420 Days

A journey of 420 days for me begins today.

I am a teacher.  We are fortunate to have the option to avail of a deferred salary plan that will grant me leave from my position for the 2019-2020 school year.  Attach the two months of regular summer holidays on each end of that and I find myself with 14 months extended before me that will be unlike any other 14 consecutive months I have ever experienced.  

My job is rigidly structured and very inflexible as far as vacation time is concerned.  Recess, for example, is from 10:00 – 10:15 and we are expected to be in our classrooms at 10:15 sharp.  Our periods are 30 minutes long.  As teachers we find ourselves constantly looking at the clock to gauge how much longer the kids can work on something or when they need to start putting things away.  People keep asking me what I have planned for my time off.  What I plan is to not have a plan.  Routine can be a blessing, but also a crutch.    

As I sit on my deck shaded from the sun on the first of 420 unplanned mornings, enjoying the potted flowers I made sure were there for this day, noticing the greens of our vegetable garden starting to show, listening to the birds – it excites me to have no idea exactly what the next 14 months are going to look like.  My husband and I are planning a trip to Scotland in April.  Beyond that, I have a multitude of ideas and dreams and aspirations of things I would like to experience and places I would love to see. Exactly what will manifest over that time frame is yet to be discovered.  I love not knowing.  

But here’s another truth.  At the same time, it causes me some anxiety.  Maybe it’s because of my job, maybe due to my personality, maybe both.  I have often felt that I was fighting against or fighting for time.  Either way, it has felt like pressure.  I have always felt the need to achieve, to accomplish something, to have made the time worth it.  Now before me I see a long continuum of time and I accept it as a gift.  I am personally committed to not having a must-do list before I return to work.  There is no closet that must be cleaned out.  No art project that must be completed.  No trip that must be taken.  I have made a promise to myself to intuitively enjoy this time by choosing in the moment what to do and not be distracted by what I will do next.  

When I traveled to Iceland a couple of years ago there was a quote on the bathroom stall.

“The meaning of life is just to be alive.  It is so plain and so obvious and so simple.  And yet, everybody rushes around in a great panic as if it were necessary to achieve something beyond themselves.”

-Alan Watts

What if my life is already great?  What if being alive is enough?  What if I have already done enough?  What if people still love and respect me even if I don’t achieve another thing?  I have the time to explore that right now.  A lot of it.  

Now the anticipation is over and the being begins.  

420 and counting.

Death on the Radio

Photo credit:  Christine Davies – CrossTalk Twitter feed

Of Life and Death.  The inspiration behind the name of this blog is the notion that we are living beings  who will one day die and that by exploring our mortality, we are more conscious of our living time.  After all, that is the underlying philosophy of Death Cafés.  A couple of years ago I co-hosted our province’s first public Death Café after being intrigued by an interview on the radio in another province.   The journalist asked a participant what they thought of the event and she responded, “Attending the Death Café made me feel more alive.”  That concept of aliveness is something I am always in search of.

Today’s blog comes to you in the form of an audio broadcast.  I recently co-hosted my 4th Death Café  and it got some media attention.  I was interviewed on the the morning show the day after the event and two weeks later, spent an hour on our local noon call-in show called CrossTalk.  Here’s the link.  The full shows runs over 55 minutes.  Listen to as much or as little as you like!  As it turns out, people have a lot to say about death and dying.

https://www.cbc.ca/listen/shows/cross-talk/episode/15678090  

Veiled – a poem

Veiled

My spoken truth, to you, a sword

Cutting, slashing the delicate cloth

Sewn loosely around us

 

Threads fall like autumn leaves

Tears drip with every syllable

Staining the earthy hues

 

Your shield is dented, but thick

I beg of you to lower it

To see your veil

 

You edge backward

Pulling the fabric

Tighter now around my wounded heart

 

The words cannot be swept away

My sheath discarded

Our love, indeterminate

When I Die

“When I die I am never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever coming back.”  

As a child, teenager, and adult I have laid anxiety-ridden in bed reciting those words over and over until crying myself to sleep.  A feeling of despair would start deep in my belly and rumble it’s way to my throat and I would sob, uncontrollably.  Terrified of dying, I was.

My husband is quite intrigued by the vastness of our universe.  He watches documentaries about galaxies, space exploration, black holes, supernovae.  On several occasions while watching with him, the same feeling erupted in me and the tears flowed.  Right there on the couch, I’ve wept, feeling completely overwhelmed by the content.  The idea that the expanse of our universe is seeming immeasurable would elicit the exact same emotion as lying in bed and telling myself that when I die I am never coming back.

I have explored these emotions on several occasions over the years with my homeopathic doctor and my psychologist.  We discovered some relation between the fear of death and the concept of living.  I began to understand that, for me, the fear of dying was linked to not feeling satisfied in life.  I didn’t want to die because I had so many things I needed to do.  In short, to conquer the fear of dying I had to focus on how I was living.

A couple of years ago, around the time I was facing this fear, I caught the tail end of an interview on CBC Radio.  The journalist was questioning a participant of a Death Café in Toronto who said, “Attending the Death Café made me feel more alive.”  Those words rang like church bells in my head.  Feeling more alive.  Now that was something I could handle a whole lot more of!

When I got home I researched Death Café and was awakened by what I was reading.  Founded in England by the late Jon Underwood, it is a social gathering to discuss the taboo topic of death and dying.  It is not a grief support group – rather a lively, dynamic, and enjoyable event discussing the concept that we are all living beings and will one day die.  As quoted from the website deathcafe.com, its objective is  ‘to increase awareness of death with a view to helping people make the most of their (finite) lives’.   In addition, the only requirement is to serve cake and tea!  Well, that was something I was eager and ready to attend.

A quick search led to the disappointing reality that there were no public events being held where I lived, nor had there ever been.  Not being one to stop at the first hurdle, I decided I would just have to organize it myself.  I reached out to Jon Underwood who put me in contact with another local woman who had always inquired.  Together, we organized Newfoundland and Labrador’s first public Death Café in April 2017.

The experience was incredibly profound.  I learned there is a whole death culture; some people are fascinated by the concept of death and don’t fear it at all.  I found myself laughing and listening intently to others’ ideas, thoughts, and experiences surrounding death and dying.  From ancient burial grounds to being buried in a mushroom suit, from death paraphernalia to the afterlife, nothing was off-limits.  Conversation was light at times, heavy at others, philosophical, humorous, thought-provoking – but never scary.  We had a deck of cards that each posed a discussion question and the one I chose asked, “Do you consider death to be a friend or an enemy?”  For me, death had always been an enemy.  It was like I had always been driving a car and seeing death behind me in the rearview mirror.  No matter how fast I drove, I could always see it, lurking.  However, this event encouraged me to pull over and invite death into the passenger’s seat – to come along for the ride.  It wouldn’t be the driver.  That’s me.  Nonetheless, it would become a witness to my life’s journey and hopefully, one day, a friend.

Fast forward to today, almost two years later and two more Death Cafés under my belt.  Death is still in the front seat. We’re becoming pals.  I sometimes initiate a conversation about death at dinner parties and with friends.  It is always well received and people, indeed, want to talk about it.  I still hear those words sometimes….’never, ever, ever, ever, ever, coming back.’  They are less frequent, and rarely result in tears.  The anguish weakened by a quietude, there’s an acceptance of my eventual death.  Very timely and not surprisingly, because life works that way sometimes, a very recent series of conversations with a special person in my life helped me to really dig deeper into the root of my fear of death.

I am currently enrolled in a Life Coaching program.  As part of our training, we practice coaching and being coached with our classmates.  I addressed my fear of dying with my coach – curious to explore where I was with it and what might surface.  Like an onion, my experience with fear has been that peeling off one layer at a time elicits tears, but eventually gets to its core.  The work I have done with my coach has challenged some long-held core beliefs and exposed their debilitating consequences, all connected to the very root of my fear of death.  It is one word: belonging.

I have always struggled to belong.  Trauma and emotional abandonment in my childhood set the stage for a lifetime of not really fitting in.  Despite being very social and outgoing and having a large circle of wonderful loving friends, I have always felt like an outsider.  I was a part of something, but within it, I was alone.  Every friend was always closer to someone else.  In a group, there was always someone prettier, smarter, more athletic, taller, nicer, funnier.  I was no one’s first.  Every single person in my life had someone else they loved more than me.  As a result, I have always felt the need to work hard and tirelessly at getting people to love me.  If not, the consequences were dire – for love was conditional.  If I didn’t work hard enough, if I wasn’t careful, I could lose it.

When I met my husband and his two children, becoming a part of their family unit was incredibly difficult.  I felt replaceable.  I told myself from the onset that I would leave if I ever became between the kids and their dad.  They were a unit; I was expendable.  Again, I was a part of something, but on my own.  I seemed to feel safer if I had an out, like it wouldn’t hurt as much when it came time to leave if I accepted that I didn’t belong there in the first place.  

This sense of going it alone was some sort of defence mechanism to protect me my entire life.  It also fuelled my fear of death.  Conversations about this fear with my coach led to the realization that I wasn’t necessarily terrified of dying.  I was terrified of dying before I mattered.

Before I belonged.  

The whole universe thing?  I would get so overwhelmed by that because subconsciously I wondered how the universe could be that expansive without a single place for me in it. Bad enough I couldn’t belong in my family, in my workplace, in my life, on Earth.  Now there was the enormity of our entire universe – with galaxies and undiscovered regions – and I didn’t belong.  In ALLLLL of that, there was no place for me.

That last sentence weighs heavily on my heart.  Life coaching has proved a very valuable gateway for me to emotional freedom.  I have worked with my coach to rewrite these false core beliefs that supported these deep-rooted harmful thoughts and resulting detrimental behaviours.  Change is a powerful phenomenon.  If we tell ourselves something enough times, it becomes our truth.  Our new truth.

It is a process.  I am listening closely to my thoughts.  When I catch myself in the old stuff, I state my new belief with conviction and love:

“I have to work hard for people to love me”    

has become          

“I love and am loved freely.”   

 

The crux of guilt I carry from my childhood for which I believed I could never be forgiven      

has become  

“I did the best I could in a terrible situation.”

 

“I don’t belong”

has become

“I belong right here.”

I am plugging in.  I am opening my heart.  I am learning to lean on people.  I am indulging in vulnerability.  I am nurturing the lonely little girl inside me.  Instead of needing other people to let me in, I am letting others in.  I am allowing how it feels to belong.  And my buddy, Death, is supporting me through it all.

“When I die I am never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever coming back”

has become

“When I die I am never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever coming back.  

But I will have been here.”

Forest Bathing and Rainbows

I hadn’t heard of Forest Bathing before.  Someone recently described it to me and I thought it was something I would like to try.  It’s not hiking. It’s not about exercise. You don’t have to be adventurous to do it. You only need immerse yourself in a setting surrounded by nature and tap in to your senses.  Listen closely.  Touch what’s around you.  Smell the aromas.  Forage and taste wild edibles.  Observe with purpose.  Read here to learn more about its origin and benefits. https://www.mamanatural.com/forest-bathing/

I didn’t plan my recent inaugural forest bathing experience.  I just went for a bike ride on a beautiful summer day.  One thing that exhilarates me is swimming outdoors.  I live in a climate where our summers are quite short.  There is a 4-6 week window when the water in our local ponds is warm enough for me to willingly get in.  This summer has been uncharacteristically hot and I have made plunging into local fresh water ponds a part of my regular activity.  This day was no exception. I was biking on a local trail that meanders through trees around several ponds.  I purposely wore quick dry clothing so I could stop for a swim and carry on with my ride, the wet clothes keeping me cool.  There is a beach along on one these ponds that is crowded on nice days. That’s not for me.  I like to find access that’s more private.  On this particular day, I found a section that was shallow for about 5 feet, then dropped off. Perfect!  Treading water, my head at water level, looking across the vast pond, no one else in sight, a few lily pads nearby.  Bliss.  I like to stretch my arms out ahead of me and just barely let my fingers surface.  I don’t know why I love that so much, but I do.  After my swim, I hopped back on bike and continued with my ride.  Soon after, I stopped for lunch on a wooden bench next to a little creek.  I laid on the bench and soaked up the sun, still at this point, not intentionally forest bathing.  That didn’t start until I sat on a rock next to the creek, my wet body leaving its mark on the wood.  

It was the birds that drew me there.  I had spotted them from the bench and wanted to get closer.  I have developed an interest in identifying birds over the past couple of years and wondered if these were Pine Siskins.  They were small enough, but didn’t have the characteristic yellow marks of the Siskins I am familiar with.  Maybe the females don’t have the yellow?  Maybe this was a different variety of Siskins?  These were some of the questions running through my mind when I remembered someone telling me about forest bathing. I realized I was perfectly positioned to give it a go!  From the little bit I knew about it, I started to purposefully observe what was around me.  Right away, directly to my left, just a few inches from my hand, I saw this brilliant blue tiny dragonfly that measured no more than 3-4 centimetre in length.

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I would have missed it altogether had I not decided to look.  After enjoying it for several minutes, I excitedly wondered what might be to my right.  
There I spotted a very interesting oxidized rock.  

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As I looked longer and closer, the different hues of its monochromatic face gave me an idea.  I had just seen a vibrant blue, here before me was a rusty orange.  I wondered if I could find all the colours of the rainbow!

A flick of my head back to the left, just inches from where the dragonfly had been, I found yellow!

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I turned around to find a garden that had no shortage of red blooms.

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And plenty of indigo and violet too!

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I was having so much fun forest bathing!  The colours were popping out all around me. ROYGBIV, I thought.  Red.  I had red.  Orange.  The rock.  Yellow.  Centre of the daisy. Green.  I hadn’t taken a picture of green.  I was on a trail in the forest surrounded by luscious greens.  Have you ever stopped to closely identify the greens in a forest?  If not, I highly recommend it!  Which one to pick?  I chose the one that was unshaded, gleaming in the sunlight.

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Alive.  The forest was alive!  In that moment, I sure as heck was too.  I felt vibration.  I was a part of something larger than I could describe.  Sure, I love to spend time outside and always feel great after exercising.  I have always felt a connection to nature.  However, this experience just opened my heart and mind even more to the joy, mysteries, strength, beauty, and resilience that surrounds us.  And when we really tap into it, bathe in it, we realize we possess all those qualities too.

The rest of my ride home was euphoric.  The wind felt softer on my face, the air was lighter.  The sun, warmer.  I felt supported, recognized, nurtured.  I found a rainbow! Right there by the creek.  It was always there, every other time I passed by.  But on this day I found it.

Thank you, Dianne, for introducing me to forest bathing.   I will do it again.