You might think it an odd choice but this year in search of the deeper meaning of the 4th of July, I chose to forego all the events in my town and celebrate the day with my 98 year old mother at her assisted living facility a couple of hours from my home. I've found spending time with the really old, those who have lived more of the history of our country than I have, a healing place to celebrate the true meaning of the day.
For reasons which aren't absolutely clear, Independence Day is always a bit complex for me. I know its supposed to be a time to celebrate the birth of our nation. There are parades, barbecues, picnics and fireworks, lots of fun to be had. Its definitely a holiday for extroverts and we introverts give it a whirl. We are all out there in our red, white and blue. But underneath all the hullabaloo I can't help but hear a deeper story and its that story I have been mulling over since the holiday passed us by.
It is the second time I have had the opportunity to celebrate the 4th with the oldest among us. The first time was a few years ago when my mom had broken her femur and had to spend three months in a nursing home for rehab. The 4th of July occurred about midway through her stay. A woman and her two adult daughters came to the nursing home that day with guitars, a banjo and lovely voices to serenade the residents with a special holiday program. The staff had gathered everyone into the dining room. Most sat in wheel chairs, many not in their right minds. Some were so far gone, I had never seen their heads raised or heard them speak. Many had to be fed at meal times. It was a difficult to stay present in that environment as all my worst fears about aging and the end of life sat there looking at me. And this wasn't even the dementia ward!
When I walked into that room that day, I had no idea what was in store for me. The performers were exuberant. Faced with the energy level of their audience, I don't know where they found that much enthusiasm, but they did. They sang their hearts out. Very soon after the music started, heads lifted, and feet began to tap. In the most patriotic songs residents who I had not seen speak were singing. I couldn't keep my tears at bay as we all sang My Country Tis of Thee and America the beautiful.
Then the women asked who had served in the armed forces. They carefully honored each one with the song that matched their branch of service. I was amazed that I still knew some of the words as we sang The Caissons Go Rolling Along and Anchors Aweigh. The spirit was contagious; me, the peace activist, enjoying even these songs. The room came alive. There were smiles and laughter. An old man who was very far gone kept reaching out toward my mother whose mind was in tact. Each time he did, she would graciously take his hand for a moment and he would smile. I was so touched by the whole experience.
It definitely stands out as the most memorable 4th of July celebration in my adult life. I left the room that day with a deep sense of belonging. In all the singing, we had become a community. I felt I belonged to these old people and they belonged to me and we all belonged to the USA. As those folks came to life with the music, something inside me, my patriotism, which had been long slumbering, came alive as well. They mirrored a love a country that seemed much less complicated than my own and that made it easier for me to set down that complication and just let my love of country be.
The years when my chest swelled with pride for love of the good old USA are far behind me. The Sixties brought that feeling crashing down and except for fleeting moments, like this one at the nursing home, I have not recovered. Yet, I yearn for that feeling that we are good or at least well intentioned, that something other than greed and power, really does motivate us. Where I live, patriotism isn't the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about country. It feels wrong to be patriotic because there is still so much that is wrong with how the USA is conducting itself. Politics are far to the left compared to many parts of the United States. There are a lot of dedicated activists here with lots of ideas about how we could live more fully into the vision our forefathers had for our country. There is anger and rage when, as so often happens, we miss our highest calling as a country. There is plenty of energy to go with that rage, plenty of energy to confront, identify shortfalls and call for change. Though it is clear to me that love of country underlies all that energy. We don't so much focus on the love or talk much about it either.
It is admirable and deeply American to protest injustice but as has happened so many times in our history, those who see the injustice first are called traitors or at the very least, accused of being un-American. As the energy of protest opens minds and raises awareness, we eventually reach a tipping point where the majority of us can see issues we were blind to just a short time before. And so we inch our way forwards. That is how change happens. I don't see a time when all will "come round right" but rather see it as an ongoing process in which our democracy creates itself each day, each month, each year.
Some years ago I was facilitating a group on spiritual activism. I wanted to provide an experience where we could, in a flash, experience the feelings we have about our country. I wanted to offer an opportunity to progressives, to have a conversation that we are trying so hard to avoid. There were about forty people in the room all sitting in one large circle. I asked people to close their eyes. I went around the room and placed a small American flag in the palm of the hands of these mostly left leaning participants. When they opened their eyes, there was big response. Once the room settled down, I asked them to break into small groups and talk to each other about their responses. It made a big impact. Many reported the same longing I experience, to be able to find love of country in spite of it all. I still hear comments from people about that exercise.
Three times in my life I have had friends go through the naturalization process and become citizens. The idea that someone would make the choice to become a citizen of this country seems to draw a spurt of patriotism out of me. With each one, I celebrated by baking them and apple pie and presented it with a US flag. Perhaps I have a soft spot in my heart for the naturalization process because in the 1920's in Sparks, Nevada, my grandmother taught English to people who had emigrated here so that they could obtain their citizenship papers. I've heard many stories over the years of the struggles these families faced at that time. My grandmother was supporting six children of her own, on her own, having lost two husbands, one in the 1917 flu epidemic. My mother remembers my grandmother taking milk from her their pantry, when she could little afford it, to give to these families who had even less.
Citizenship is something I take for granted as it came with my birth. The struggles that many have gone through in order to obtain it makes me feel like I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth. Whenever I participated in antiwar protests my parents would always ask, "Would you rather live somewhere else?"
And the truth is I wouldn't, though there are a few places I would consider. Still the thought of renouncing citizenship (which I considered during the Viet Nam war) or watching someone opt for citizenship strikes deeply in the psyche. Country does mean something!
One of these friends decided to have a party to celebrate her citizenship. She invited about thirty of us for a potluck dinner and celebration. We all gathered in a circle to welcome her as a new citizen. She asked us to tell her what being a citizen meant to us and to make a wish for her. So many feelings poured out as we went around the room. There was a palpable sense of relief that we were having an opportunity to talk about our connection to our country. Many commented that it was a different kind of conversation than we are used to. That night, I wished we were sitting in a room with those from the opposite end of the political spectrum. Confessions of the deep love of country and all it stands for were expressed by so many. It might have gone a long way towards being able to talk with one another about some of the things about which we disagree.
When Barack Obama became president of the United States my flag waving little girl came out of the closet and cheered. I discovered her buried deep inside of me in an authentic movement process. Authentic movement is an expressive arts practice where there is a mover and a witness. The mover closes her eyes and focuses inside, then lets whatever she finds there express itself with movement and sound. The witness is an important part of the process and reflects back what she saw. As the mover, I was surprised to find myself singing My Country Tis of Thee, with a strong clear voice. I haven't heard that much clarity in my voice since I was a child. After the movement session I drew this picture of the little girl, coming out of the darkness with her flag and her red, white and blue. The words "I have been waiting" poured out onto the page.
So this year I spent the 4th in the garden of the assisted living facility where my mom now lives. The facility had gone to lots of trouble to make it festive. Picnic tables were set up, families were invited. There was a barbecue, chicken, ribs, corn on the cob and lots of ice cream for dessert. My sister and her husband joined us and we spent a quiet afternoon with my dear old 98 year old mom. It was a day of quiet celebration. As I left that day I heard "This Is My Country," playing over the sound system and paused for a moment to let the song in. I struggled with some of the lyrics but did let in its concluding line, "This is my country to have and to hold!" The question is, can I hold it in all its fullness, its wonderful glory and its very dark side?
I got into my car and started my long drive home. My radio was tuned to a progressive radio station somewhere in the Bay Area. The basic theme of the day was a sarcastic, "What is there to celebrate?" If I'm only looking at the dark shadows of our country, I can see their point, but maybe it would be good if we progressives could just take this one day each year and dedicate it to finding our love of country, I thought as I changed the station. I know it would be a good exercise for me and maybe even healing for all. Otherwise, we are just like a warring couple who finds nothing good about each other but stays in the marriage for a lifetime anyway. What? Did I just echo my parents question to me so many years ago? Did I just say, in a little different way, "Would you rather live somewhere else?" Its not really what I mean. I just want to urge us to look underneath all the shadows and find our love because I know it is there.
I ended the day, tucking this flag into the heart backpack of a little doll I made. She looks a little confused, maybe even has some tears. There is a very big shadow behind her. She knows it is there. Thankfully, she has a very big heart. She is a reminder to me that I can trust my heart to open, to wrestle with these complicated feelings and to continue to uncover the love I know resides inside of me.
An Expressive Arts Exercise For You
For me its the old songs I learned as a child that put me in touch with those softer feelings toward my country. America the beautiful speaks to my love of the land we inhabit (and yes, I do know we took this land unfairly) and Marion Anderson standing on the steps of the Lincoln memorial always brings tears and pride in who we are. Certainly if Marion Anderson can find it in herself to sing this song with such passion and power, we can meet her there. I offer this video for you. Listen and then spend a few moments reflecting in your journal about what brings you in touch with your love of country.
I know that taking my daily walk when I first wake up in the morning is the very best thing for me. Its tempting to start my day more slowly, making a cup of tea, reading for a bit, listening to the morning news, all things I enjoy, but when I don't just get up, put on my shoes and walk out the door, I can spend the rest of my day just trying to fit it in.
Once out there, I wonder what all the resistance was about. This week, I have been walking on the headlands that surrounds the town of Mendocino. It is breathtakingly beautiful and at that early morning hour, I pretty much have it all to myself. Just a few steps down the path and I'm breathing in the day more deeply than I would have if I was sitting at home, sipping my tea.
I'm walking for exercise so I try to keep up a good pace. I have to keep my eye on the path as I'm nursing one bad knee but I'm surrounded by the sounds of the ocean, the waves crashing on the shore, and the roar on the rocky beach as the water rushes back to join the ocean once more. Thoughts pass in and out of my mind. Most often I let them go and return to the sounds that surround me. The steady rhythm created by the waves begins to sound like the breath of the ocean itself. Its great deep inhale followed by an equally powerful exhale soon has me feeling held by something so much larger than myself. Without effort, it puts my concerns in new perspective. Listen for a moment.
Some of my morning thoughts aren't so easily excused. They return again and again, asking me to spend more time with them. Those thoughts, I hold on to for awhile, rolling them around in my mind, like the waves rolling the pebbles on the shore. Some good usually comes from this tumbling. Some new insight or some deeper understanding is always welcomed.
This morning I found myself in a more thoughtful, and contemplative mood. This week the tides have been very low, exposing places underneath the sea that aren't usually visible. This morning the birds were making a ruckus, delighted I'm sure, to find a whole new selection of food newly exposed on the rocky shore. I couldn't help seeing my own life in that newly exposed territory. I'm moving through a radical transition as I end eleven and a half years of being the main caregiver for my elderly parents. They lived with me for seven years and then moved into the local assisted living facility fifteen minutes from my house. My father died four years ago so just my mom remains. Her facility just closed its doors, evicting all the old ones. It was the only assisted living facility on the coast so my mother, at age ninety-eight, moved nearer to my brother and my sister. It is a big change for both of us.
For me, it brings new freedom but it is all a bit disorienting. Like the birds exploring the newly exposed shoreline, I find a vast expanse of new possibility in my life. There is a whole new influx of time available to me. Time that would have been spent driving to medical appointments, running errands, making phone calls, visiting mom at The Lodge, or taking her out to lunch or for a drive, is now mine to do whatever I'd like with. Care giving kept my life moving at a dizzying speed. Now that scurrying about has all come to a screeching halt. In this lull, I am taking a moment to find my footing before I start moving forward again.
While I wait for what is yet to come, I'm taking time to gather the inner strength that will help me find my new direction. I'm eating well, walking, reading, writing, doing art, playing the piano and paying particular attention to my dreams. Years ago, just before my parents moved in with me, I was on vacation with a friend. She commented that with my new situation, she thought my life was going to be lived more externally for awhile. I didn't believe her, feeling as grounded as I do in my inner life, but it did turn out that there was more than a grain of truth in what she had said. It makes me happy now, as my time opens up again, that those aspects of my inner life that have been pushed off to the side for awhile, are rushing back in. And they are rushing in, with the urgency of an incoming tide, happy to land themselves on my shore once again.
Friends who have witnessed my life over these last years, as the care giving became more challenging, are relieved for me that it is over. They are more than ready for me to leave it behind me and return to "my own life." But I question if it is possible to make any kind of return to who I was before. These years have changed me. I never did feel that I had stepped away from "my own life" in order to care for my parents. Of course, I took a different path than I might have otherwise taken, but it was my life I was choosing. Those years of care giving were definitely ripe with life lessons, lessons that struck to the core of my being. I walk away with gifts that will serve me and there were shadow experiences that I hope I learn from. I am curious how my changes will look as I go forward, but right now there is a lot to reflect on, a lot to integrate. It is an enormous opportunity to see more deeply into who I really am.
I was nearing the end of my walk when I looked up and out to sea. I saw water spray up from what I thought was a rock but it looked a bit strange. I kept my eye out there and soon realized that what I thought was a rock was the back of a whale! It was just off the rocks and moving slowly, staying very much near the surface. Then I saw that there were more. They were traveling close together. I couldn't be sure but as I watched, it seemed it was a small pod with maybe two adults and two or three babies. They were so close, I could hear the sound of their spray when they let loose and once I even heard a vocalization. I was stunned and stood watching until they moved further north and further away.
I turned to walk on cloaked in gratitude and filled with wonder. That sighting felt like a blessing. I've lived in Mendocino for nearly forty years and have never seen whales that close to the shore. With the tide being so low, the ocean was nearly silent or I would never have been able to hear their spray or that vocalization. What luck that I was there at just that moment on this particular morning, open and receptive.
A sighting like this always shocks me out of my little human existence. Getting a glimpse, close up, of wild creatures puts me instantly in touch with my own wild nature. Life looks different from that perspective. So many things become possible. I don't know what I would do without the natural world surrounding me as it does here in Mendocino. I don't know how I would gain perspective, comfort myself or come to any understanding of how it is that I belong to it all.
When I invited my parents to come live with me in Mendocino, I thought they would live out their lives here. I wanted to involve myself closely in their final years. But aside from what I wanted to offer, I knew Mendocino itself would offer its incredible natural beauty to enhance whatever time remained for them. My parents and I came to live very different lives but the one unifying force in my family has been the love of nature. It was a gift my parents gave me as a very young girl. I wanted to return that gift to them at the end of their lives.
So we made a home here together in the redwood forest and we spent a lot of time down by the ocean in the eleven years they lived here. My father died at the age of 94. I'm grateful to have so many memories of our time together. The memories are grounded in the natural world around me. In fact, this morning just before I saw the whales, I had walked by the big log where my father rested on his daily walks on the headlands.
My mother now lives in the suburbs. When I call her in the evenings she is watching the sunset over the shopping mall across the street from her new assisted living facility. She tells me how much she enjoys sitting in her room in the evening and watching the breeze move through the trees in the parking lot outside of her window. She has nature inside of her and that is what she sees.
Standing on the cliff watching the whales, I realized that there were four or five whales in that pod. There were four of us in my family when I was growing up, my mother, my father, my brother and I. Later, the year my brother went off to college, my sister was born, a late in life child to my parents. So we were four and then we were five. I watched those five whales head north as if I was watching my own family, heading to new shores.
As I took in the incredible beauty of that moment, I found myself thinking how Mendocino goes on offering its beauty only this morning, I am the only one here to see it. My father has moved on, my mother has moved away. At 98 she will certainly move on before too long herself. Living with my elderly parents I come away with much less denial about my own aging and the inevitability of the end of my own life. It is foremost in my awareness that someday I too will be gone. But today I am here, still breathing, still able to walk, still able to see, hear, speak, still able to be present for the incredible gifts the world offers to me in each and every moment. I am immensely grateful.
Expressive Arts Experience For You
It is wonderful to live or be on vacation in a beautiful place but the beauty of nature is everywhere. Find a spot that calls to you. Put your life on hold for a little while and just stay there receiving the gift that nature always gives. Pay attention to your thoughts. Which ones just need to be left behind as you return to the present moment. Are there any that are calling to you for further contemplation? Learn to distinguish between the two. We all need quiet moments to sort some things out. Give yourself those moments. When you return home write in your journal, put some color on paper, make or listen to music that relates to your experience. Nature inspires art! Let it tell the story of how you are feeling right now.
I’m six feet tall and have been since high school. It hasn’t been easy on many levels. Try buying clothes and shoes in a culture that doesn’t think women grow this tall. Once in an elevator, a little girl about 4 years old put it into actual words. She looked up at me and then looked back to her mother and said, “Mommy, I didn’t know they made girls that tall.” I guaranteed her that they do, while her mother cast an embarrassed and apologetic eye in my direction. Of course, it was miserable towering over the boys in high school and in fact I still tower over most men, though it bothers me less today. It all bothers me less now, but I still sometimes struggle.
It might have been easier if I’d come into the world with an extroverted personality but, instead, I was a shy and very quiet child. I’ve spent my life learning to honor my introversion, and even learned to showcase that gift. But making myself really visible in the world in a way that matches my physical size has always been a challenge.
In a world where, if we listen, something guides us where we need to go, it is perfect that my heart lead me into the world of expressive art therapy. It is a profession that focuses on using the arts to express what is inside, putting it out there in painting, drawing, writing, movement and music. In other words, a profession aimed at making ourselves visible, first to our selves, and then finding ways to express who we are, in our larger world. As a practice it is definitely an exercise in becoming visible, not in a way that stokes the ego, but in a way that allows our deeper selves to surface into the light of day. That energy can become action in the world.
I recently had a dream that spoke directly to this issue of visibility and let me see that perhaps I’ve made some progress.
In my dream, I am visiting another town with a group of people from the coast. This town is more inland, like maybe Nevada City. We are staying at the house of the woman who is in charge. The sheriff has been called because I have made sounds in my sleep in the night that must have bothered the neighbors. I am mortified, but at this point, there is nothing to do but laugh. We have explained it all and the trouble is taken care of.
Now in the aftermath, I’m sitting in a room with a friend who is an artist, telling her about what happened. We are laughing together. The room has a solid wall of glass in front of us. There is a beautiful peach tree out there. It is a very large tree, more like the size of an oak and it has tons of peaches on it. They are not ripe yet but rather look like little green orbs with very fuzzy skin. I point this out to my friend and we both marvel, as we need more heat to grow such a tree on the coast.
It is time to go into town with the group and I can’t find my shoes. I find a bunch of different shoes, none fit, all are black, and all a mismatch. Frustrating. I feel like a really old person who doesn’t have it together and is putting others out. The group goes to town without me.
Now, I am magically in town in a shoe store, still trying on different shoes. Somehow I end up with a pair of cowboy boots. They have fringe and all, are brownish and have a three-inch heel. I think, “Oh no! I can’t walk around in these.” But they look and feel great. I love the style. It makes a completely different statement about who I am. Wow! Impressive and very extroverted! It is temporary as these boots belong to the woman in charge. It is true that the colors aren’t quite right. One is kind of whitish, like all the dye has not gone in.
The owner of the store is going to give us a pair of shoes and write it off. The shoes will be for the women in charge, and they will be free. This will solve our problem some how in the dream though I am the one who needs the shoes.
Maybe I will wear these boots after all. It is puzzling as I think they belong to the woman in charge and she is so much shorter and smaller than I. It is amazing that they fit me. But I look spectacular with them on. They make a real statement showing my power and uniqueness. I look really, really tall and I don’t even care that I’ll tower over everyone! No problem. Absolutely no problem!
I loved this dream from beginning to end. I am now 67 years old. As I lean more towards my seventies a burning question is arising in me and it won’t let go. “What is left not lived that still wants to be manifested?” This dream encourages me to speak out, let myself be larger than life, like a peach tree, so big, it is the size of an oak tree. I look at all the fruit on that tree that just needs some heat and those luscious peaches will be ready to be harvested and sent out into the world as sweet nourishment. Those boots, made for the woman in charge? Maybe I am the woman in charge. I fit in her shoes. She must be bigger than I ever imagined.
After guaranteeing my friends I would never find real boots like that in my size, I was surprised to find the boots pictured above, on the internet. In the description, I found this, “Caution when wearing this boot because everyone will stop you and say, ”Where on earth did you find those boots?” Stay tuned to see if I order them!”
Expressive Art Experience
What are your dreams and visions about a self that is bigger than you think you are? Take a moment to reflect. Let your wildest imagination dream up the unthinkable, something you might like to do if only.......Don't be afraid to dream. Make a painting or a collage that gives you an external picture, a self portrait of this person (your future self?). Take one tiny baby step in that direction. I guarantee it will be life giving.
I'm thinking of my father this morning because today is his birthday. This third weekend in June always belonged to him with birthday and Father's Day all falling together about the same time. He died a little over a year ago at the age of 93. He caught a cold and five days later, he didn't wake up in the morning. I will be forever grateful for his peaceful passing, but still, I miss him.
My parents lived with me for the last seven years of my dad's life. When they were still able, we went for daily walks on the Mendocino headlands. My mom couldn't walk very far so I stayed with her while my father went on ahead. He found a big old driftwood log further out the trail and he would sit on that log and rest for a bit while he gathered up the energy to walk back.
My father was a quiet man and kept very much to himself. I used to watch him out there, sitting on that log in his red windbreaker, his walking stick in hand, knowing he was enjoying that bit of time to himself. He would sit there for quite some time watching the ocean. Then I would see him rise. His crooked, bent body would press into the wind, and posting with his walking stick, he would make his way back to join my mother and I.
That image stays with me as it took on a mythic quality. He looked like the "eternal traveler" facing into the elements, his tall, strong body now bent and worn by the journey, but none the less, he was traveling on. Its an image fitting for the old ones among us. And they do travel on, until they stop. Then those of us who remain remember them, learn from their journey and from what they left behind.
Since he died I have been very grateful for those last years we had together. And I'm grateful to live where I have so many memories of his presence. I find the places where we spent time together very comforting. But especially comforting are the places that belonged to him, like that old driftwood log on the headlands. I go there now and sit. I talk with him, sometimes ask for his help, something I rarely did when he was alive, and I thank him again and again for everything he gave to me.
Expressive Arts Experience
If you could sit on this bench and have a conversation with someone you love who is no longer here, who would it be? What would you want to talk to them about? Write an imaginary conversation between the two of you in your journal. Ask them for advice about something important to you, and thank them for their contribution to your life.
This blog is dedicated to the healing power of nature and the arts. It encourages a different way of looking at the purpose of the arts in our lives. While we can all appreciate well known artists, musicians and writers, it is good to remember that expressing ourselves through the arts belongs to all of us. It is part of being human. The arts and time in nature take us out of our small selves into something so much bigger. We need this larger perspective to guide our daily lives. I have a Masters Degree in Psychology, am a Registered Expressive Arts Therapist and am owner and founder of For The Joy Of It! Creative Retreat in Mendocino CA.