Tag Archives: Spirituality

Greetings Blogosphere!

I have not been the most consistent blogger in the world. If there’s anyone out there paying attention this is not such a big surprise. My last post was over a year ago. In that episode, I announced that my poor old sweet-faced kitty Angel was dying of cancer. I got all philosophical and weepy about it, as I have a tendency to do. So here’s what happened next.

Angel’s vet had been so dire about it, I assumed Angel was going to close her eyes and drop her body any minute. I’d go out to dead-head the roses, and I’d worry that when I came back inside she’d be stretched out in the hallway, dead. The first few nights after the diagnosis in July, I couldn’t sleep well. I left my bedroom and went out to read on the couch. I fell asleep, but then I was awakened by Angel, running around on the family room floor, chasing a catnip mouse with a bell on it. Okay, I thought, she’s going to be all right for a little while longer.

I didn’t want to leave town with her so sick, but I decided I’d go to Santa Cruz and sit on the beach as soon as she died. When she made it to September, I thought—great, I’ll get off-season rates at my favorite motel by the wharf. When she made it to October, I forgot about Santa Cruz and decided I wanted her to live till the election. Yeah, that’s when this story gets crazy. I wanted my cat to live to see the first woman elected president of the United States. That’s right, I’m not proud of this, I know it sounds crazy. But remember what it was like a year ago: we were all full of optimism and hope. The polls, the media, the late-night comedians were all saying Hillary was going to get elected. The pundits were even predicting Democrats would take back both houses of Congress. We were going to take back the Supreme Court! I think I wanted Angel to live to see this because I was feeling so sad that my mother (who died eight years ago this week) and my cousin Joanne (who been gone only a few months at that point) didn’t live to see a woman president. It was silly, but I wanted the cat to see it.

We all know how that turned out.

Angel died a few days before Thanksgiving. I’ll spare you the details. Suffice to say she got really really weak and really really sick, and I called the vet on a weekend and scheduled a time for her to euthanize Angel the following Monday. Then I went to the store and bought one of those rotisserie chickens, and Angel and I ate it together all weekend. She also went outside and roamed around on the lawn and ate grass. She had a good death. We should all be so lucky.

After that I was sad. I didn’t want another cat and didn’t want to bother with Christmas. I didn’t put up a tree and I didn’t send out cards. But grieving for Angel made me realize that I hadn’t grieved anybody very well. So I found a grief support group. I talked mainly about Joanne who’d died in March, but I also talked about my Mom and about my friend Craig. They let me talk about Angel too. They were good people, and we met until the week before Christmas. Then I surprised myself and decided I wanted a kitten for Christmas. But then I doubly surprised myself and adopted two kittens for Christmas!! Their names are Valentine Rose (my black kitty) and Suzanna Christmas (my tabby who is called Zuzu—you know like Zuzu’s petals in “It’s a Wonderful Life.”) They are joyful little girls and they love each other so much. Sometimes I sing them the Skylar Sisters song from Hamilton, only I say their names and I call them the “Holiday Sisters.” Yeah, I know, it’s weird, but it makes for a good story.

Adopting my new girls was great, but it didn’t alleviate the depression I’d been in since the election. I cried election night, and I cried for days afterwards. It was the pussy-grabbing comments that got me. I can’t believe we live in a country where people would elect a man who brags about such things. I won’t get into it here, but it’s a highly personal thing to me, as it is to many women. But my purpose today is not to rant about politics, no matter how personal I feel the situation is. I want to tell you what happened next.

As I said, I was very depressed. I wasn’t in a clinical depression. I got up every morning. I cleaned the house and weeded the garden, I did volunteer work at the women’s center where we serve breakfast to low income and homeless women, I wrote with my writer-friends, I went hiking by the river. But always I carried a deep heavy feeling in my throat and chest. I tired easily and I cried at cat food commercials. More than sad, I was feeling hopeless about my country.

On Inauguration Day I volunteered for an extra shift at the women’s center. I wanted to feel useful. The next day I went downtown with friends and we marched in the streets. It was a huge crowd. The organizers announced that we all would gather at a park southwest of the state capitol and then we’d march there for a celebration. It was mobbed. We lined up in the street adjacent to the park by the Catholic Church dedicated to the Black Madonna. We stood there for a couple hours before we started moving. I’d been in anti-nuke marches in the 80s like this—where the crowd was so big that those of us in the middle just had to wait and wait and wait before we could move.

I was there with my friends, and I felt great. I felt strong and healthy, as if I could stand there for days. I thought about a song Holly Near used to sing about a woman born on a mountain who was not going to let the developers come in—“You may drive a big machine, but I was born a great big woman!!” I love that song. My friends and I used to sing that to each other when we were young, living in our first apartments, going to Take Back the Night marches, raising money for the Peace Center.

My depression went away. Just like that. My friends said, oh, it was being out there in the crowd, it was taking action, feeling optimistic. But I knew that wasn’t it. I didn’t feel optimistic that day, and I don’t now. I feel terrible about my country. Just terrible. But for a while I felt a deep sense of grace. It was different than anything I’d ever felt before. There have been times in my life when I’ve felt very happy, filled with hope, even euphoric—you know, like falling in love, or finally getting that job you’ve been wanting, or getting your first poem published, then getting a poem published in a nationally distributed anthology! That’s good stuff. But this was different. What made it different was this: I felt forgiving.

I don’t know if this is a universal or even common experience, but there have been several people over the years that I’ve been unable to fully forgive. Some of them I don’t see any more, some I do. Some I’m friendly with, but I don’t trust them. Most I’m sympathetic to—I think, oh, I understand, they did what they did because of a misunderstanding, or because their life is hard too, or they had cold parents, a hard family life, a difficult spouse. Or maybe they were mean to me because they’re just mean, manipulative people and overbearing control freaks. Yeah, sounds about right.

I pray about this often. I’ve come to believe that when it comes to forgiveness, you can do the best you can—you can be friendly (though protective of yourself), you can pray for the other person, you can wish good things for them—but to fully forgive, to completely let go, that takes God’s grace. It’s not something we can do on our own.

And so here I was in the streets with my sisters on the day after Inauguration Day, and it began. My depression lifted and I felt forgiven and forgiving. This feeling lasted several months. I didn’t feel euphoric, though I generally felt good and healthy. Some days I was happy. Some days I was sad. It wasn’t about that. It was about an awareness of God’s grace. I couldn’t sustain it though. I’m not sure why. It drifted away. The Universe gave me a little taste, and then it drifted away. I don’t know if I did something to lose it. I don’t know. I wish I could feel that way all the time, but I know I can’t MAKE it happen. (I have another story about grace and forgiveness, but that’s for another day).

That brings me up to now. We’ve been bombarded these past few weeks by news of hurricanes in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico. We’ve seen the worst mass shooting in modern history in Las Vegas two days ago. We fear we may be at the brink of nuclear war with North Korea as our president tells the secretary of state (not in a face-to-face meeting, but via social media) that he’s wasting his time trying to negotiate with “Little Rocket Man.” I feel awful. But I keep writing, because I don’t know what else to do. I pray and I write and I hang with my cats and my friends, and that’s about all.

I’d like to say that I’m going to post more on my blog. I don’t know if that’s true right now. I don’t know if anyone cares. Is anybody out there? I’m not sure I really want to even have a blog. I want to write novels and poems and I was told at one conference or another that I should have the blog to promote the novels. And so here I go:

I have a new novel coming out in a month! It’s called Ghost Owl. It stars my young heroine Mariah Easter. I’m very proud of this one. My readers tell me it’s a page-turner!

So to update–I have three novels out now: Yellow-Billed Magpie, Red-Tailed Hawk, and Ghost Owl. They are stand-alone stories, but they have the same characters. I think it’s nice to read them in order, but it’s not necessary. I also have a short-story collection called Rover. All four books are available right now at Amazon—yes, even Ghost Owl. But if you’re in Sacramento, I suggest you wait and buy books from me at my Ghost Owl launch party at Hoppy Brewing Company on Thursday evening, November 2nd from 5:30 to 8:30. I’ll be selling all books that evening for the low low introductory price of $5!! Great for holiday gifts.

Finally—jumping ahead—my goal for 2018 is to learn how to market better. This will definitely include the website—but what about this blog. I don’t think I’m ready to give up on it yet. It will continue to be my usual crazy musings, and a bit of rough, barely edited flash fiction that I often write with my writing groups. I hope folks like it.

Thanks for reading this far. Now please drop me a line or give me a like so I’ll know somebody is there! Thank you!

Ps—Guess what! I went to Youtube and found a video of a group of strong and beautiful women singing The Kentucky Woman/Dreaming on This Mountain song—and I think it would do your heart good to spend a minute and forty seconds listening to it. Here’s the link

Advertisements

Letting Go Of Normal

 Last week my 13-year-old cat, Angel, was diagnosed with cancer.  Her veterinarian/acupuncturist told me the tumors had spread, there was nothing that could be done, and that I had the option of euthanizing her that day.  I said no:  Angel didn’t seem to be in any pain, she was still running around the yard, leaping onto high window sills and purring.  What Angel isn’t doing is eating much.  She is getting noticeably weaker.

 After receiving this news, my mind raced ahead to practical matters:  is there a spot in the yard where I might bury her?  Would it be easier to cremate?  Yes, but what if she dies at an inconvenient time, like a weekend.  In this valley heat I’ll need to put her body in the fridge till Monday, and she’s a big-boned cat, probably part Maine Coon.  Will she fit?

 Some of you may be thinking, It’s a cat; get over it.  And if you’re thinking this, I hope you don’t have any pets of your own.  But that’s another subject.  One reason I’m writing this is because it is easier to write about these thoughts when they’re about a pet.  So many of my friends are caring for (or have just finished caring for) elderly parents and/or spouses.  It’s hard to talk about.  But I can say these things because my cat won’t read this.  She won’t feel bad if I’m sad because she’s sick.  I don’t have to put on a brave face for her the way I did for my Mom.

 I find there’s a part of me that wants this time of waiting and watching to be over with.  And yet of course I’m dreading it too.  I don’t want my cat to die.  But when she’s gone, I can get back to normal.  Normal.  I realized recently that I seem to be living under a fallacy that life has a default setting of “normal.”  After the funeral or the surgery or allergy season or “when the kids get over these darn colds,” then things will be back to normal and we can get stuff done.  We’ll be happy.

 We do this with happy events too:  after the wedding, after the baby’s born, when we get back from vacation, then things will be back to normal.

 I just finished reading Richard Rohr’s Everything Belongs with my dear soul sisters in the Sacred Conversations group at Sister Margie Will’s Franciscan Living Center in midtown Sacramento.  Rohr says we “idolize normalcy.”  Imagine that!  He cautions against this, saying, “Instead, we have to allow ourselves to be drawn into sacred space, into liminality.  All transformation takes place there. We have to move out of ‘business as usual’ and remain on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between. . . . Get there often and stay as long as you can by whatever means possible. It’s the realm where God can best get at us because we are out of the way.  In sacred space the old world is able to fall apart, and the new world is able to be revealed.”

 So here I am in liminal space with my cat.  When I look at her I feel sad, but I feel grateful she is still here right now.  And when I remember, I say a prayer for all care givers who are sad and angry and impatient to return to “normal” and feeling guilty as hell about it.  It’s not easy, but it’s a good place to be.

Post script—please don’t send me advice about pet burial, cremation, or cold storage.  I’ll figure it out when the time comes.  This can’t be fixed.  Just say a prayer for all care givers and all those who are grieving.  Thank you.

 

Celebrating the Rain

We’re celebrating a rare and wonderful rainy day here in parched Northern California—complete with deliciously heavy downpours, lentil-sized hail, lightning and big time thunder. I was blessed this afternoon to get home before the big show started, but here’s a journal piece I wrote after driving home in a powerful rain last fall—back when we all had high hopes that one rainy month was going to stretch into a rainy season and heal our drought woes. Thanks for reading:

Driving home from Placerville in the rain, mesmerized by the sound of the storm pounding like dried beans poured in a metal bowl, like pebbles striking. Suddenly I’m distracted by a high pitched rain drop, a maverick who wants to stand out, a small single dried pea that slips through the colander and pings on the floor. The noise is coming from the window by my left ear and I wonder if I will get to the valley and discover a leak and water puddled on the floor by my seat belt. No matter, I can’t turn now to check, can’t take my eyes off the wet road and the clutch of traffic. The car ahead of me is driving without his headlights on—a violation of a recent state law—and when I notice how grey and colorless his car is, I’m grateful for the high-pitched, pinging rain drop at my left ear. The steady pound of the storm on my windshield and roof is hypnotic; it’s the ping ping ping that’s keeping me awake. I think about getting home to my notebook so I can write all this down, and I berate myself that I haven’t written much lately. When I write every day the images and the words rise up out of the horizon like birds and airplanes and large animals, eager to appear in my poems and stories. It’s the habit that summons them. When I don’t write regularly I am stuck with the specter of dead friends and relatives, bullying bosses, and lovers who deserted me:  they come to tease at my frustration, my loneliness, my vulnerability. Specters who disappear like the rain.

 

Wherever you are today, I hope you’re enjoying your weather.

Easter Musings 2015

For thirty-something years I had the privilege of working with children who have severe disabilities. Often when I was out in the community with my students, strangers would approach me and say, “You must be so patient.” Yeah, sure, but probably no more than any other teacher. Other times folks would tell me I was doing “God’s work,” and once a school nurse said I would get a “crown in heaven” for all I was doing for these children.

The truth is working with these kids was a hecka lot of fun, and I don’t need any greater reward than that.

Tim Shriver, one of the Kennedy clan and current chairman of the Special Olympics, was quoted in Parade Magazine last weekend, and what he had to say really summed it up for me too. Just as his parents taught him, this is what my parents emphasized to me: “What our Catholic tradition has done well is make you not just ought to help, but want to help—hunger for it. Be hungry for justice, be hungry for healing, be hungry for connection, be hungry for leveling the playing field. That’s more than just a moral imperative. It’s believing that your best self will always be in solidarity with those who are having a hard time.” After all, he adds, “Jesus was all about [taking care of] the poor and the marginalized and then having a party.”

Yes, Jesus teaches us to be hungry for justice, hungry for healing, hungry for fun and hungry for cake. And I think Jesus would be fine with Christians making wedding cakes for same sex couples too. Just thought I’d throw that in there.

Happy Easter

Here for the Weekend

Last week on NPR’s Morning Edition, in a segment on Story Corps, they played an interview with the first single man who was allowed to adopt a baby in the state of California. It was 1969. The man had always wanted to be a father. He knew it would be hard to raise a child alone but he forged on. His social worker brought him to see a toddler who had been born to a drug-addicted mother. The baby was born addicted to heroin and had gone through the pain of withdrawal in infancy. At 18 months old the boy was already a child with severe behavioral challenges. The man knew he should say no, but he said yes. He entered the adventure.

I knew as the man related his story that it wasn’t going to end well because he only spoke of his son in the past tense. The man’s voice broke when he said his son had been diagnosed with schizophrenia and had died of a heroin overdose at the age of thirty. His body was found in an alley between two buildings.

My first thought was: how do any of us stand it? How do any of us stand living here in these bodies on this planet? We don’t all have stories as tragic as this man’s, but each of us has something, our own private sadness. Life can be joyful, but even the happiest lives are spotted with episodes of such exquisite pain.

My friend Craig was a perfect master. He told me once that between lives we’re all hanging together on the astral planes, waiting to come down here. Finally it’s your turn. You’re born on Planet Earth. You live 70 or 80 years, give or take a decade or two, then BAM! You drop your body and you’re back on the astral plane. All your friends there say, “Hey! How was your weekend?”

What if coming here is like going to Disneyland? Some of us love roller coasters; some of us prefer to float with the Pirates of the Caribbean. When I was five years old I made my mother take me on the Peter Pan ride over and over again because I was thrilled to see his shadow racing across the wall. When I was eight my cousin Jimmy held up my long braided hair over my head as we rolled out of the haunted house ride on Santa Cruz’s Boardwalk. “Look how scared she is!” he taunted, laughing as I slapped his hands away from my head. Sure, sometimes it’s scary, but maybe our sojourn here on Earth is no more real than a trip to an amusement park.

I’ve got no wisdom, just stories. Stories about riding the waves, about enjoying the ride. You’ve got them too. Feel free to share them here with me.

 

What do you write about?

I write about all the crap floating around inside my brain, the ghosts of school bullies and nuns in black habits, wielding rulers and sharp tongues.  I write about my favorite teachers from high school when the nuns abandoned their veils and wore peasant blouses and sandals and read Kahlil Gibran to us in religion class.  I write about how shy I’ve always been around boys, how I let my first boyfriend verbally abuse me and then when I’d try to please him he’d tell me I was a bad feminist and that he had so much more respect for the lesbians of our acquaintance.  I write about the kids I used to work with, how I wrote and wrote and wrote about them for a decade and a half and it always sounded sad, but they weren’t sad, they were some of the most joyful people I’d ever met.  I write about the one who died of leukemia and the one who drowned in a swimming pool and the one who died when a tree fell on the golf cart she was sitting in with her dad, and the one who died of a brain tumor and the one whose father beat her with an electric cord and the ones who were born in refugee camps whose parents would bow to me and send me hand made ornaments and charms and needlepoint squares. “Thank you for taking care of our mental child,” they’d say.

I write about mysticism and synchronicity, meeting a man at a bus stop who later showed up at my door who went out and dug in the dirt behind my classroom with my students, how good he was with Jeremy and G, how Mannix and Rico loved him so much.  The boys without fathers at home thought he was a rock star and I wrote a dozen love poems and he left a hundred dollar bill for me pressed between the sticky leaves of a calla lily plant in my back yard.  “He’s a gift to a writer,” I’d tell my friends.

 I write about baseball and dancing and religion and politics and mythology.  I write about Celtic heroes like Finn MacUail and his son Oisin and I write about Catholic saints like Claire and Bridget.  I write about Craig, the mystic/custodian who wiped down the chalkboards in my classroom and vacuumed the rugs and told me I was special.  “Don’t listen to anybody else,” he said.  “I’m here now.  This is not subtle.  You. Are. Special.”

 I write about people who have dropped dead and abandoned me, and how it pisses me off something awful, and of course I’m not really angry at them.  Not really.  Am I?  Did they go someplace better?  Are they hanging out without me?

 After Craig died I happened to come across a beautiful bookmark my friend Judy gave me a decade and a half ago.  It was just stuck in some random book.  She’d written on the back, “Thank you for being here.”  At the time she wrote that we were working with one of the meanest, least ethical people I’ve ever known—and he was stupid too.  She was thanking me—as I often thanked her—for hanging in there, to face him together.  But now I look at it, now that she is gone and Craig is gone, and I think she’s saying to me, “Thank you for being here–” here, on planet Earth, still doing whatever it is I’m doing that for some reason still needs to be done.  And when I found this bookmark again, right after losing Craig, right when I’d been wondering why I was still here, I thought, well, Judy’s telling me it’s good and she’s grateful and I guess I’ll believe her.

 And that’s what I write about.

(written with my beloved Thursday night writing group at John’s house)

Let’s Go!

I’ve been filling up notebooks writing like crazy for over forty years. A lot of it was venting and whining—or to be kinder to myself, I’ll call it “therapeutic.” I am happy to brag that over the years I’ve had several poems published, usually in local newsletters and chapbooks, but twice in nationally distributed anthologies.

Not too bad, I think, for a shy woman who spent most of her energy teaching children with special needs every day.

Now retired, I continue to write most days, and I joyfully spend one evening a week writing with companions at the home of John Crandall, using the Amherst Writers and Artists writing method. We have so much fun writing together! But whenever John or another friend suggest I might post a piece I’ve written minutes earlier, either here or on John’s blog, I’ve invariably pleaded that sure, I’ll do that, but at some future date, after I’ve done a spot of editing, or when I need to promote some future project, whatever. In other words, I’ll publish when the time is RIGHT, and the writing is PERFECT.

The other day, my inner guide said to me: Give It Up!! Your blog is not the New Yorker. It’s not even the Sacramento Bee. Nobody will sue you if you ramble (as I tend to do). You don’t even know if anybody’s reading this blog of yours!

Well, if you are reading, brace yourself because this blog is about to get MESSY!

In her book, The Wisdom Jesus, Episcopal priest Cynthia Bourgeault posits that Jesus taught us a very untraditional path to enlightenment. She says St. Paul calls it kenosis, a Greek word meaning “to let go” or “to empty one’s self.” Bourgeault explains:

Over and over, Jesus lays this path before us. There is nothing to be renounced or resisted. Everything can be embraced, but the catch is to cling to nothing. You let it go. You go through life like a knife goes through a done cake, picking up nothing, clinging to nothing, sticking to nothing. And grounded in that fundamental chastity of your being, you can then throw yourself out, pour yourself out, being able to give it all back, even giving back life itself. That’s the kenotic path in a nutshell. Very, very simple. It only costs everything.

 Well, to be honest, I’m not quite sure where an attitude like that leads. I’m not sure I’m ready for it. But putting more of my writing out here more often is going to be step one. And check me out on Twitter too (@nanschoellkopf) because I plan to show up there more often as well.

Thanks for reading. Invite your friends next time! I promise to make it fun.