It’s hard to know what to do with this time between Christmas and New Years. Advent is known for its waiting and anticipation, culminating with the joyful arrival of a baby. And almost before I can change Jesus’ first diaper, I am consumed with the end of a year and the beginning of a new one. What went wrong last year? Did anything go right? Does it matter? What should I bring with me into 2019 and what do I leave in the discard pile? Do I even have a choice? And then the baby starts to cry. Is he hungry or just tired? He can’t do anything for himself. I don’t know what he wants but he wants it right now. How do I care for a newborn while making sense of the world and preparing for what may come next? Baby Jesus, is it too early for a miracle?
Earlier this month I spent nine days with my mom and siblings. It was the first time in three years we were able to take her out of the nursing home for an extended visit. Mom is a mixture of almost 95 years of lived experience and a childlike urgency for the present moment. She wanted us to celebrate an early Christmas and was obsessed with how we could bring the small two-foot artificial Christmas tree to the VRBO house we were renting. “Maybe we could wrap the tree up in a sheet? Certainly, the nursing home wouldn’t miss a sheet. Oh, but we don’t want to break any of the ornaments? I really want to bring the tree.” Ultimately we were able to talk her into waiting until we checked out the house. Turned out the house had 15 Christmas trees, one (or two) in every room!! Mom twinkled with wonder.
My sister slept with mom. When you look up “mother” in the dictionary, there's a picture of my sister. Mom needed mothering and as is typical for mothers, this meant that my sister didn’t get much sleep. Throughout the night—bathroom trips, restlessness, and questions, “When is Dan leaving? What day is it? How many more days before I have to go back to the nursing home? How long have I been here?” And perhaps most poignant, uneven breathing—soft snores, silence and then abrupt and ragged inhales. I think most mothers understand the anxious but tender relationship to a sleeping child’s breath. When the child is almost 95, the listening cracks open a truth that is almost impossible to bear.
Many of the roles mom operated within, wife, mother, preacher’s wife, are falling away and she is left with a profound sense of what it “feels” like to live in a 95-year-old body. Her beloved husband of sixty-six years has been gone for 17 months. Her grief about dad’s death is not something she understands—rather it is something she feels. It’s in her flesh and bones. She frequently says, “I’m so lonely that I feel like I can’t breathe.” Her awareness is stripped down to something naked. Like a child, she is so honest that the vulnerability makes me flinch. I’d be more comfortable talking about the concept of grief—it would be easier to figure out what I should do. But there are some things that just can’t be fixed; they can only be witnessed.
And then there’s me. In the midst of advent filled with poignancy, urgency and hope I’m struggling with my own imperfection and impotence in a world that is suffering. I’m inclined to focus on the things this year that have scared or hurt others or me. And with the speed and vitriol that new pain enters my inbox, it feels like habituated PTSD. I’m having my own “I feel like I can’t breathe” moment even as I type this. In all my defensive and reactive machinations it’s easy to forget about the baby. But as I take a deep inhale I feel this body settle a bit into the soft lap of presence, another breath, there you are—my neglected companion with many names, Jesus, love, grace, home. There is a glimmer of light in the form of the late, wise, sweet and strange neighbor, Mr. Rogers, telling us children, “Look for helpers.” I often forget to look within. I hold myself close like we have held mom when that was all that could be done. Just like this . . . if only for this moment. The miracle of the child breaks open my heart and reveals a sacred portal. Breathe, sweet child.
How do you “do” sick? Perhaps you make a special homemade soup, blend cayenne pepper, lemon, and honey (maybe even some brandy), take a warm bath, use the vaporizer with a hint of peppermint oil, drink herbal teas or take Western medicine, say prayers, light candles. Any and all of these things can be remedies and they all promote self-care. However, they usually come with the conviction or hope that they will work—you will get better if you “do.” What about when they don’t? Most of us, most of the time, respond to any kind of illness or distress with something that goes like this, “I don’t feel good. Something is wrong. I shouldn’t feel this way. What caused this? How do I fix it?” And then if our interventions don’t work, “What the #@*%, what did I do wrong? What’s wrong with me?!“ When we are sick we fight, we struggle, we feel ambushed, we resist, we wage war . . . can you hear the sounds of battle? There is a shadow side in our general orientation to fix what ails us. We are fighting against reality—we don’t hold all the control levers, life is impermanent, and of course the biggest shadow is death. So how do you “do” sick? It’s not so self-evident.
Last week I began to come down with a cold. I was such a good patient. I took my Yin Chow, made vegetable tortilla soup, drank lots of tea, slept, and every couple hours I did a mindful self-compassion practice—20 minute "pauses" where I practiced being in a kind and connected presence with what is. It was fascinating observing the body respond to illness, really taking the time to notice and be with those physical sensations. It was wild. My sore throat moved through and around my throat, sometimes throbbing, sometimes a raw rough rubbing, sometimes gone. I felt my sinuses sting, congest, unplug, and then release. Tiny tingles pulsated over my skin as my body temperature fluctuated. And when I felt myself getting hijacked by my desire to make my experience different, mostly, I remembered, paused, breathed, and brought some compassion to the wild ride of being sick. Just to be clear, I’m not saying I fell in love with my suffering but rather I was able to offer some love to the sufferer (me). When I went to bed that night, I had a profound sense of goodwill despite not feeling well. I had been a good companion. I had tended to my experience and myself with the kindness of a good friend.
Daily Bites and Blessings
Welcome to "Daily Bites and Blessings." Pull up a chair. I’ve set a place for you at the table. These edibles are sometimes bitter, sometimes sweet and often they are both. This is a come as you are party. I invite you to bring your compassion, courage, and curiosity as we dine together on life's bounty. May our time together give us more light and more love.