Thursday, August 21, 2014

Thankful, Throwback Thursday

Two years ago this week, I was on my second silent retreat at The Jesuit Center in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. Loving the sunshine, the trees, the quietness, and the spirit of that peace-filled place. I pulled out my journal from those gloriously quiet eight days earlier this week and reread it. That retreat happened a mere three and a half months before I was diagnosed with kanswer. In fact, I probably already had tumors developing in my body.

I am thankful that I went on retreat that summer. I am thankful that I read so much and wrote so much and spent so much time outside and prayed so much. I am grateful for the way in which most of what I read, wrote, and thought about that week was preparing me for the journey that was a few months ahead of me even though I didn't realize it at the time.

I am grateful that I had the impulse to ask friends on Facebook to send me prayer requests so that I could lift them up during the silence. At least 15 people sent me requests. I was grateful for their trust in me. When I saw that list again today, I prayed for them all again. I am thankful for the privilege of interceding for those in need.

I spent many hours that week staring at, touching, and paying attention to the trees on the property there. Here's some of what I wrote in my journal about them -

Contemplated the trees.
Bark. Branches. Patches.
Living. Dead.
Thick. Thin.
Each is unique. Its own pattern, size, ecosystem.
Different stages and cycles.
No comparisons, fears, doubts, no plans.
Just be the tree I am.
Receive the sunshine, rain, nutrients that come my way.

My favorite tree is dying. 
Having lived, twisted, grown, stretched and found the sun.
I took photos, touched it. 
Stared, admired its uniqueness.
It probably won't be there next time I come. 

Broken trees, bent trees, leaves, empty,
struck by lightning, peeled, diseased, strong, weak.
Pruned, wild.

Staring at those old trees, I learned so much. I heard many messages.
One tree in particular caught my eye because a large branch had broken away from the trunk but had gotten stuck in the tree. It hadn't made it to the ground yet.
Another tree was dead, no leaves at all. But still it stood strong. Perhaps it wasn't dead... barren, but not deceased.
An enormous willow tree had chairs beneath and inside of its drooping boughs.

Protect the little ones (the seedlings and small trees).
Regardless of outcome, drop the seeds.
Let the broken parts go. They cannot be grafted back on.
Watch the storms. Let them blow in, blow thru and blow by.
Falling leaves? Just wait and see (what happens next).

I saw a tree with chairs underneath. A cave of a tree. Amazing. 
I'd love to go underneath. We shall see how brave I am at some point.
It seemed to beckon me: "Come on in. Come on in."

I found a haven and a hideaway in that tree-cave. It's quiet, lush and beautiful in there.
I took photos. I didn't stay long or sit down, but I did go in. Gorgeous. 
I bet she (the tree) has heard many stories and prayers, hasn't she? So very many.
Again, she spoke to me - "You don't have to be afraid. I won't hurt you. 
You aren't the first one I've sheltered here. You won't be the last. It is safe here.
You are safe here. Be still and know." 

Another tree - What doesn't kill you, makes you stronger. Look at my holes,
broken places, branch stumps. Sometimes broken parts get caught as they fall.

Can you see the part that is brown and dead, 
stuck on top of the other branch?

Separate but not fallen yet. Carry them until it is time to release them.

See all my broken and rough edges? See my dry patches? I could tell you stories for hours, years. Trust me; these scars have their own sagas. 

An acorn rolled past my heart, literally touching my shirt. Here's a see, a tree - take it in remembrance of me. It broke open when it hit the ground at my feet. What broken thing am I carrying? When will it be time to lay it, lay him, lay her down? What broken things do I want to keep close by? Reminders? 

There are as many stories as there are trees. Listen for them all. 

When my children were babies, I spoke to them a lot in Spanish. One thing I used to say as I got ready to nurse them was, "Mira lo que te tengo." Look at what I have for you.

When that acorn fell from the tree, rolled down my chest and landed on the ground, that phrase came back to my mind - and I thought about the theme of the retreat, "Praying with Female Images of God," thought about God as my loving mother who was also represented by those strong trees and wrote this:

Momma says: Mira lo que te tengo.
At my breast. near my heart.
Nourishment. rest. peace. comfort. safety. 
In the womb: separate but one.
Nursing: separate but one.
Walking, independent: separate, still one.
Look at all I have for you. All you need.
Sure, go eat other stuff but come back 
and see what I have for you. 

In less than four months from scribbling those metaphors and thoughts in my journal, I was devastated by a dreadful diagnosis. I faced the worst storm of my life - and had to let it blow in, blow through, and then blow out of my life. In less than a year from that week, I lost the breast that acorn rolled down - and the other one as well. I had to let go of a few broken parts of myself. Having released what I needed to let go of, I had to wait and see what would happen next. I had to seize the courage to enter into the darkness, the loneliness, the unknown - and sit there, waiting, crying, afraid, and alone. I have since come to love my scars, to show them to others, and to tell my story freely and frequently.

In that retreat journal, I filled almost two pages in my journal with a list of the ways in which I compared myself to others - it included - my hair, my health, and my body. I have since learned to embrace the uniqueness of my story, of my newly reshaped body, my newly replenished soul, and also to release the urge to constantly compare myself to others.

Throughout the difficult months of kanswer treatment and recovery, I was reminded of the nourishment my body had provided to my children. From the moment of their conception until they were six months old, my children were fully dependent on me and on my body to create and nourish them. I also pondered the fact that, after surgery, my body was no longer able to carry or feed any other babies. Perhaps, I concluded, it was time for me to carry and feed myself. Perhaps it was time for me to carry and feed other people's children. Certainly it was time for me to accept and indulge in all the nourishment, the living water, the bread of life, offered by The One who loves me most.

After I spent some thinking about today's blog post earlier today, I pulled out Seven Thousand Ways to Listen by Mark Nepo and stumbled upon this quote. George said, 'When a tree is very young it's covered with limbs, but as it grows older most of its limbs die and break off.' We stopped by a mature oak, and I put my hands on the bark of this very old, straight tree, light flooding its length, and felt the wisdom of its years. It struck me squarely: trees in the forest start out reaching for the light and end up standing in the light. Once standing in the light, there is less need to reach. I feel this happening to me. The ways I've reached into the world are dying and breaking off. I'm losing limbs... After all these years, I'm reaching less and being more.

I too have lost a few branches, but I find that I don't need those old branches anymore. The locs were great while I had them. But I barely remember them now. I love my short hair. I am losing most of my urge to reach out and plead with people for their attention, for the light they used to bring into my life. I am learning to reach less and simply be where I am as I am. I am listening for the lessons in the trees, in the ocean, and in the light. I am thankful for the ways that the creation points to the Creator and causes me to overflow with gratitude and contentment and joy.

Jena Strong wrote a short and powerful post on her blog just a few days before I left for that retreat back in the summer of 2012. It included a portion of a conversation of hers -
"What would you do if you knew you had ten seconds to live?" he asked me.
I teared up, closed my eyes, then opened them again. And without a thought, I said,
"I'd keep my eyes open, and I would pray, and I would say thank you."

Amen, Jena. Thank you for saying it so well.

I hope and pray that, having faced the prospect of a very limited time left to live, I too will keep my eyes open, even though they often brim with tears, that I will keep on praying, and that I will say, "thank you" not only here on Thankful Thursdays, but also every other day of the week. And I also hope that sometime soon, I will be able to return to those sacred acres in Pennsylvania for eight more days of silence.

Thanks be to God.


Friday morning confirmation - While out on my walk this morning, I saw several leaves suspended in midair. The first couple startled me; as I approached them, I wondered what I was seeing and why it was hanging there. By the time I saw the third or fourth one, I had begun to think about the trees from which they had fallen and the means by which they were held between branch and earth. It was an invisible strand, a thread, a bond. I couldn't see it, but the mere presence of the leaf at eye level was proof that something was holding it, sustaining it, keeping it where it needed to be. At that moment. In my line of sight. Why? What was I supposed to see, to learn, to absorb from those leaves?

As I continued my walk, I pondered, thought, wondered, asked - what is holding me? who is sustaining me? what invisible bond is keeping me upright and strong? to what, to whom am I invisbly tethered? at some point, I will fall and my life will end - but in the meantime, will I live fully, moved by the winds of life and held aloft by the Breath of Life? for whom can I be a sign, a symbol of the invisible power of love, of courage, of strength? The trees are still teaching me. I hope I can keep listening and seeing and learning.

Again I say it - thanks be to God.

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