

The dissonance of the song's usual cheer and her own sad arrangement seems to bother her a little for she adds a new refrain:

I can't understand
And I can't pretend
That this will be alright in the end. 

But then she goes on to end the song with a verse from the old hymn, "It Is Well With My Soul", a song of acceptance and trust in the face of suffering. She seems to be saying that even in the midst of great pain we can still find joy. And even when we can't seem to find anything to hope for, we can anticipate that peace will come eventually.

So, I invite you to take a listen and allow this new song, Joy, to companion you through whatever sadness is present this winter season, whether it is the pain of secondary traumatic stress, the grief of losing a family member or friend, or the chronic sorrow of living with a loved one's unending illness or injury. (It's not particularly my style of music - I'm more a Mozart, Schubert or Abba type - but I like Latifah's idea of juxtaposing the happiness of the season with many people's true emotions.) May having your sadness acknowledged in a musical way bring you some peace.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Share A Secret - Support World AIDS Day ...

Started in 1988, World AIDS Day is not just about raising 
money but also about increasing awareness, fighting 
prejudice and improving education. World AIDS Day is 
important in reminding people that HIV has not gone away. ... 

Its time people treat the AIDS patient equally with dignity and pride and stop treating them like down-trodden people. This year, try and do your bit. If you cannot lessen their problems, do not increase them.

Hi Everyone!

Today is World AIDS Day and as you'll know if you read this site regularly, it's a day that holds a special place in my heart, having lost  Barry, a dear mentor, teacher and friend through AIDS a number of years ago.

One of the greatest barriers to HIV-AIDS treatment and support worldwide is the shame, secrecy and stigma associated with the conditions, even now in 2015. While things have improved mightily in some places since the strange, new and frightening virus first appeared in the 1980's, we still have a long way to go in countering the stigma that surrounds it. People in many parts of the world still keep their conditions secret from family, friends and employers, and even from their health care professionals, for  fear of being ostracized or worse. As a result, they can wait too long to get the treatment they need and the support they deserve.

While reading various World AIDS Day articles on the internet this morning, I was struck by a video by Prince Harry introducing his hashtag #FeelNoShame Campaign. Prince Harry, who founded, Sentebale, a charity in Lesotho, Africa for the support of vulnerable children fighting extreme poverty and the ongoing HIV/AIDS epidemic, challenges us to take a step toward breaking the stigma of HIV/AIDS by sharing a personal secret on social media in exchange for his.

The power of shame lies in secrecy. When we take our courage in both hands and honestly admit to something that causes us shame, we break its hold on us and we open the door for others to do the same. So, why not join the movement of brave people sharing their secrets today and do your bit to counter the shame, secrecy and stigma of HIV/AIDS?

(And, for those of you who would like to go even further with your support, please remember that "(RED) Partners" (Apple, Starbucks, Coca-Cola, Le Creuset, dre, beats by dr. and others) will donate 50% of the profits from (RED) products to the Global Fund HIV/AIDS to provide life-saving antiretroviral medication to pregnant women around the world. Ticketmaster and Live Nation have also partnered with (RED). November 9th to December 20th, the ticket sales companies will display a (RED) button on their websites, allowing patrons to donate $10.00 during purchases.)

Thank you to each of you from each of us who has loved someone with HIV/AIDS.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

When Disappointment Strikes ...

We must accept finite disappointment,
but never lose infinite hope.

Martin Luther King, Jr

Hi everyone,

When was the last time you felt disappointed? Disappointments are emotional experiences most of us could do without, even though they seem to be a persistent part of life. Several people I know have experienced significant disappointments in the past month, including myself.

A young friend, scheduled to have surgery for a painful gallbladder condition last Friday, developed a skin rash and the surgery had to be cancelled. Friends travelling in Borneo found that they had to quickly revise their plans when the smoke of the Indonesian fire season and an active volcano cancelled flights and, thus, their dreamed-of boat trip to Camp Leakey. Another friend, recovering from surgery for a heart valve problem, has not seen the improved exercise tolerance he'd hoped for. And, after all my talk about looking forward to being "fed by my senses" while on Vancouver Island for the Thanksgiving weekend, I spent the holiday at home in Burnaby with an aching back after being rear-ended by a hit-and-run driver.

Disappointment. The dictionary says it is the feeling of sadness or displeasure caused by the nonfulfillment of one's hopes or expectations. It disorients us, floods us with sorrow, triggers anger and frustration and uses up energy and focus that could be channelled in more productive ways. If we hold on to it, disappointment can also make us physically or emotionally ill through creating chronic levels of stress.

Some disappointments are predictable and preventable like those that occur when we hope that someone will do something for us but then neglect to tell them what it is that we want. Other disappointments, like my friends' cancelled trip to Camp Leakey, are totally unavoidable. It's important to be able to differentiate between the two so we can respond appropriately.

And how DO we best respond? 

If the disappointment is unavoidable, there are a few things we can do to help us arrive a place of greater peace and acceptance of the unexpected happening:

1.  Treat the disappointment as a small (or large) death - the death of an expectation or a dream. Give yourself permission to grieve that death and fully express your feelings, whether sorrow, anger, guilt, fear or envy. Express them to a trusted friend, write about them in your journal, pray or meditate about them, use expressive arts to release them,  consciously process them through physical activity or see a therapist to work them through. You may find that you feel a little worse to begin with but keeping your feelings buried can cause them to fester so it's usually good to give them room to surface. 
2.  Exercise self-compassion -  Allow yourself to recognize how hurt you feel and treat yourself with all the kindness and compassion you would a friend in similar circumstances. This means avoiding harsh self-criticism or taking responsibility for circumstances beyond your control. It also means asking for whatever support you need to process the experience  
3. Make positive meaning from the situation - I'm not one of those people who believes that "everything happens for a reason" but I do believe that we can take any unfortunate incident and, ultimately, make some positive meaning from it. We can do this through intentionally altering our perspective and through taking in the good. (It may be difficult to see any good at the time of the disappointment, but for many of us, time, intention and perspective allow a glimpse of something life-giving in most unexpected happenings.)
4.  Don't give up hope -  My husband and I struggled with chronic disappointment over the years his heart failure followed its inevitable course. Again and again, we made plans for activities or visits with loved ones, only to find that we had to cancel them at the last moment because he was too tired or had chest pain or was short of breath. (Or that our loved ones had colds or flu and were therefore "off-limits".)
Rather than teaching us to give up hope and avoid planning, these experiences helped us to continue planning while adjusting our expectations. We learned that we would probably have to cancel 80% of the plans we made, but that to enjoy the remaining 20%, we needed to continue making those plans. (We also recognized that we needed to educate our family and friends so they could expect cancellations and have contingency plans in place to mitigate their disappointment.)

If, on the other hand, disappointments are predictable and preventable, they can provide an invitation to reflect on our patterns of attraction and behaviour so we can see what part we play in our own disappointments. Do we enter into relationships with people who are unworthy of our trust? Are we expecting outcomes that cannot possibly occur? Are we wanting something from someone who does not have it to give? Are we expecting more from ourselves than we can reasonably accomplish at this time in our lives?

All disappointments, whether large or small, can be opportunities to learn and grow - if we can open ourselves to that learning. While I wouldn't wish a disappointment on anyone just so they could have a learning experience, I'm sure there are sufficient disappointments in our lives to offer repeated opportunities for reflection and growth. No one wants to be disappointed but there can often be a gift in the experience.

Thursday, October 8, 2015

What Makes Me Grateful ...?

... to live with ... eyes wide open, to breathe in 
the colours of mountain and sky, to know the sound of leaves rustling, the smell of snow, the texture of bark.

Jan Philips

Hello, everyone!

As Thanksgiving weekend approaches this year, I've been increasingly aware of, and grateful for, the gifts of my five senses.

Always a sensory person, I've been particularly aware of the richness of these gifts over the past few months. I don't know whether it's the glorious intensity of the tree colourings after this summer's drought or the experience of meeting the father of a young woman blind in one eye and missing much of the vision in the other or the photography course I've been enjoying since the beginning of September, but I seem exquisitely aware of my sense of sight and, by extension, my other senses as well.

I know it is my five senses that will provide me with the deepest refreshment this Thanksgiving weekend. Sight will feed my soul as I drive through wooded hills to the ferry, taking in the palette of autumn leaves and rocky cliffs rising high above the ocean. Hearing will fill my mind with CBC's North By Northwest  in the early hours, a playlist ranging from the Beatles to Mozart's Clarinet Concerto later in the day and two full days of precious conversations-that-matter. A heart-softening sense of smell will introduce me to the particular new-baby fragrance of a little girl who joined our extended family this week. Taste will sate us all as we enjoy an abundant dinner cooked and shared by many. And touch, found in the warm hugs of loved ones, will help to fill the empty spaces.

I don't know what your situation will be this weekend. You may be one of many working to keep us safe and healthy or you may be a family caregiver working 24/7 to keep a loved one comfortable. You may be surrounded and nurtured by loving family and friends or you may feel alone, exhausted and overwhelmed. Whatever your situation, may one of your five senses offer you, perhaps unexpectedly, at least one small thing for which you can be grateful this Thanksgiving.

Let me leave you with the Thanksgiving gift of one of Celtic poet and philosopher, John O'Donohue"s, many poems of blessing  - this time, a blessing for our senses.

A Blessing For the Senses
May the touch of your skin
register the beauty
of the otherness
that surrounds you.

May your listening be attuned
to the deeper silence
where sound is honed
to bring distance home.

May the fragrance
of a breathing meadow
refresh your heart
and remind you you are
a child of the earth.

And when you partake
of food and drink,
may your taste quicken
to the gift and sweetness
that flows from the earth.

May your inner eye
see through the surfaces
and glean the real presence
of everything that meets you.

May your soul beautify
the desire of your eyes
that you might glimpse
the infinity that hides
in the simple sights
that seem worn
to your usual eyes.

 A very warm and Happy Thanksgiving to you all!   

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Statio for the Fall ...

Now and then it's good to pause
in our pursuit of 
and just be happy.

Guilaume Apollinaire

Hi everyone - Happy almost-Fall!

I took a picture of this sign on a hot, sunny July afternoon at the far end of Kahshe Lake in Northern Ontario. It was nailed to a tree on the bank of a narrow river between two lakes, reminding boaters to  S-L-O-W  D-O-W-N so they wouldn't cause the owner's boat and dock to dance together as they passed.

"Dead Slow, No Wake", could also be a reminder to slow our pace as we begin to multi-task our way through the fall. Taking opportunities to slow down a number of times a day, can help us to stop the automatic flow of life and to pause in the "now". The Benedictine monastic tradition has an age-old spiritual practice known as statio that can help us to do that.

Statio can be thought of as a moment-between-moments, a pause between activities. (You might think of it as a threshold or a mini-transition point between finishing one thing and starting the next, a pause  that offers brief gifts of rest, awareness and possibility.) This place between is a place of slowness, stillness and mindfulness where we can intentionally let go of what came before, pause, and then move fully and mindfully into whatever comes next. We take the time to become fully conscious of what we've just done and what we are about to do rather than moving automatically and thought-lessly on to the next thing.

Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, Benedictine Oblate and online Abbess of Abbey of the Arts,  a virtual monastery based in Galway, Ireland, suggests practicing statio by pausing intentionally at the close of each activity. Every time you change from one activity to another, pause and deepen your breath for five full cycles of breathing. Allow yourself to truly notice and feel the ending of one activity, the pause and the beginning of something new. Try it for yourself over the next 24 hours and notice of how it feels. What was it like to finish? Were you able to welcome and be fully present to what was coming next? Could you rest in the pause?

These tiny windows of awakeness and awareness, experienced many times a day, allow us to become more fully conscious and, as a result, more fully alive. They offer us a space in which to pull together the bits of ourselves that may have been scattered through effort and activity, a moment of integration before beginning again.

May the practice of statio add presence and richness to your life this fall.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Be Touched By Beauty ...

In difficult times,
you should always carry
something beautiful in your mind.

Blaise Pascal

Hello, everyone!

I'm back to posting again after a wonderful summer vacation filled to overflowing with beautiful moments like the sunrise above.

Sadly, not everyone has been as fortunate. Many of you have had to work long hours the summer through, whether as professional care providers or family carepartners, filling in the gaps as others went on vacation or services were cut back. Others have been devastated by the effects of the wildfires that continue to burn throughout the country. (I can't even imagine what it would have been like to try to provide complex care at home while waiting to be evacuated at a moment's notice.)

When circumstances such as these cause us to become exhausted and depleted or when our hearts are broken open by grief and uncertainty, we can find ourselves unexpectedly supported and uplifted by beauty.  We can be deeply touched and calmed by the artistry of nature, the vitality of the fine arts or even the beauty of an ordinary day.

At some of the most difficult times in my husband's long illness, we were gifted with an exquisite awareness of the beauty around us. Whether looking at the diamond dew on the grass outside the bedroom window, listening to the strains of Mozart's Clarinet Concerto, reading the poetry of Basho or gazing at sun-infused jars of red plum jam sitting on the kitchen table, intentionally focusing on beauty invariably lifted our spirits and brightened our days.

Celtic poet and philosopher, John O'Donohue, wrote in his book, Beauty: The Invisible Embrace -

There are times when life seems little more than a matter of struggle and endurance, when difficulty and disappointments form a crust around the heart. Because it can be deeply hurt, the heart hardens. ... Yet though the music of the heart may grow faint, there is in each of us an unprotected place that beauty can always reach out and touch.

He goes on to say that how we look at things makes a huge difference to what we see. We need to "beautify our gaze", to be ready to glimpse beauty anywhere, so we can see life in a new and vital way. When we beautify our gaze, the gift of hidden beauty becomes both our joy and our sanctuary.

We now know that perceiving beauty affects brain physiology as well as our emotional hearts. A study by Professor Semir Zeki at the University College of London in 2011 found that when uninitiated people were exposed to the art of Old Masters like Constable, Rembrandt and Monet, blood flow to the parts of the brain associated with pleasure and desire, immediately increased up to ten percent - a reaction similar to falling in love!

So, how, then, can we begin to "beautify our gaze"? First, by opening our eyes and ears to seek out loveliness in all we see and hear. Then, by taking the time to savour that beauty, to be with the experience and to let it sink deeply into our hearts. When we follow this practice, it is as though we sensitize ourselves to beauty and, thus, open ourselves to it even more.

Of course, there may be times when our surroundings seem distinctly un-beautiful, despite our beautified gaze. In such cases, we can actually carry beauty into the landscape with us. I recently came across a postcard of an 18th century painting called Winter Landscape that I carried with me as a bookmark during the last years of Derrick's life. I often spent time in doctors' offices and hospital waiting rooms gazing into that peaceful scene. The beauty of the rural winter sunset transported me, with no effort at all, to the peace and calm I'd experienced in evening landscapes like it many years past.

Beauty is both a joy and a sanctuary but sometimes we can forget to open our eyes and ears to perceive it.  So, why not take some time today to intentionally, "beautify your gaze", to allow the loveliness of something around you (no matter how large or small) to touch your heart?  Do it several times and see what a difference it can make to your outlook.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Give Yourself a Break ...

Each of us needs to withdraw from the cares
that will not withdraw from us.

Maya Angelou

Hi everyone,

We're well into the lazy, hazy, crazy days of summer but, for many of us, our care-giving work will continue regardless the season. If you're someone who is aching for a break while knowing that it won't happen any time soon, try this easy meditation to give yourself a brief "pause that refreshes".

By allowing yourself to "close your eyes and picture this ... ", you can quickly take yourself away from stress, problems and worries.

Why not give it a try?  Just take a few moments and close your eyes and fully picture any of the things on this list (or try opening a magazine with your eyes closed, pointing to a sentence or picture, and fully imagining that).

-  A new baby fresh from a bath
-  A cool early morning by a lake
-  The smell of freshly ground coffee
-   An afternoon in a bookstore
-  Sitting in your flower garden
-  The sound of Rice Krispies
-   A run at the beach
-  Candles dripping wax
-  The sound of rain on the roof
-   A wood stove
-  A field full of alpine flowers
-  Newly hatched chicks
-  Gathering eggs from a nest
-  Colouring in your colouring book
-  A hike in the woods
-  Flying a kite
-  The feel of grass on your feet
-  The dawn chorus of birdsong
-  Getting dressed for a dinner and concert
-  Skating on a frozen pond
-  Camping
-  Watching clouds 
-  Warm chocolate chip cookies and milk
-  Sipping tea by the fire
-  Plunging into a swimming pool or lake
-  Children's laughter
-  Riding your bike downhill fast
-  Meditating in the early hours
-  Plush terry bathrobes
-  Listening to seashells
-  Going to a Broadway show
-  Finger painting
-  Reading in a big chair
-  Renting a row boat 
-  Smelling laundry fresh from the line
-  Lying in tall grass 
Whatever you choose to picture, may it carry you to a place of refreshment and re-creation in the midst of your busy day.

I will be leaving for the cottage on Thursday to spend three weeks re-creating so won't be posting again until I return in August.

Til then, have a wonderful summer!


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Summer Reading 2015: Spirituality & Resilience ...

One benefit of summer was
that each day
we had more light to read by...

Jeanette Walls

Hi Everyone!

It's almost time to say "Happy Summer!" and I, for one, can hardly wait to spend some long lazy days with my nose planted in a good book.

All through a VERY busy spring, I've fantasized about sitting on the deck at the cottage with the sun on my back and a pile of books on the ground beside me. As I've made a list of titles to pack into my duffle bag, I've been a little surprised to see that many of them are connected by the thread of spirituality. (I've been growing more and more interested in spirituality as a resilience factor for both compassion fatigue and chronic sorrow but hadn't expected that interest to show up in my vacation reading as well.)

Let me share with you some of the titles that will soon be winging their way to the Muskoka lakeside with me:

1.  The Spiritual Child: The New Science on Parenting for Health & Lifelong Thriving by Lisa Miller, PhD
I've cheated a bit with this one and started reading it already. Written by the director of the Clinical Psychology Program at Columbia University, it reads a bit slowly but offers a host of new-to-me studies on the impact on physical and mental health of supporting and nurturing a child's "natural spirituality".
Research by Miller and her colleagues over the last decade shows that children who have a positive, active relationship to spirituality are 40% less likely to use and abuse substances, 60% less likely to be depressed as teenagers and 80% less likely to have dangerous or unprotected sex.  They are also more likely to have positive markers for thriving and for high levels of academic success.  I'm finding the book a warm, hopeful and practical guide for enhancing children's spiritual development.
2.  The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise by Martin Pretchtel
Martin Pretchtel was raised on an Indian reservation in New Mexico and was trained by a renowned shaman there. According to the reviews, he says that modern society has lost its way in leaving grief to be experienced and expressed alone, without the support of community.
He says, "Grief expressed out loud for someone we have lost, or a country or home we have lost, is in itself the greatest praise we could ever give them. Grief is praise, because it is the natural way love honours what it misses." He explains that the unexpressed grief prevalent in our society today is the reason for many of the social, cultural and individual ills we're currently experiencing. He shows how this collective, unexpressed grief, long held by our ancestors as well as ourselves, can be worked through so we can all be healed from the intergenerational trauma of loss, war and suffering.
3.  Fully Alive: Discovering What Matters Most by Tim Schriver
I've wanted to read this book ever since seeing Tim Schriver interviewed about writing it. He struck me as an authentic, vulnerable and articulate seeker who was able to translate both the best aspects of his faith tradition and his experience with the intellectually disabled through Special Olympics into a strong and supportive personal spirituality. He has also drawn on the Kennedy family story of "retarded" Aunt Rosemary who, he says, "taught them all how to care from within". Kirkus Book Reviews has pronounced the book "sincere, profound and deeply satisfying".
4.  Blue Horses: Poems by Mary Oliver 
This is Mary Oliver's latest collection of new poems. She describes in spare and perfect phrases both the everyday happenings and beauty of Nature and the resilience that comes through our connection with the natural world. I can't imagine a summer at the cottage without one of her books.
5.  Walking the Walk: Putting the Teachings into Practice When it Matters Most by Pema Chodron (Audiobook)
I figure this audiobook by Buddhist monk, Pema Chodron, will help to pass the time waiting in airports and during the five hour flights to and from Toronto.
Pema addresses the difference between knowing spiritual concepts and applying them in everyday life. In four sessions, we have the opportunity to reflect upon practices that can be applied in any faith tradition - stabilizing the mind (awareness, presence and foundation), unconditional friendship with yourself (getting unstuck from patterns that create our own suffering), freedom from fixed mind (releasing biases and prejudices to revitalize everyday experiences) and taking care of one another (learning to be truly there for others).
And, as you might guess looking at previous lists, I'm also planning to find space in my bags for a couple of escape novels. At the moment, Joanna Trollop's Balancing Act and Elizabeth George's Lynley and Havers mystery, Just One Evil Act are in the running. (I know, I know, I'm just a little behind on this series!)

Whatever you choose to do this summer, I hope some happy moments with a good book are there in the mix. Enjoy!

Monday, May 18, 2015

Compassion Fatigue and Creativity ...

Through experience, I understand that 
creative expression, in its myriad of forms, is essential
 to physical and mental health and a rich life.

Carolyn Cowan
in Creative Aging

Hi everyone!

I hope your spring is blossoming. These past few weeks, as I've walked the shores of my beloved lake in the early hours of the morning, camera in hand, I've been struck by the lush beauty of the world around me and the myriad of ways we can find to express it - painting, wood carving, knitting, knotting, photography, poetry, sculpting, flower arranging, stories, sketching, quilting, weaving, singing, dancing ...  The list goes on for ever. 

But what if compassion fatigue has diminished our creative spirits? Researchers tell us that trauma (including the secondary traumatic stress of CF) has an impact on our ability to be creative. We need to feel relaxed and safe to have full access to our intellectual abilities, including our creativity. Under the chronic stress of CF, we can begin to lose access to our creative capacities. Our focus narrows and we revert to traditional, familiar and sometimes rigid ways of being and doing. We seem less able to be open-minded, perceptive, curious and imaginative. In an excellent article on The Hidden Costs of Trauma in the Workplace, HR consultant, David Lee, puts it this way,

... (we) become less flexible, less creative and less intelligent. (We) operate at only a fraction of our creative and productive potential. ... Studies on creativity show undeniably that a low threat environment is essential for creative thought. When people are feeling threatened, their thought process becomes rigid and tradition bound ... Furthermore, when stressed, the mind becomes focused on the stressor. This prevents divergent thinking - the ability to broaden one's perspective to include less obvious associations and possibilities which is the hallmark of creative thought.
So, what's to be done? Fortunately, as Julia Cameron, author of The Artist's Way, says, "It's never too late to start over. It is never past the point of no return for our artist to recover."

But how, exactly, do we go about re-igniting our creative vitality? The short and too obvious answer is to begin by healing our accumulated trauma and grief. But then what ...? Here are a few suggestions to start you back on your creative path:

1.  Learn more about the arts and healing:
To justify your creative play, try reading the excellent research-based website and blog published by the Foundation for Art and Healing whose mission it is to explore the fundamental connection between art and the healing process, while providing active, ongoing support to communities and individuals.   
2.  Discover how others have become more creative:  
I've recently come across a wonderful online journal called, Sage-ing With Creative Spirit, Grace and Gratitude. It's a visually beautiful online magazine, issued four times a year, filled with stories of how people engage in the arts as they grow older. The articles are short with many beautiful examples of peoples' writing, art work, crafts and performances.
(If you prefer a book format, you could consider reading,  Creative Aging, edited by Karen Close and Carolyn Gowan and published just this year. It is a compilation of the best of the Sage-ing articles to date.)
3.  Make time to be creative:
Like most other things, creative time needs to be carved out of our schedules, often at the expense another activity. If being more creative, with its benefits of happiness, discovery, community, reduced stress and anxiety, and life balance is a priority for you right now, make a creativity appointment with yourself daily, weekly, once a month, or whenever you can manage it. Begin where you are and, as your love for creating grows, so may your ability to "find" more time for it.   
 4.  Prime the pump by returning to your childhood:  
New research shows that adults can be primed to become more creative simply by being asked to think like children. A recent study in North Dakota found that being encouraged to think like a seven year old produced more original ideas than thinking like an adult. So, before starting a project or solving a problem, consider opening up to the mind of your inner seven year old and see what happens.
5.  Accept "failure" as part of the process:
Many of us have shame-based memories when it comes to creative endeavours. These memories can make us afraid to even try something "creative". However, even the most celebrated artists have a litany of "failures" under their belts. (As Carl Jung once said," I recently went to a museum in Germany, and they had a Picasso exhibition. But the paintings were terrible. I think I saw every lousy Picasso out there. He created about 50,000 works, and not all of them were masterpieces.") A lesson worth learning: embrace failure as part - or even a gift - of the creative process. Learn from it and begin again.
6.  Experiment:
Experiment with various creative forms until you find one that is a good fit for you. We're not all artists, writers or performers. Take time and use mindful awareness to discover a form of creative activity that is life-giving for you and then learn more about it, practice it and, most importantly, let yourself enjoy it!

June 19th is Creative Aging Day (and we're ALL aging!) so why not make a commitment to yourself to try at least one creative activity by then?

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Have You Planned Your Funeral Yet ...?

Stop all the clocks, cut off the telephone,
Prevent the dog from barking with a juicy bone,
Silence the pianos and with muffled drum
Bring out the coffin, let the mourners come.

Funeral Blues
WH Auden

Hello, Everyone,

This morning, I attended the funeral of a friend's husband. Paul was a highly intelligent, accomplished and kindly man and the service's beautifully planned readings, stories, hymns, prayers and homily all flowed together to reflect the man he was. Being at that service reminded me, once again, of the importance of planning our funerals, committing those plans to paper and talking about them with our loved ones. 

Despite having lost my elder brother, both parents, my husband, my young nephew, my mentor, and my best friend, I have yet to plan my own service. What makes us (me) so reluctant to approach this task, especially when we know how much it can help our families when they are shaken and bereaved?  For some of us, the problem is anxiety about the whole notion of death and dying. For others it is the belief that funerals are for the living so they should plan the service. Others struggle with the unattended grief of earlier losses and can't bear to contemplate thoughts further loss, theirs or others'. Others, still, worry about religious differences within their families that could lead to conflict over their plans and so  shy away from the conversations. And still others, who have no religious background at all, have no idea where to start when it comes to planning a funeral ritual so they avoid it altogether.

But there are real advantages to planning ahead our end-of-life ceremonies and rituals. The first is its positive impact on loved ones. Pre-planning greatly reduces the stress of their decision-making after our deaths (as well as their guilt about not knowing our wishes). It also allows us to personalize the ceremony - to tell our story, comfort loved ones with our favourite readings and music, create space for healthy mourning and find ways to celebrate what we've valued in our lives. (While religious traditions may dictate much of what will happen in a service, there are usually personal choices available regarding music, readings and speakers.)

Here are a few things we can consider as we plan our own ceremonies:

1. What kind of ritual do I want?  A funeral service followed by burial or cremation? A funeral service followed by graveside service? A memorial service after burial or cremation? A service in my own home? A funeral service in the city where I die and second service in another locale? Something other than a service? Do I want my body present? Do I want the coffin open?
 2.  Do I want any additional ceremonies? A viewing, a wake, a visitation, a reception after the service, a one year anniversary commemoration?
3.  How closely do I want to observe my religion's mourning rituals?
4.  Where do I want the ceremony to be held? (Plus a second choice in case it is necessary) Where do I want my remains to be buried/scattered? 
5.  Who would I ask to officiate? (Plus a second choice) 
6.  Who will be my pallbearers (6)?
7.  Who will tell stories or deliver eulogies (3)?
8.  Who will read prayers, poems or other readings (3)?
9.  The readings I want to include are (3)
10. Music I want to include - prelude, postlude, songs, hymns, solos to be played/sung during the ceremony
11. What types of flowers would I like to be used to decorate the room/coffin?
12. Do I want a headstone, memorial bench or other marker? How would I like it inscribed? 
13. Are there favourite charitable organizations where a donation could be made in my name?
14. What are the groups I've belonged to that should be notified of and invited to the ceremony? (with their contact information)
15. Who are the people my family may not know who should be notified and invited? (with contact information)
16.  What wording do I want for my obituary, where do I want it placed, and for how long? 
17. Do I want my body or ashes repatriated - to the country where I was born? To the place where my grandmother or spouse was buried?

As you can see, there are actually many places where our input can make a difference.

That said, we should also remember that, as important as our planning may be, it is equally important to give loved ones explicit permission to make changes in our plans should the need arise. I have worked with more than one person whose guilt over changing funeral arrangements has helped to trigger complicated grief. Gifting your family and friends with your wishes, plus the room to move, will reduce their stress considerably.

And now, having written this post, I can safely say that by the end of the week I will have planned my own funeral service. I hope that you will take this opportunity to reflect on the questions above and give yourself (and your family) the gift of doing the same.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Colour Your Stress Away ...

Life is about using the whole box of crayons.

Colours are the smiles of nature.
Leigh Hunt

Life lesson from the nursery: Broken crayons can still colour.
Author Unknown

Hi everyone!

For the past few months, I've been experimenting with offering workshop participants mandalas, Celtic knots and other intricate designs to colour - and I've been amazed by the positive response. People love them and comment on how the colouring helps them to focus and relax throughout the day. Kinesthetic learners are especially happy to have "something to do" as they listen to mini-lectures and participate in group discussions.

Colouring takes us back to another time, a time when choosing colours and mixing tints and shades could provide respite from childhood stressors. It is a form of self-soothing and relaxation. Thought to de-stress us by activating areas on both sides of our brains, the relaxation of colouring particularly lowers the activity of the amyglala, a part of the brain that senses and deals with threat. When we colour, the gentle repetitive motions soothe us and the colouring experience shifts us from a state of perceived threat back to a state of calm.

Colouring can be seen as a form of active meditation. Our mindful attention to the colouring pushes aside current stressors and future worries. The Aurora University (Illinois and Wisconsin) website offers the following steps for meditative colouring to their stressed students:

1.  Start the session with a smile. Don't skip this step just because it sounds a little silly. In fact, studies have proven that smiling even when you are not happy can raise your level of endorphines (mood-enhancing chemicals) in your brain. So start smiling!
2.  Find a design to colour. Any colouring book will do, or print a mandala to colour. Mandalas are complex, symmetrical geometric designs that originated thousands of years ago in India. They are fun to colour and beautiful to look at once done.
3.  Choose your colouring supplies. You can use crayons, coloured pencils, markers or even chalk. Don't think too much about the colours you are selecting. Let the colours choose themselves. You will be amazed at the colour combinations when you're done. 
4.  Allow yourself to experience the movements, hear the sounds of the crayon on the paper or feel the marker glide across the page. As thoughts, pictures or worries pop into your head simply acknowledge them and return your focus to colouring. Colouring will always bring you back. With a little practice, you will find that you can easily achieve a deeply relaxed state while colouring.
Some people wonder if drawing and colouring their own pictures on a blank page would produce the same relaxing results as colouring in a colouring book but a small study in 2005 in the Art Therapy journal seems to indicate that structured colouring-in, whether of a mandala or a plaid pattern, has a greater impact on anxiety levels than unstructured colouring.

Recognition of the relaxing properties of colouring has led to a recent boom in colouring books for adults. Scottish illustrator, Johanna Bradford's intricate best seller, Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book has sold 1.5 million copies worldwide and Enchanted Forest: An Inky Quest and Colouring Book came out in February. Other well-loved colouring books include:

1.  Celtic Patterns to Colour by Struan Reid
2.  Animal Kingdom by Millie Marotta
3.  Colour Me Calm and Colour Me Happy by Lacy Mucklow and Angela Porter
4.  The Mindfulness Colouring Book by Emma Farrarons (Sized for pocket or purse)
5.  The Mandala Colouring Book by Jim Gogarty
6.  Dream Catcher: A Soul Bird's Journey and Dream Catcher: The Tree of Life by   Christina Rose
7.  Colour Me Good London Colouring Book by I Love Mel
8.  Natural Wonders: A Patrick Hruby Colouring Book by Patrick Hruby

For those of you who would like to try a little colouring before making the financial investment in a colouring book, here are some free mandalas to copy and colour. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

National Family Caregiver Day 2015 ...

Hi Everyone!

Today is National Family Caregiver Day 2015, a day to celebrate the millions of unpaid family caregivers who give of their time, strength, love and futures in order to provide care for those who are ill, frail or disabled.

These caregivers are not a homogenous group with the same experiences, needs and feelings, rather, people, old and young, with highly complex, complicated and individual stories, people whose lives are changed considerably, often dramatically, by the experience of caregiving.

Family caregiving is one of the most rewarding, satisfying and, at the same time, most stressful and depleting endeavours most of us will ever undertake. Caregivers, the backbone of our healthcare system,  need and deserve all the encouragement, emotional and practical support, and resources we can give them so that they don't have to carry the costs of caregiving on into the rest of their lives.

What are these costs? They can include physical illness or injury; mental illness; posttraumatic stress; chronic sorrow; compassion fatigue; missed educational, job or volunteer opportunities; job loss; loss of retirement funds; loss of experiences and relationship quality with the care recipient or friends and family; depleted parenting; loss of identity and self-actualization; loss of recreational and leisure time; loss of sustaining spiritual or philosophical beliefs and many others.

On the other hand, there are important gifts that can be found within some caregiving experiences - development of new skills and competencies; greater self confidence; an appreciation for the smaller, simpler things of life; psychological and spiritual growth; recognition of the importance of self care and the greater wellness that flows from it;  new friendships and support systems; and greater transparency and intimacy in relationships.

Today, and all month, there will be programs and celebrations for family caregivers offered through support agencies and organizations across the country. Here are just a few:

1.  Canadian Caregiver Coalition:
The CCC are offering a series of podcasts sharing caregiving strategies and tools as well as a tweet chat. They have also created a poster on Care & Work: A Balancing Act.
2.  Canadian Virtual Hospice:
The Cdn Virtual Hospice eNews newsletter for April is entirely devoted to supporting caregivers.
3. Family Caregivers Network Society: 
BC's Family Caregivers Network Society is offering free webinars throughout the spring on topics such as Guilt & Frustration, Care Planning 101, Letting Go, and Respite.

If you have a family caregiver in your life, please take some time, today, to contact him or her with a message of love, support and understanding. It can make all the difference in a caregiver's day.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Resources for Spring Renewal ...

Hi Everyone!

Spring is here early on the West Coast with flowers blooming, only a little rain and warmer-than-usual temperatures. With Spring comes a plethora of opportunities to learn and grow and this year is no exception. Here are a few wonderful opportunities to blow out the cobwebs and let a little sunshine in:

1.  The Enneagram and Somatic Awareness: Using Body Intelligence to Relax Type Structure 
This two day workshop, on April 18 and 19 in Seattle, is sponsored by Enneagram in Seattle and features two of my favourite Enneagram teachers, Terry Saracino and Marion Gilbert from Enneagram Worldwide.
As the workshop brochure says:
Those of us who have worked with the Enneagram for many years have discovered how truly difficult it is to influence our reactivity. When we are faced with challenging life circumstances, we find ourselves falling into our type structure's patterns of overreacting, even though we know better.
The workshop will introduce you to the Somatic Awareness Practice which will build your "felt sense" and enable you to free yourself from automatically following your highly ingrained cognitive-emotional impulses and re-enacting your type patterns. 
For more information click here. 

2.  Reclaiming Awe: A Workshop on Mystery and Intuition
This new Rachel Remen workshop for health and service professionals is designed for those who feel their work no longer inspires or has meaning for them, for those who miss a sense of wonder and aliveness day to day.
Rachel Remen, MD, the author of Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal and other popular books, has offered restorative workshops and conferences for healthcare professionals and service providers for many years. This new workshop will help you to find and tell your story of mystery, honour intuition as a legitimate way of knowing, recognize the unexplainable in your everyday work and to reclaim a sense of awe and wonder in your work and in your life.  
The 2 1/2 day workshop will be held at the Acqua Hotel in Mill Valley, California on May 21-23, 2015
 For more information click here.

3. 5th Annual Care4You Conference: Be a Change Agent
This two day Kingston, ON conference on Compassion Fatigue is designed to "care for those who care for others". This year it will focus on the theme of Creating Change Agents. You will learn how to make positive changes at home and at work. Managers will learn strategies to engage their teams and to enable sustainable organizational health.
Featured speakers at the June 9 and 10 conference include:
a. Stephane Grenier, Mental Health Advocate, Canadian Armed Forces (Ret)
b. Sherisa Dahlgren, Holistic Healing Expert & VP Clinical Programs, Joyful Heart Foundation
c.  Pat Fisher, Organizational Health Specialist & Co-Executive Director, TEND Ltd
d.  Francoise Mathieu, Compassion Fatigue Educator & Co-Executive Director, TEND  
For more information click here. 

4.  Stop, Breathe and Think 
And for those of us whose extra money will be going to Revenue Canada or house insurance this Spring, here is a learning opportunity that's simple, fun and FREE. (You pay only if you want the advanced level of meditations.) 
Stop, Breathe and Think is a wonderful website and app that customizes meditations for beginners. If you're trying to do more mindfulness meditation and need some help starting out, this is the place for you. You can go through an emotional check-in and then the site offers appropriate meditations for your current emotional state. 
Simple enough for kids to use, it's a great structured and supportive way to start a meditation practice.
For more information click here. 

So, happy almost-Spring and enjoy!


Friday, February 13, 2015

It's a Matter of Choice: Considering Physician-Assisted Death ...

Ultimately, in our view, when beneficial medical options for cure and for palliative care diminish, the patient, after being properly informed, increasingly becomes the final arbiter in accepting or rejecting these options.

Gerrit Kimsma, MD and Evert van Leeuwen, PhD (2004)

Hello, Everyone,

I'm late with this post after waiting for and then pondering how to respond to the Supreme Court's decision to allow physician-assisted death in Canada. In the end, I think all I can do is to tell my husband's story and to highlight a few important concerns.

On September 30, 2004, my husband of almost twenty years died three weeks after stopping all treatment but palliative care so that his viral cardiomyopathy could run its course. It had been 7 years since his diagnosis and he'd spent the last 3 years confined to bed. He was not clinically depressed and, despite a considerable amount of grief, had been a wonderful role model for how to live life fully and well with ever diminishing energy and abilities. He taught us how to live well and, when the time came, how to die well.

When he told me of his decision to stop treatment, he put it this way. "I feel like a weary traveller on a railway platform waiting for the train. The only thing that makes me sad is knowing that you won't be coming with me." He was exhausted, suffering and ready to die. Any exertion, even listening to music with a quick tempo, caused him chest pain;  every few days he was subjected to the uncontrollable and excruciating pain of catheter changes with a hypersensitive bladder; and the loss of control, pain medication and diminishing oxygen to his brain triggered frequent posttraumatic stress flashbacks to his childhood in wartime England. He had had enough and, although I didn't ever want to lose him, I supported his choice so his suffering could end.

Would he have chosen a physician-assisted death if it had been available at the time? I honestly don't know. But, aware of his lifelong desire to have and carefully consider options in any situation, I think he would have wanted to consider the possibility. (And I'm quite sure that I will want to consider the possibility for myself when the time comes.)

Several things concern me as we wade into the early days of implementing this decision. Three of the most important follow. The first is that we need to see physician-assisted death as part of the continuum of care rather than as a separate choice over and against disability-support and palliative care. Such dualistic thinking will only cause more grief and suffering to patients and families. It is not a matter of either-or but of both-and. Yes, we must improve the quality of and access to sufficient and wide-ranging disability, palliative and hospice care but that doesn't mean that we cannot also provide assisted-death to the few whose suffering cannot be eased and who request that final option. As Dutch physician, Kimsma and medical ethicist, van Leeuen, put it in Physician-Assisted Dying: The Case for Palliative Care and Patient Choice:
(Placing euthanasia in opposition) to palliative care in the way critics have suggested fundamentally disregards the wishes of the patient in the face of death.
Surely that is not our purpose in providing end-of-life care?

A second concern is that we should make our choices regarding the implementation of this decision based on research and compassion rather than on our fears. For example, we know that despite some fears that people will be "put to death" in terrible circumstances, in-depth interviews with patients and families in other jurisdictions point to assisted-death as a moving and positive experience with less traumatic grief experienced after the death than that found in counterparts whose loved ones had died a "natural death". Other studies tell us that physicians can have a very difficult time, emotionally and in relationship with their families, in the days before and after assisting with a death, calling into question the fear that they will become inured to the experience and begin to make such decisions too easily. There are many cases in which our fears regarding physician-assisted death can be allayed by the facts. So, let us be sure to examine the evidence before allowing fear to determine our actions.

My third concern is based on the physician studies noted above. If we are to begin offering patients physician-assisted deaths, it is vital that we first have conversations about what comprises adequate support for the health-care professionals involved. It will be important to put our knowledge of compassion fatigue and burnout to use in creating the best possible support for these caring people.

I believe that if we are open-minded, reflective, compassionate and wise, physician-assisted death can become another important tool for providing comprehensive and compassionate end-of-life care.