Mapping Life

If you could make a map of your life, what would it look like?  Have you walked one path, or several?  Has the terrain been flat or rocky?  What would the road ahead look like?

Let’s see if I can describe the map of my life.

My beginnings were in the east, at the edge of residential land, bordering on industrial.  The path I was born on was bordered by rosebushes, but despite the flowery hope, the thorns were painfully evident.  Not yet able to carve my own path, I was often passed over fences and imposed upon others.

At four, we moved west as a family and the path seemed to open up, and brought the fertile promise of new topsoil.  It was here that I began to picture a direction of my own, and dreamed of writing, teaching, and fighting for children’s rights.   But the richness of the soil proved superficial, and the foundation started to crack, and suddenly,  we veered off course.

The new road took us out of town, away from the familiar, and on the edge of an escarpment.  The way was marked by rocky crevices, and treacherous footings.  As strong and independent as I tried to be, there were too many dark places here, and my confidence was shaken.

By the time we ventured back to my hometown, I had already disengaged myself from my parents’ path, and began to carve my own.  The beginnings were not auspicious.  I was headed into a dark, overgrown forest, which would trip me up many times over the next couple of years, causing me to grasp at any beam of light, desperately looking for a way out.

I came to clearings from time to time, and if  you look closely, you will see the areas that I clear cut myself, out of sheer determination to make that time of my life count.

Then there are the moments where the path lifted me out of the woods and onto the sunny, green hilltops, and life was good again.  And I resumed my dreams, and pursued my studies, and became a mother.

Until the earth opened up and swallowed me momentarily, but I climbed out of that, and for awhile I walked along the beaten path, not really sure if I belonged, but not wanting to miss out either.  See my footprints there, hesitant, beside the road?

And see where I started to carve out yet another new route?  There, where the trees are not so dense, and the wood is new, and spring green.  Notice how the path begins to develop, wobbly a bit, at first, then straightening out, making it’s way in a slow ascent along that mountainside.    There are the plateaus I have talked about, and look there, where I took a steep climb.  Those were good times.  I had purpose then, and felt so alive.

The path goes underground for awhile.  You can’t see it, but it winds its way through the caves.  I can tell you, I tried a few different trails while I was under there, but eventually settled on the one I’m on now.  You can see it emerging, there at the top of the map, where the mountain opens up to a green valley.  I’ll be resting here awhile, but the journey is not over yet.

Just over that next hill there is a village, and beyond that village, on the horizon, an ocean.  Looks like there will be a few more peaks to master, and that the road might double back once or twice, but I am hoping for a beautiful landscape ahead, and a lot more ease of travel.

Try it yourself.  Draw a map of your own life.


A Witness To Death

My mother told me that when she was a child, she would wake up in the middle of the night to find her mother slaving over the woodstove.  Grandma was a midwife.  Mom said Grandma’s dreams would tell her when a baby was coming, and she would get up and cook for her family, knowing she would be away.

Grandma’s gift passed on to me, with a slight variation.

I first learned about it the night my four cousins perished in a fire.  I awoke in the middle of the night with an awful chill.  When my mother told me the news, I realized that I’d already known about their passing.

Walking home from school one day, at the age of eleven, something unseen stopped me in my tracks.  The image of my paternal Grandmother filled my mind along with the sensation of her love, and a farewell.  I arrived home to find my family gathered around.  “I know,” I said, before anyone could speak.  “She told me.”

Lying beside my ailing sister one night, I had a vision of a spirit.  He told me to listen for the howling of the wolves, and that my sister would pass through the fire on her way to the other side.  I was with her the night an unexpected storm came in.  The wind it brought sounded like a pack of wolves howling outside the window.  I had been holding her hand, but the heat from her body was so intense, I had to let go.  The nurse said her temperature was higher than her thermometer could measure.  She passed away ten minutes later.

Do I believe in life after death?  Yes.  Does that lessen the grief of losing a loved one?  No.

Grief is the natural response to loss.  Life may go on, but the relationship has been permanently altered, and that is loss.

When Dee found out she was dying, she made me promise I would be there to hold her hand.  Death, like birth, I told her, is not something we have control over, but I would do my best.  The call came at 6:30 one morning.

“Dee says it’s time,”  her mother told me.  “Can you come?”

I had children to get off to school, and so it was two hours before I arrived at Dee’s bedside.  She was already well on her way.   With one hand I grasped hers, then placed my other over her heart as I leaned in to whisper: “I’m here.”

Dee’s eyes opened and she took one last gasping breath and died.  Her spirit, like a breeze, flowed through the house, flickering all the candles her mother and sister had lit to mark the occasion.  She was free!

I witnessed the miracle, and then I grieved.




Good, better, best.   Never let them rest.  Till your good is better and your better best.

Dad made us recite this whenever he thought that we were giving less than our best effort.  Like the time I came home with a 96% in OAC Relations and Functions.  If I could get 96, I could get a hundred; I just wasn’t trying hard enough.

The message I heard was that if wasn’t the best, I wasn’t good enough.  I told myself that there was no point in trying, but under it all, I just wanted his approval.  Of course, I couldn’t be the best, so I learned to act like I was better by putting others down.  As a young woman, I was constantly angry and intolerant of stupidity or lack of common sense.  I had no patience for weakness, and though I hate to admit it, I found fault with anyone who I thought was better than me.

Lucky for me, I learned the importance of humility.  Not all at once, but over a progression of events.

The idea of humility was first introduced to me by my Religious Studies teacher, in university.  He said the humble man was the happiest man, because he could just be and appreciate life.  I didn’t quite understand, but the idea intrigued me.

My second child added to the learning.  Baby number one was a calm and very manageable baby: a testimony, I thought, to my excellent parenting skills.  Other people clearly didn’t know how to parent, I told myself when I would see a screaming child.  Then Ester came along, and shattered that illusion, humbling me in the process.

Perhaps the greatest lesson came at the age of thirty-one, when my mind snapped.  A mother of three, I was working full-time to support the family, taking courses at the university to improve my qualifications, caring for my dying sister, and trying to find time to work out and diet so I would be more appealing to my husband.  I thought I could do it all.  I couldn’t it.  The walls of my carefully constructed existence came tumbling down, and I was lost in a black abyss of nothingness, unable to function.

It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Clawing my way out of the pit of despair, I came upon this quote (author unknown):

I turned to God when my foundation was shaking, only to find that God was shaking my foundation.

“Get off your high horse, and come down to earth where you can be more useful!”  Not God’s words, but my interpretation.

Do you know what I discovered?  Letting go of having to be the best meant I could start to celebrate the successes of others rather than try to bring them down – a much more rewarding use of my energy.

Oh, and I let go of the fear of not being good enough.

In fact, I decided that I am good enough.

No, scratch that.  I am good.

Wait, even that is overstated.

I am!



First Glimpse Of ME/CFS

Hesitantly, I turned the key in the lock and pushed the door ajar.  A waft of warm, stale air accosted me.

“Hello?”  I’d been told there might not be a response.

Something was resting against the door, so I pushed harder to let myself in.  The beam from the light of the open doorway was thick with dust and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the darkness.  I was walking into a little foyer, with stairs ascending to the main level.  The walls on either side of the entrance were stacked high with boxes, and laundry baskets full of stuff.  Something lay on the floor at my feet – a coat, or a blanket, I couldn’t tell – the object of resistance.  I stepped over it and closed the door behind me.  The smell of the place accosted me then, a smothering aroma of dust, and cigarettes, and cat fur.  I wondered what I had gotten myself into.

“Hello?”  I called again, more desperate for a response.  None came.

She’ll be in the bedroom, at the end of the hallway, her mother had told me.  She likely won’t awaken.

It was the middle of the day, but dark blankets covered the windows, allowing for minimal light.  I waited for my eyes to adjust before climbing the steps to the kitchen.  The rows of boxes and debris continued and flowed into the kitchen, where dirty dishes and takeout containers littered the counters and floors.  Who could live like this?

I felt my way along the hall, carefully stepping through the hordes of items stashed there, until I reached the last bedroom.

Politeness made me knock again.  Again no response.

The situation was worse than I thought, and I seriously doubted my ability to be of help.  It all started when she was seventeen, her mother told me.  She had a terrible case of the flu, followed by encephalitis, and then one thing after the other.  She rarely gets up, and has trouble putting a sentence together.  The doctor’s have given up on her.  She hasn’t been out of the house for ten years, and we can’t get anyone to go in.  We’d really appreciate if you’d go see her.

Two tabby cats greeted me as I opened the bedroom door, as did the fetid odour of a litter box.  Shooing them aside, I approached the bed.  Rumpled bedding was tangled up in the middle of full size bed, but no sign of any thirty-three year-old woman.  Now what?

I decided she had to be somewhere within the mess of sheets and bedding, so centering myself, I began.  I ran my hands just above the bed, hoping for some sense of heat, or thickness, that might indicate there was a body inside.  Instead, I just felt foolish.  So, I stood at the foot of the bed and took some deep breaths, re-centering in hopes of some divine inspiration.

“Well?”  A thin, croaky voice emerged from under the covers.

“Hello,”  I said again, beginning to feel like a parrot.

A thin, waif-like hand appeared, followed by a matted head of hair.  She was tiny.  “Any hope?”  her voice sounded as if it was coming from under water: slurred and thick.

I was at a loss for words.  Here was this wisp of a woman, holed up this house with no daylight, and no fresh air, locked away from humanity, and all I could think of was how could she possibly survive.  I would have committed suicide long ago if it had been me.  What could I tell her about hope?

Then I remembered something both Joan Borysenko and Bernie Seigel had said during their workshops:  There is something to love about everyone.  Find it and you can help them. 

“Yes,”  I said.  “I believe there is.”

“Really?”   The word came out stretched and squeaky.

She had survived this long.  She had beaten odds, and continued to live.  It wasn’t much of an existence, but something kept her going.

“You have an incredible will.  Now, you just have to learn to channel that to get better.”

* * * * *

Patty’s story is for another day.  Meeting her taught me the importance of an idea that works.  There is something to love about everyone.  I use it everyday in my teaching practice.



“I don’t know, Lynn;  I just feel flat, as if I’m stuck.”

“You’ve probably just reached a plateau.”

“What do you mean?”  Lynn, fifteen years my senior, was a beloved cousin and mentor.  When I was young, I knew her as a famous singer who traveled and performed with celebrities.  Poor health forced her off the road, and a failed marriage stripped her of all material wealth.  Yet, Lynn never lost her quiet dignity, and I found in her a gentle friend, who was always willing to listen.

“The spiritual journey has been compared to climbing a mountain:  sometimes the going is easy and exhilarating; sometimes it is steep and difficult; and sometimes you reach a plateau.”

“That feels about right.”

“Have patience, and when the time is right, you will move again.”

I always pictured Lynn as a pillar in my life.  Her strength and presence often held me up.  Since she died fifteen years ago, no one else has taken her place.

* * * * *

My quest for spiritual enlightenment started as a little girl.  I distinctly remember being five and having a strong sense of purpose, as if God put me here on this earth to do something.  I felt it was important to keep the door open for God, so that I would be ready when the time came.  My faith was pure, innocent, and wholehearted.

Fifteen was when I started to have doubts and  turned my back on God.  I also fell into a depression that would not break for many years.

At twenty-eight, I felt like I suddenly woke up from a deep sleep, and the quest was on again.  These were the years when Lynn and I bonded, and I tackled that mountain with fervour.  I had never felt so alive.  Even through hardship and pain, I never felt alone.  I knew that God was with me.

Then I turned my back again.  It was nine years ago, but now I’m backing, asking questions again; wondering.

I guess I just hit another plateau, Lynn.


Excuse Me While I Unload

Excuse me, but it seems I have been carrying around an extraordinary amount of baggage for some time now and I’m thinking it’s time to unload, so pardon me but I’m going to dump them out here, and do inventory.

Wow, what a pile of stuff!  I don’t know where to begin.

Black lace catches my eye.  I pull it out of the pile.  It’s a woman’s hat, with a black face veil.  I know this one.  It is the veil of self-loathing.  While I try not to wear it in public, I take it everywhere with me.  It keeps me humble.  The veil whispers:  Don’t believe what other people say about you; they’re just being kind; they really don’t know you like I do.  Boy, looks like I should have done this sooner;  I think I’ll just set that aside.

Ah, there’s my graduation cap; my teacher’s cap.  It’s a keeper.  And my mother’s apron.  That can stay too.  My reading glasses, my writing pen, my friendship necklace.  All those parts I want to keep.  Oh, and that teddy bear – all Grandmas need teddy bears – definitely carrying that around with me.

What’s this big, woolly, grey thing?  It’s heavy, and to be honest, it stinks like cigarette smoke, stale alcohol, and mildew.  It reeks of shame.  I’m not sure this is mine, but I’ve been carrying this around forever.  Wouldn’t be surprised if it stunk everything else up.  This needs to go.  I might even have to get a new suitcase to start fresh.  I’ll just put that one out in the trash can.

Better make sure the smell hasn’t lingered.  Sure enough, the lining of the case has absorbed the stench.  I’d better air it out also.  Wait a minute, what’s that in the lining?  Something is sticking out.  It’s silver and pointed.  Looks like a brooch.  It’ a very delicate piece:  silver leaves swirling around a peridot stone.  Is this mine?  It’s beautiful, but I don’t recognize it.  Just my taste though, I’m more silver than gold, and I love the peridot green.  I wonder how long it’s been here?  I should try it on, and see how it looks.  No, I’m not ready for this.  I don’t have anything to go with it.  I’ll tuck it back away for another day.

Will you look at that!  A pile of mismatched socks.  So like me, to carry around odds and sods hoping to make sense of them sooner or later.  Thing is, young people don’t wear socks or stockings anymore, so all these do is date me; they don’t serve any other purpose.  I think it’s time to let them go.

Wow, look at that!  It’s a rusty old paintbrush.  I used to love art – even won the award in grade eight – but I was advised against pursuing it – not intellectual enough – so I set it aside.  Could this still be in me?  I’d like to know.

Oh!  A feather.  I know why it’s here.  I tucked it in here to remind me of my spirituality.  I’ll keep that too.

My cookbooks can stay.  Here’s an old ship in a bottle.   It’s pretty dusty, and the vessel inside is covered in cobwebs.  I’m thinking whatever dream that was has long past; no point carrying that around anymore.  Time for new dreams.

This is kind of fun.  Can’t remember the last time I took inventory of what I’ve been carrying around.  Here’s some comfy yoga pants.  Those need to come out more often.  I can just hear my body screaming yes, please.

Hope you don’t mind if I carry on without you.  I can see a few more things I’d rather deal with in private.

What have you been carrying around?



“I know what I want to give my Father.”  Dee looked at me through her veil of blonde hair.  Her face always bore such sweetness, yet the young girl I knew was so intense.

“Tell me.”

Dee was dying.  This was her third dance with cancer, and the doctor’s said it would be her last.  I visited daily, at her request, and we talked about fears, and dreams, and spirituality.  Lately, it had been on her mind that if her life was to be a short one (23 years), then she had to make it purposeful.

“I have decided that the best gift I can give him is to accept that he loves me, even if he doesn’t show it the way I’d like.  What do you think?”

Dee and her father had been fighting since the news came.  He wanted to take her home, but she refused.  She wanted to die here, in the town she had been living the past four years.  He couldn’t understand her unwillingness to fight in the face of death.  He wanted the doctors to do more.   She wanted him to let it go, and to be more emotionally available to her.  We had been discussing their relationship during my past two visits.

“I think that is an amazing gift, Dee.  I am forty years old, and I haven’t even been able to do that with my own father.  That’s the best gift ever.”

* * *

Dee had me thinking.  What would happen if I were to accept my father, just as he was?

Dad’s 75th birthday was coming up and I hadn’t yet bought him a gift.

He had asked for my acceptance once, and I’d said no.  It was the night he shared with me his awful secret.  He sat the family down and told us all.  He said that all he wanted was acceptance, and when he turned to me I said I couldn’t do it.  I said I needed my Father, and what he asked of me was too much.  I stormed out.

So, on his 75th birthday, I wrote him letter.  I apologized for that girl so many years ago, and I told him that I never really understood his problem.  I told him that I knew he loved me,  and that I loved him too.  And I said that when I got past all my self-righteous anger and frustration, I had to admit that he was probably the best teacher I ever had in life.  If it hadn’t been for his struggles and the challenges they presented for all us, I might never have been the person I was.  If there is a divine plan, or higher purpose for life, I wrote, then he accepted a hellish existence in order to give us the opportunity to grow and evolve.

He cried when he read it, and he called me up after, and said I had an odd way of looking at life, but that he appreciated it.  He appreciated it that I was willing to accept him as he was, but he wanted to be better.   Did I think it was too late?

I told him what Alan Cohen said:  “Look in the mirror.  If you see yourself looking back, then there’s still time.”

* * *

Dee’s father liked his present, too.  His anger had broken the next time I saw him, and he even let me see him cry.


Whiskey Fights

Most evenings I would return home from work at 10:30 exhausted by my day.  Juggling school, homework, and a part-time job was taxing, particularly as I worked from six to ten, four evenings a week, as well as eight hours on Saturdays.  Typically, I would stop to visit with my parents before heading off to bed.  It was always at these times that my father would engage me.

It started with an empty drink glass he would balance on his knee. This was to be my cue.  I would ignore him.

“Ahem!”  He would nod at the empty glass.

Continuing to ignore him, I would talk to my mother about the day.

Clink, clink, clink.  My father would tap the glass to get my attention.

“Your legs worked fine the last time I saw them.”

He’d raise his eyebrows in displeasure.  “I worked hard all day.  It’s the least you could do.”

“I worked hard all day, too.”  I’d object. “Get your own drink.”

My mother, the peacemaker, would take a step towards him.

“Don’t you dare, Mom!  You worked equally as hard all day.  He can get his own.”

“Is this the thanks I get?  All I want is a simple drink, and my own daughter won’t even get up and get it for me.”

It was the point of the thing.   My father was the epitome of male chauvinist pig.  It was his home, his castle, and everyone and everything was expected to pander to him.   It made me mad.

My mother stood by, hesitant.

‘It won’t hurt him to serve himself once in awhile.”  Now I was arguing with her.

“Your not going to win,”  she’d sigh.  My father leered with satisfaction.

“Not if you give in.”  It was a hopeless plea.  My mother always gave in.  Didn’t she realize I was on her side?  I was doing this for all of us?

This wasn’t about the drink.  It was about all the times he made her have dinner on the table the moment he walked through the door, then pushed his plate away after two bites, exclaiming disgust at her cooking; humiliating her in front of all of us.  And how he always had to have the first helping of pie, and it had to be flawlessly served; no broken pieces for him.   It was about how he insisted on napping in a chair beside the dinner table, forbidding us to talk even though we were busting to discuss our day.  And how every time we were watching the movie of the week, he would come in just at the climax and insist on changing the channel, even though he had a TV set in his room, which only he was allowed to watch.  He was the King of the Castle, he’d remind us.  As if we needed reminding.

For once, I wanted to win.  To prove him wrong.  To see him back down.  It wasn’t going to happen.

I got up and grabbed the glass.  There was no winning against my father.  He knew it.  She knew it.  I seethed inside.


Gift of Communication

It was a Friday afternoon and I was picking up my three children from school.  Within five minutes of climbing on board, the oldest had her younger brother in tears.  I felt my ire rising.

By the time we got home, she was lacing into me.  My first instinct was to let her know who was boss, but I was the adult, so I walked out of the room, and took a deep breath, willing myself to gain some perspective.

Calmly, I rejoined my daughter, gently placing my hand on her shoulder.  “What’s wrong?” I asked.  “Your brother and I weren’t around you long enough to get you this upset.  What’s bothering you?”

My eleven year-old daughter’s anger melted into tears.  “The kids at school are pressuring me to smoke,”  she sobbed.  “I told them I don’t want to, but they keep bugging me.”

I sighed with relief.  Thank goodness I had not met her aggression with more aggression, shutting down any communication between us.  This child needed someone to confide in, and I was so grateful I could be there for her.

That was the day my daughter taught me never to take another person’s moods personally, because when you do, you miss the possibility of greater intimacy.


Happy Birthday to My Husband!

To my dear husband, on your birthday:

You are my best friend, lover, champion, and rock.  On this day, I wish you only the best, and if I had a magic wand, I would wish you only good things for the rest of your days.  You deserve that.  Most of all, I wish that you knew how much I love and appreciate you.

I love our life together.  I love that you built our house, and that together we were able to design and decorate it.  I love that you value my opinion, as I value yours.  I love that we travel together and are good companions, no matter what we do.  I love that you care for all the children as if they were your own, and I love that mine will call you for advice and support, because you are always kind and helpful.  I love that you love our granddaughter as much as I do, and will love the next grandchild just the same.  I love that you can be spontaneous, and are always open to laughter.  I love our laughter.  And even though you will never admit it, I love how responsible and mature you are.

There is no gift that I can give you that expresses the depth of my love for you.

Enjoy your day, knowing you are loved.