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.
It was just one year ago that I opened my property as a retreat center. The idea came in a burst of new energy after caring for my elderly parents for seven years. In the beginning, I was quite concerned about putting myself on the internet and inviting strangers onto my property. In my fear, I planned to put a door in my entryway so that I could lock the downstairs of my house while guests stayed upstairs. But the door I wanted to install was an odd size and not easily found, so I abandoned that plan and just dove, head first, into my new venture. As this one year anniversary comes round I find myself remembering back to that very first night.
Five days after placing my ad on the internet, I had guests registered for upstairs and in my yurt. The guests had been in touch with me as their day evolved, but darkness fell that evening before either of them arrived. I began to wonder about the wisdom of my plan. "So you put yourself on the internet and invite strangers onto your property. You have only dealt with the men in these couples and now they are arriving after dark! Maybe not such a good plan." I said to myself. A friend called, "If anything seems weird or uncomfortable in any way, come sleep at my house," she offered.
It was nearly ten o'clock when the first guest arrived. He was a very kind man. I invited him in and we introduced ourselves. Then he noticed the stair lift that I had installed on the stairway for my mother, and he commented on it. I explained that I had cared for my elderly parents in my home for seven years. There was a moment of silence and then he offered that he was here in Mendocino because he was caring for his elderly father, who was in his 90's and had dementia. In that single moment, all my concern vanished. Over the last seven years I had sought refuge from the demands of care giving many times and here now, my very first guest was in a situation I knew from the inside out. This moment seemed to me, one of those little miracles that life scatters along the way for us to discover. Recognizing it made me feel like I was indeed on the right path, and heading in the right direction.
About fifteen minutes later my yurt guests arrived. Peering through the darkness, it was clear to me, from the very first moment, that these were fine folks. Upon learning that they had quite a bit of luggage, I offered my golf cart to carry us all out to the yurt. We piled the suitcases on the back. I hopped into the drivers seat, the wife jumped in next to me and the husband got on the back with the suitcases. My lighted path to the yurt is narrow so we headed off on a wider path, used during construction of the yurt, but I had forgotten that it hadn't been trimmed in a long time. The little light on the golf cart tried to penetrate the darkness as we made our way through the woods. The low hanging branches of the trees whipped against the golf cart as we bumped along. "Are you all right back there?" I yelled to the man on the back. I heard a somewhat hesitant "yes" from behind me and we all laughed our way to the yurt. What a wild beginning! For both of us, I am sure!
The next morning I had a very heart felt conversation with the man upstairs about caring for our elderly parents and the folks in the yurt changed their two day stay into five, when in a spontaneous flurry they decided to explore Northern California instead of going south and they even stopped for yet another nights stay on their way back home.
So that door I wanted to lock became symbolic and the wild ride through the darkness, the unexpected brushing up against us as we made our way, symbolic as well. I can see now how they were portents of what was to come. After a year, I can say that I love the "open door" that opening my house has provided. I have enjoyed meeting all the folks who have passed through. Each new guest is an "unexpected surprise" and in getting acquainted, my heart opens with new delight. Like waves lapping onto the shore, the guests flow into my life and then disappear back to where they came from. I'm touched by each one. I hope my guests return home, touched by something they experienced here, in this forest, in the beauty of where I live.
Expressive Arts Experience
There is a certain freedom in stepping towards the unknown. As terrifying as it may be, it is the place from which all creation springs. It is the "friend" we live with each day though we spend much of our life determined not to acknowledge it. We prefer to think we direct our lives and we do but....the unknown is always there beside us and can wreck havoc with our "best laid plans" on a moments notice. Seems like a relationship worth exploring. Take a moment to contemplate your relationship with the unknown. Make a drawing that expresses something about that. Afterwards, have a conversation in your journal between you and "the unknown."
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.
Welcome to my new blog. This is the place where I'll be sharing thoughts and reflections about art and life. It is also where I will be posting new expressive arts therapies experiences for you to try on your own.
This blog will be all about encouraging a new way of looking at the purpose of the arts in our lives. While we can all appreciate the artists who make the art we see in art galleries, the musicians who perform in our concert halls, and the writers of great literature, it is good to remember that expressing ourselves through the arts belongs to all of us. It is part of being human.
The old saying, "A picture is worth a thousand words" is a shorthand way to get the idea of how it works to use the arts for self discovery. In just an instant, a picture, a piece of music, or a poem can take us out of the stories we tell about ourselves and into our direct experience of what we absolutely know is true. Like a compass directing us to true north, we can instantly orient our selves toward home. There we find the "still small voice within" waiting for us to listen.
I hope you will come along on this exploration. In honor of new beginnings, for me this blog and for you, whatever is new in your life, here is a little piece of expressive arts therapy to try out on your own. Let me hear what happens. All my best to you, Marilyn
When we hold a new baby in our arms, we hold a great promise. What will become of this new life? That question and the great potential of this new beginning explodes inside of us as we stare down into the face of the miracle of life. And so with our own new beginnings.
Our creative spark lights up the darkness in a new land pointing the way towards something that wants to become real. How do you honor the creative spark in your life when it flashes. Is it met with love and gentle nurture? Do you hold it as you would this newborn baby?
Imagine for a moment cradling a newborn baby in your arms. Actually let your arms hold this “imaginary baby” that is a new something that you would like to make real. Write in your journal reflecting on your experience.
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.