Saturday, January 7, 2017

Quickening ...

There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and there is only one of you in all time.  This expression is unique, and if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and will be lost. The world will not have it. 

It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how it compares with other expression. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware of the urges that 
motivate you.  Keep the channel open.

Martha Graham

Happy 2017, Everyone!

I hope you've had a peaceful and refreshing holiday season. 

The rather old fashioned word, quickening, has been playing at the front of my mind this week as I've prepared to spend the next two months writing. Quickening has several meanings -  to make more rapid, to enliven or return to life, to excite or stimulate and to reach the stage of pregnancy when a baby's movement is felt. It is the middle ones that we're interested in here.

Quickening is an experience of hope and possibility and potential. It is the restless energy that initiates growth and creativity whether we are moving into a new stage of development, painting a masterpiece, building a fence or coming up with a more comfortable way to tape a catheter to a loved one's leg. We can see examples of quickening in nature each Spring as seemingly lifeless seeds and branches respond to an inner urging that coaxes them to life. 

We are all familiar with these excited stirrings that can enliven and motivate us. I can recognize quickening in my own life when I spend time in contemplative silence; when grief lightens after a loss; when the first snowdrops push through in the spring; when I return from a fibre fair with a bag of beautiful yarns for a new project and when I feel the urge to take my camera to the lake, open to receiving whatever images may appear. I also feel a spark of this vital energy when I've struggled through a dry spell in my writing and then, suddenly, disparate thoughts fall into place and I rush to the computer to capture them before they disappear.

What about you? Where might you be feeling quickening or new aliveness emerging this New Year? Is something within trying to catch your attention, to help you solve a problem, to enliven a new part of you, to take you in a new direction? It doesn't have to be anything monumental. In fact, quickening often speaks in quiet excitement about seemingly small possibilities. We just have to learn to notice and pay attention to this voice of excitement and then respond.

Here, once again, is one of Jan Richardson's poems which I think well describes the experience of quickening:

This restless hope
is what drives me
beyond the weariness
beyond the discomfort
beyond every thought
that what I carry within me
will never come to birth.

This restless hope
beyond all reason
flutters beneath my heart
and grows within my soul.

It is beyond me,
and it is of me,
and it is delivering me

I hope 2017 will be a year of possibility and promise for each of you. May you find ways within whatever constraints are present to "keep the channel open", to feel the quickening and to respond in the most life-giving ways you can.

Friday, December 9, 2016

The Task of This Darkness ...

In a dark time, the eye begins to see.

Theodore Roethke

Hello Everyone,

It's been a long time! My broken left arm and injured right one continue to heal - in the case of the left one, a little too well! It seems that my left radial nerve is trapped by the adhesions of healing causing considerable pain when I forget and twist my arm to the side and backwards, stretching the caught nerve. Fortunately, it's my left arm and I've learned pretty quickly not to twist it unthinkingly as I put on my coat, throw a scarf around my neck or reach to turn off the bedside lamp. This intense intermittent pain is a small darkness in my life this winter. (I tend to be pretty impatient with any restriction of my activity!) 

Soon, it will be Winter Solstice, the time when we reach both the shortest day and the longest night of the year. A time when we tend to hope for and celebrate the coming of light to end our particular darknesses. (We all experience darknesses, large and small, as we move across our lifetimes.) But what if our darkness is not going to end any time soon? What if you are a family caregiver experiencing chronic sorrow, someone who is freshly bereaved or a helping professional in the grip of compassion fatigue? It is at times like these, when the darkness seems most profound and overwhelming, that it is good to contemplate not just the coming of light to rescue us but the lessons contained in the darkness, itself.

Last Saturday, I attended a silent retreat where we focused on one of Jan Richardson's poems, Travelling in the Dark. In the poem, I found this line:

Then again
it is true
different darks
have different tasks ...

I began to wonder, "What, then, is the task of this darkness, the task of the darkness of my aching arm?" In the deep silence of the day, I found some answers to my question. For me, the task of my aching arm is to slow me down enough that I have time to finish the book on chronic sorrow that has been waiting so many years for completion. It also allows me to reconnect with the grief of that time so I can remember and write from my heart rather than my head. Important tasks indeed.

And what about you? Do you have a darkness in your life this Solstice? What might be the task of this darkness at this time? Perhaps give yourself some time and inner stillness - a quiet hour before bed or early in the morning or a walk alone in the woods - to consider the task that might be waiting to be discovered. Allow it to speak to you and trust its wisdom. As Jan Richardson says later in her poem :

That in the darkness
there is a blessing.
That in the shadows
there be welcome.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

In Gratitude ...

Thanksgiving creates gratitude 
which generates contentment
that causes peace.

Todd Stocker

Happy Thanksgiving, Everyone!

I'm writing this post early because I'm winging off to Prince George in BC's Interior in an hour or so, for the first of several Caring On Empty workshops and then returning, briefly, before going to Vancouver Island to spend the holidays with dear ones.

Most of you know of my love for poetry and, especially for blessings. So, here is my gift to you who care for so many at this holiday season. It's one of Jan Richardson's blessings and it goes like this:

You Who Bless

who are
a blessing

who know
that to feed
the hungering
is to bless

and to give drink
to those who thirst
is to bless

who know
the blessing
in welcoming
the stranger

and giving clothes
to those
who have none

who know
to care
for the sick
is blessing

and blessing
to visit
the prisoner:

may the blessing
you have offered
now turn itself
toward you

to welcome
and to embrace you
at the feast
of the blessed

However you will spend the holiday weekend, may you be blessed in the way of ordinary things - by what you do (or don't do), whom you see and the natural beauty all around you.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Love, Jan

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Compassion Fatigue in Funeral Service Professionals...

Our hearts are too full of grief to care.

Rachel Remen, MD
Kitchen Table Wisdom

Hi Everyone!

Happy Autumn! It's a busy one already with two workshops completed before the end of September. I hadn't realized how little I knew about the lives of funeral service professionals (medical examiners, mortuary technicians, funeral directors, embalmers, advance planners, crematory operators, cemetery operators and others) until I facilitated two Caring On Empty workshops for the wonderful folk of the BC Funeral Association this month.

Like many, I have to admit, I have occasionally endorsed stereotypes of money-hungry morticians out to bilk the public in their time of need and have participated in story-telling about crusty, unempathic,  funeral personnel.

Now, I must say, my eyes are opened. I've developed a deep respect for these professionals whose work involves constant exposure to loss, grief and trauma; who frequently work with insufficient resources; and who carry all the stresses of running either a 24/7 small family business or trying to provide empathic care within a large impersonal corporate structure focused on profit.

These death care professionals are rarely included in our lists of people at risk for compassion fatigue and yet their risk factors are many indeed. In a 2014 survey of 57 respondents from multiple countries done by author and blogger, Katie Hamilton, funeral directors identified the following emotional impacts of their work:

- Daily encounters with multiple traumatic images, smells and stories that are difficult to dispel.
- The stress of dealing with the emotionally-charged dynamics of devastated family members who may resent paying for funeral services or who cannot afford those services. 
- Coping with the physical impacts of sleep deprivation and undervalued self care.
- Exhaustion due to 24/7 availability to clients and families and the subsequent sacrifice of their own family life - and the tension between the two.
- Dealing with inherent family tensions while trying to run a family business.
- Working for a large firm whose values do not align with your own and the resulting lack of support.  
 - The stress of dealing with multiple external professionals - clergy, physicians, coroners, police. (This is an issue of time, administrative details, interpersonal stress, and having to repeat death details multiple times thus increasing trauma exposure.)
- The profound sadness of certain deaths - gruesome circumstances, infants, children, young people, suicides. And the expectation that "professionals" will not show their emotional responses.
- Being socially isolated from the general population by the nature of the vocation. 

Other stressors noted by those in the field include a lack of debriefing opportunities after a bad death, personally knowing those being tended or recognizing that they are friends of your spouse or child, gender bias within the profession (women are "too emotional" to hire or promote and are relegated to paperwork and tidying / "real men" don't show tender emotions), and having to keep clients' family secrets - such as the nature of a death - especially in a small community.

These risk factors can result in the familiar signs of compassion fatigue and accumulated grief - cynical sarcastic humour (as opposed to healthy black humour), irritability and impatience, chronic sadness, defensive cheerfulness and hyperactivity, chronic physical complaints, heavy drinking, loss of empathy and compassion, family breakdown and emotional disengagement from co-workers and the very people you're trying to help. Ultimately, many decide to leave their once-loved profession or go on to develop depression or, rarely, suicide.

Some resilience strategies  discussed in the workshops this month included:

- Creating an ongoing resilience plan and meeting regularly with a self-care buddy to review your progress and gain encouragement.
- Advocating for, and using, a good Employee Assistance Program, separate from the workplace, that recognizes the nature of your responsibilities. 
- Making use of new technologies to reduce your time at work and on call - pagers and smart phones, informative websites, a good answering service to screen calls, software programs for obituary placement and death certificate filing.
- Delegating responsibilities - eg hiring an appropriate removal company.
- Balancing your death focus with a life focus - gratitude journalling, outdoor activities, nourishing hobbies, regular downtime with your family and friends, vacation time where you're geographically away from your workplace.
- Focusing on the joy you can find in the work (Compassion Satisfaction)  
- Healthy eating and regular aerobic exercise
- Monitoring alcohol intake  - noticing when you're using alcohol and for what purpose. 
- Intentionally building and maintaining a nurturing spiritual life.
- Creating a professional support network of 4 or 5 people who will be consistently warm, accepting and supportive when called upon. 
- Avoiding re-traumatizing each other with competitive story-telling at conferences and other gatherings. (ie Leaving out the gory details!).

Serving and supporting others through their worst and most tragic days is a rewarding, but not necessarily an easy occupation. So, next time you see one of your neighbourhood death care professionals, why not take a moment to shelve any stereotypes and give them a smile and a greeting. I'm sure they'd appreciate the support.

Friday, September 2, 2016

Autumn Inspiration ...

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.  

Albert Camus

Hi Everyone!

I'm finally back from a longer-than-intended summer vacation after discovering that I had not only broken my left elbow in a fall at the beginning of the season, but I'd injured my right wrist and elbow as well. So that put paid to any long hours of keyboarding over the past few months. I'm in the harness again, though, with just an occasional twinge to remind me to be careful, ready for what is shaping up to be a very busy autumn.

Because I have so many workshops booked between now and Christmas and because I've promised my doctor not to lift large boxes of books, handouts etc for the next while, I won't be offering the usual community-based Caring On Empty and Enneagram workshops again until the Spring. (My sincerest apologies to anyone who was looking forward to attending this fall!) Please watch this space in January for the new Spring dates on Granville Island.

September is here and I don't know about you, but I LOVE the autumn. (Yes, I know, it's not officially autumn yet but it feels like it is today.) It's my favourite time of year - so full of brilliance, abundance, energy and colour. My energy rises just at the thought of it. Not everyone feels that way, though. One of my dearest friends says she goes into mourning at this time every year as she bids farewell to the bright, warm, lazy days of summer. For those of you who face the same struggle, and even for those who don't,  I've compiled a list of inspiring quotations praising the fall. May they help to ease you into the a kinder gentler relationship with this, the third and, in my opinion, most beautiful season of the year. Enjoy!

Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.  F Scott Fitzgerald
At no other time does the earth let itself be inhaled with one smell, the ripe earth; in a smell that is in no way inferior to the smell of the sea, bitter where it borders on taste, and more honeysweet where you feel it touching the first sounds.  Rainer Maria Rilke
I'm so glad to live in the world where there are Octobers!  L M Montgomery 
Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.  Jim Bishop
The winds will blow their freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while your cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn.   John Muir
Autumn was her happiest season. There was an expectancy about its sounds and shapes: the distant thunk pomp of leather and young bodies on the practice field near her house made her think of bands and Coca-Colas, parched peanuts and the sight of people's breath in the air. There was even something to look forward to when school started - renewals of old feuds and friendships, weeks of learning again what one half forgot in the long summer.  Harper Lee
The season for enjoying the fullness of life - partaking of the harvest, sharing the harvest with others, and reinvesting and saving portions of the harvest for yet another season of growth.  Denis Waitley
Delicious autumn! My very soul is wedded to it, and if I were a bird I would fly about the earth seeking the successive autumns.  George Elliot
Listen! The wind is rising, and the air is wild with leaves, we have had our summer  evenings, now for October eves!   Humbert Wolfe
I love the fall. Fall is exciting. It's apples and cider. It's an airborne spider. It's pumpkins in bins. It's burrs on dogs' chins. It's wind blowing leaves. It's chilly red knees. It's nuts on the ground. It's a crisp dry sound. It's green leaves turning And the smell of them burning. It's clouds in the sky. It's fall! That's why... I love fall!  Author Unknown
Two sounds of autumn are unmistakable ... the hurrying rustle of crisp leaves blown along the street a gusty wind, and the gabble of a flock of migrating geese.   Hal Borland
The ripples wimple on the rills / Like sparkling little lasses. / The sunlight runs along the hills / And laughs among the grasses... / Why, it's the climax of the year, - / The highest time of living!- / Til naturally its bursting cheer / Just melts into thanksgiving. Paul Dunbar
Though I still grieve as beauty goes to ground, autumn reminds me to celebrate the primal power that is forever making all things new in me, in us, and in the natural world.  Parker Palmer 
Even if something is left undone, everyone must sit still and watch the leaves turn. Elizabeth Laurence 
May the air be crisp, may the leaves be few, may the season of Autumn bring great bounty to you!    Author Unknown  


Friday, July 1, 2016

The Problem of Needing to Ask for Help ...

Life doesn't make any sense without
We need each other 
and the sooner we learn that, the better it is for us all.

Erik Erikson

Hello, Everyone - Happy Canada Day!

Today is not only the birthday of our beautiful country, but for me and thousands of others it's the first day of summer holidays. Sadly, this year I'm packing for the cottage with one wing in a sling after catching my feet in the edge of the bedspread as I changed the sheets. Now, having snapped the head off the radius bone in my forearm, the packing process is a little more complicated!

(Yes, I know. I could at least have broken it doing something exciting but I did paint quite a picture as I caught both feet in the spread, flew low across the room, too quickly to save myself, landed and skidded even further across the carpet and then rolled on my back with my legs in the air, stunned and winded.)

After several moments of trying to catch my breath and figure out what had happened, I got up and checked for damage and, realizing that most of my in-town support network were away, called a physician friend half way across the country and together we did an ortho exam on the phone and figured that I'd be black and blue in the morning but that nothing was seriously awry.

Roll on the next morning when I woke to discover that, despite icing, my left elbow was crooked, swollen and exquisitely painful and the closest I could get to touching my nose with my finger was a good foot away. And that led to the first of many uneasy decisions regarding whether and how to ask for help.

Why is asking for help such a big deal ...?? Well, if you're like me, you grew up in a family where independence, strength and self-sufficiency were the expectation and, thus, the norm. "Whining" was nipped in the bud, trying-it-yourself-before-asking-for-help was mandatory and feeling anything from uneasy vulnerability to outright shame accompanied even the most legitimate requests for assistance. Such experiences, encountered both at home and at school, would not have been unfamiliar to anyone growing up in the '50's and '60's in North America.

In her more recent book, Help Is Not a Four Letter Word, author and researcher, Peggy Collins, has published survey results to the question, What frightens us most about asking for help?. The top twelve fears are:

  • bothering other people
  • rejection / being told no
  • looking weak, inadequate, needy or just plain foolish
  • someone taking over / surrendering some of my power
  • owing other people and having to pay them back
  • things not being done the way I would like them to be done
  • relying on someone who doesn't come through
  • losing the reputation that I can do it all
  • not performing like I was raised
  • not asking in the right way
  • others seeing my mess
  • believing my needs are not important enough for others to meet

Perhaps a few of these sound familiar ...?

Ultimately, after this week's fall, I had to face the vulnerability of requesting help before getting almost anything done and I relearned something I learned years ago when people cried after being invited to help with my husband's care; people WANT to help. All they need is the invitation and our willingness to be in the receptive role.

It's a great lesson in humility to recognize and admit that we helpers also need help sometimes - a lesson that most of us need to learn again and again. Interdependence is the goal of healthy relationships, families, organizations, communities and nations. None of us can go it alone. We need each other and, as life coach Heather Plett says, (quoting Christina Baldwin in The Seven Whispers), -

"Ask for what you need and offer what you can." That's what creates the balance, the yin and yang of relationship. Even those who teach this need to be reminded to put it into practice.

So, great bouquets of gratitude to Ted who supported me in the first hour after the fall, my sister Sheila who drove me from pillar to post all week long as I saw medical professionals and prepared to fly to Ontario, my friend Cathy who - as always - empathized and made me laugh, Sandra who provided distraction and Healing Touch, Ginger who took me to the Market for coffee and mystery books, Linda who drove me to church and offered more, and Janet (my Enneagram "six-sister") who worried and planned for me so I could relax! Interdependence is what makes a healthy world go round and I'm so very grateful for that truth this week.

Happy Summer, Everyone!

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

At the End of the Day: The Examen ...

Looking back so the view
looking forward is even clearer.


Hello, Everyone,

I've said here recently that I am becoming more and more interested in the intersection between trauma resilience and spirituality. I think there are a vast number of spiritual practices we can glean from various faith traditions to help us calm our bodies, access presence and peace, guide our lives and fuel our work with others. One such practice is an updated version of the Jesuit exercise of daily Examen.

The Examen of Consciousness is usually practiced at the end of the day. It is a review that contains a short reflection on the day, recalling events, noting feelings and being mindful of the presence of The Holy (however you understand that to be) in your everyday life. The process is basically encapsulated in the answers to two questions:
 1.  For what moment today am I most grateful?
 2.  For what moment today am I least grateful?

Variations on this theme, offered by Dennis Linn, Sheila Linn and Matthew Linn in Sleeping With Bread, are:
 1. When did I give and receive the most love today?
     When did I give and receive the least love today?
2.  When did I feel most alive today?
               When did I most feel life draining out of me?
3.  When today did I have the greatest sense of belonging to myself, The Holy and the   universe?
     When did I feel the least sense of belonging?
4.  When was I happiest today?
      When was I saddest?
5.  What was today's high point?
     What was today's low point?
6.  What did I feel good about today?
     What was my greatest struggle today?

Practicing the Examen takes about ten minutes to half an hour each evening, depending on whether you share the answers to your questions with yourself, your partner, your family or a group of friends. The Linn's say that they have met with a group of close friends every Sunday afternoon for several years to do an Examen of the week together before sharing a meal. In this case, the Examen not only provides a way to be more reflective and mindful, it offers the opportunity to build a deeper and more intimate sense of community with close friends.

The Examen can also act as a guide to important life decisions. Paying close attention over time to what makes you feel alive and what drains your life force can help you to choose occupational paths, decide whether to deepen relationships, know how to spend your re-creational time and determine your direction for a new year.

So, whatever your faith tradition or the lack of it, I invite you to try the Examen for a week and see if it might be a spiritual tool you'd like to add to your resilience toolkit on an ongoing basis.

ps And for those of you who are interested in the practice of meditation, Sounds True is offering a 10 day online Meditation Summit, starting today, with free talks by some of the top Buddhist and Christian meditation leaders, some of whom you've seen mentioned here from time to time, including Reggie Ray, Tara Brach, Sharon Salzberg, Rick Hanson, James Findlay, Thich Nhat Hanh, Saki Santorelli, Jack Kornfield and Pema Chodron. You can listen to each talk for free for 24 hours after it takes place.