Jan 012015

I took an online class the other night with Briana Saussy about prayer and blessings. She spoke about the nature of prayer and it’s expression in the many different faiths and religions of the world. As she was speaking and explaining prayer I was remembering my own experiences and how my current expression of the practice is completely different from what I was taught as a child.

I was raised Roman Catholic. I remember being taught basic prayers as a child and having a hard time with them. I had a hard time remembering the exact wording and in religious education class, in Catholic school, that mattered as did the proper placement of commas and capitalization. I don’t know if the teachers thought it mattered or if they were mixing a grammar lesson into our religion class. What I do know is that it sent the message that there is one right way to pray and it is complicated. There was also a threat in there that doing it wrong would put you in disfavor with God.

That didn’t make any sense to me.

I exasperated more than one teacher/priest/sister with questions about prayer and God. Very few of them took the time to give me a thoughtful answer. Most of the time I was shushed or given a pat, dismissive answer that didn’t satisfy me.

“If God is the father, who is the mother?”

“If I’m a child of God why can’t I just talk to Him?”

“If God is so powerful that he created everything why is he so angry with his creation? Couldn’t He just do it over again?”


By the time I got to high school I was adept at tuning out of religion class. I knew I wasn’t going to learn anything new because the previous years had all been a rehash of each other. I also had given up any hope that my questions would be properly answered. I paid enough attention to be able to parrot back the information on a test. The rest of the time I doodled, counted ceiling tiles or watched the critters outside the classroom window.

I distinctly remember one day watching the squirrels play on the school grounds and Sister So-and-so was having us recite a particularly obsequious prayer. The tone of that prayer always annoyed me; still does. I remember thinking that it must irritate God to hear this drivel. If someone were to talk to me, ask me for something, even just to thank me and they did it in this toadying manner I would be disgusted by them. I have always wanted people to stand up in themselves, face me square on and have a respectful conversation. At the time I remember thinking I was only a fourteen year old girl, if it irritated me to be spoken to that way what must it be like to be God. What must it be like to be the creator of heaven and earth, and have people speak to you this way all the time. It felt manipulative and insincere. It felt wrong and insulting. Then and there I stopped doing it.

I played along for the rest of my school career; the grades mattered. In my private moments I had conversations with God instead of reciting rote prayers. When I was sitting in church I played along there too but I was actually meditating and observing. The ritual and space are meaningful and when I studied the practice of ritual and sacred space I learned a new appreciation for the Catholic Mass, but the experience of going to mass as a child and teen was always hollow. As I got older it became harder and harder to pretend there was anything there that connected me to the Divine. It actually interfered with my experience of God and by the time I graduated high school I understood why that was:

They had made God too small.

The God I was introduced to as a child served a purpose for the child and the Church. As I grew and matured the explanations of God did not grow and mature with me so I left them behind and sought my own answers. The God I’ve experienced since is so much bigger than I can explain and the prayers of childhood are even more woefully inadequate. During Bri’s class the other night she included my favorite quote from Kierkegaard:

“The function of prayer is not to influence God, but rather to change the nature of the one who prays.”


I have found that the most profound and sincere prayer is one of gratitude. We go through life taking things for granted that are, in fact, quite miraculous. The gratitude doesn’t even need to be directed to a deity for it to transform you. It’s the mindset and practice of gratitude that does the work.

The way I recommend starting when I am asked by friends and clients is a simple walking meditation. There is no heavy preparation needed. There is no limit on the time spent doing this. It is actually a simple, straight forward activity that becomes meditative in the doing of it.

Woman walking on the sandbeach

It’s walking.

It’s walking with a purpose.

With each foot strike you alternately say “Thank” and “you”; left foot “Thank”, right foot “you” or vice versa. Do this from your car to your morning train; while walking to get the mail; while looking for groceries; while taking your dog out for a stroll.  Do it deliberately as part of your daily exercise. Do it for a week and see what changes it makes for you.

May 2015 be a healthy and happy year for you.

Mar 282013

It’s supposed to be spring here in New York but winter didn’t get the memo. There’s been a weird tug-o-war going on between the snow and the sun. On March 8th my trees looked like this:



Snow covering everything is lovely to look at. The world gets quiet and almost cozy while it’s falling even though it’s cold. This time of year some of the charm has worn off and this lovely sight wasn’t very welcome. Within two days almost all of the twelve inches that fell were melted away. Then it snowed again. Then that melted. Then it snowed but only on the grass because the pavement was too warm. That snow is gone now too. As I write this it’s sunny, breezy and warm but the forecast is for snow flurries in the morning. :::sigh:::

But the motherwort is poking her head up and growing in small clumps all over my garden. The magnolia has buds and patches of the grass are greening. I heard birds singing this morning. These are the landmark things I look for each year. They are the signs of life among the gray, muddy, end-of-winter landscape that let me know the sun is coming back. The heavy coats can go back into the closet and I can open the windows. It’s reassuring and in a way there is a relieved feeling. I suspect it’s some primal part of us that feels like we have survived another winter.

Last year, the night before Mom’s birthday, her best friend, Joanne, died. Mom was devastated. They met when they were fourteen and had been best friends ever since. For nearly sixty years they were there for each other. She was part of my life from the first day and it was like losing a beloved aunt. For Mom it was like losing a sister. Eight months later my dad died. We all kind of went into hermit mode. That’s easy to do in winter. It’s too cold out so you stay in, bundle up, drink tea, eat cookies, sleep, cry and watch old movies. Somewhere along the way Mom’s birthday this year became one of those landmark things. It was bittersweet as you can imagine.

My sister and I took her out for afternoon tea the day before her birthday. We made it through lunch without a single tear. I was surprised by that. Joanne would have enjoyed this tea room and that thought was on all our minds. We actually laughed a few times and talked about things that would have been too hard just a few months ago. Mom spent the night with me so she wouldn’t have to wake up alone on her birthday. I made her my version of the big breakfast that Dad always made for her and we had a nice but subdued birthday morning together. She left after church to spend the day and night with her sisters down in the city. We survived.

I realized this morning that something has shifted. It’s one of the little adjustments you make in grief; it’s a step toward being OK. There is no clearly defined turning point or deadline. There are gradual changes that happen little by little. It snows then it’s sunny. I cry then I laugh and Life goes on.

Nov 172012

Thursday was my father’s seventy-third birthday and I spent part of the afternoon, with my mother, checking out the hospice suite where he is going to die. To say it was a surreal moment doesn’t even touch it.

In August my dad went to the hospital for a cardiac catherization because he had a stress test at his cardiologist’s office that didn’t go very well. Dad walked into that hospital under his own steam hand in hand with my mom. He’s been there ever since. The test found blockages that led to bypass surgery where there were complications that caused the six hour surgery to last nearly twelve hours. A few hours later the surgeon had to go back in because there was bleeding. All the blood thinners Dad has been taking for years had done their job so well he wasn’t clotting properly. Then there was the pericarditis that no one knew about before the surgery that kept filling Dad’s chest with fluid. That required another heart surgery. By this time he was so bloated and his kidneys were so fatigued they shut down. The doctors started dialysis to fix that issue and give his kidneys a rest. His breathing was labored and his oxygen levels were low which resulted in a ventilator. Somehow he ended up with a tracheotomy so the ventilator goes right into his neck. This means he can’t speak, eat or drink. To compensate he has a gastric feeding tube.  He is now in bed almost all the time except for an hour or two that he spends sitting up in a chair and machines are performing all his bodily functions. It’s astounding how his condition has snowballed. He walked into that hospital under his own steam and now he has to deal with all this and a dozen other indignities I prefer not to share with the internet.

Dad is a big man. Always has been. As a young, healthy adult he was six foot one and two hundred thirty pounds; his fighting weight. He liked to drink, loved a good meal and smoked like a chimney. He stopped drinking forty years ago. Stopped smoking thirty-five years ago. He and good food, however, have a life-long love affair. Not surprisingly he packed on the pounds and was eventually diagnosed with type2 diabetes. He’s been battling that since the late 80s.

When I was a little kid he was kind of scary. He was a US Marine once upon a time and studied to be an Irish Christian Brother for a while. He’s big and loud and honestly he’s complete crap with little kids. He never got the knack of dealing with them which sucks if you were one of his kids. By the time we each reached an age where he knew how to interact with us we were all done trying to deal with him. He did have his moments though.

I have a lot of fond memories mixed in with some misery. When I was in kindergarten he taught me how to play cards. By third grade we were playing chess together. He helped me study for the Richmond County Spelling Bee and thought it was funny that I was a Catholic School student and got eliminated for misspelling ‘religious’. I forgot the second ‘i’.  In high school I would stay up late discussing philosophy with him. He loves Thomas Aquinas. He introduced me to the work of Thomas Merton. He loves baroque music and specifically Bach and gave me an appreciation of it. The night after his original surgery I was in my parent’s home keeping Mom company. I went down into his office to get her some batteries. His space is the same sort of organized chaos that I have in my art studio here in my home. I realized that he and I have a lot more in common than I would have wanted to admit when I was younger. The house is filled with books. There is a stack next to his chair just like the stack next to my bed. There is usually a New York Times crossword puzzle on top of his book pile and he usually finishes it. I prefer other puzzles. We both love a good mystery and get a sense of satisfaction when exercising “our little grey cells.” He’s an introvert and so am I. We both experience and observe things at the same time. If you aren’t an introvert it’s hard to explain that. If you are an introvert you know exactly what I mean. To think of his agile mind trapped in his deteriorating body is almost too horrible to contemplate. I think it would drive me insane to be in his position right now.

The Hospice Unit is in the same hospital on a different floor. You wouldn’t believe it if you were there. The energy is completely different. It even smells different. The nurses were great in how they talked to my mom. The compassion was palpable. The head of the unit was explaining the philosophy of hospice care and how they take care of the whole patient and that his comfort is the priority. While she was talking I was wondering why that wasn’t part of the regular hospital care. Why does each system of Dad’s body have its own doctor? The heart surgeon is really pleased with the progress his heart has made. The rest of Dad has fallen apart but the heart surgery was a success. His kidneys failed so he needed to be treated by a kidney specialist. His breathing was inadequate so he needed a respiratory specialist. He has wounds now that aren’t healing properly so an infection control/wound care guy is now part of the team. But they don’t seem to really be a team. They are each acting separately on different parts of Dad as if those parts were not connected to each other and to the man who’s been using them all for seventy-three years. The hospice director went on about palliative care and I wondered if that is even paid lip service in the rest of the hospital. If that had been the philosophy of care from the beginning how would Dad be faring now?

I am amazed at what modern medicine can do but I’m not convinced it should be done in all cases. Looking back over the last three months we are all pretty much in agreement that the original surgery was a bad idea. The doctors aren’t saying that. Only one of them will even hint at it. At the time, not having the surgery wasn’t even really discussed as an option.  Apparently the phrase “I’m sorry, there is nothing we can do for you.” is gone from the practice of modern medicine. I’ve met most of his doctors and they seem like decent people. No one set out to cause pain and suffering but that is the end result. It would have been better for Dad if his pulmonary artery ruptured in the comfort of his own home than in the operating room that first day. It would have sucked for a minute or two instead of slow torture over months. It would have broken Mom’s heart all at once instead of chipping away at it while she helplessly watched her husband die by degrees.

On Wednesday he told my mother that he was tired of it all, his body is wearing out and he wants to go home to God. To watch them together now is to see what marriage is all about. They celebrated their forty-eighth wedding anniversary in September in his hospital room. Over the years I have watched them snap at each other, kiss each other, yell, curse and walk away from each other. I’ve also seen them be there for each other like she is there for him now. They really are devoted to each other. The hospice director asked Mom when she thought they’d be ready to move Dad into the unit. Mom burst into tears. She knows this is the right thing for him. It’s what he wants and so she wants it for him. She doesn’t want him to suffer anymore. She said “We’ve been together for fifty years. It’s like you’re asking me when do I want to be cut in half.”

While Mom and I were upstairs the nurses put my dad back in his bed. I came back to his room to find my husband telling him all about what our kids have been up to. Dennis tells a very good story and Dad was smiling. We all have to wash our hands and wear rubber gloves in Dad’s hospital room but I could still feel how cold and swollen his hands were when I held them. It’s comforting and unnerving at the same time to see how at peace he is with his decision to stop treatment. He has lost so much weight he’s back down to his ‘fighting weight’. His muscle tone is all but gone. He looks old and frail and nothing like the scary guy I remember from childhood. I kissed him good-bye and brushed back his hair. He told me he loved me. I have no idea how I held it together but I did. I smiled at him and he smiled at me. I left that room knowing full well that I may never see him again. I was fine until we were driving home. Dennis had the radio scan for a station and it landed on classical music. I heard Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and I started bawling. In spite of everything and as long as I live, he will be my daddy and I’ll be his little girl. It’s just not right that my cat had a nicer death than my dad.

This is my dad and me in 1966. He’s about twenty-six years old and I’m a chubby seven or eight months old. I nearly lost this photo when our water heater blew. I’m so glad the important parts are still there.