By tomorrow, New York will be embraced by record heat, which is nothing compared to the environmental apocalypse that seems to be unfolding in other parts of the country and the world. The old economy doesn’t seem to be coming back and most of us lack the farming and do-it-yourself skills we may need to survive in the new smaller economy (including boat building and tornado shelter building, given the weather). Having just returned from retreat, I’m feeling humble about mypowers of attention and observation, my ability to really see what is needed and help…except once in a while when seeing and responding just comes like a stroke of grace.
Yet, I also came back from the desert with a new appreciation for my mother. My mother grew up in a town on the prairie in western Nebraska. Although she born and raised by prosperous Danish immigrants, she had a kind of laconic conversational style that I associate with the Great Plains. It was plain spoken, and it left much unsaid I never remember my mother using the word “parenting” much less “mindful parenting.” She believed that babies were born with particular characters and that it was a mother’s job to love them and do the best she could.
“I didn’t always understand you,” my mother said. The old get honest. They boil things down to the essentials. Understanding wasn’t the most important thing to my mother. Acceptance was. Showing up just as you are is. Shortly before she died I asked her what she considered to be the most important thing in her life. “Relationships,” she said without hesitation. “Love.” She told me that other things can come and go pretty fast, and I’ve seen this happen. “Let Alex be a kid,” she advised me, meaning that I should allow my daughter to burrow into Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings trilogy the same way she let me imagine my way into life.
At her best, my mother could swoop down on a suffering child or grandchild like a rescuing angel. She had a way of throwing her whole being into a hug so that you felt completely seen and saved. Towards the end, frail and frequently in pain, she entered what I called her “reclining years.” She spent most of her waking hours in one of four bug cushy recliners placed near phones and in view of various windows. I loved her calls. “Honey, ever since you were five years old you wanted to put your face in the lion’s mouth,” she said one time. “You want to test how brave you could be. ” She asked me if I remembered wearing her dome-shaped Jell-O mold on my head like a medieval helmet. I did. I remembered pretending to go forth into some righteous battle, being lion-hearted while others fell back. She asked me if I remembered being a spy, and a jungle girl with an invisible black panther named Striker. She claimed that she didn’t understand me, that she was just an ordinary person who wanted ordinary things, a home, a family. But I see now that she understood the amazing power of caring acceptance.
At the very end, it was as if winter came over my mother. The life force slowly withdrew from her weakening body, and she gently withdrew from us. It was like the sun pulling away from the earth. She wanted to know that her children and grandchildren were well but she didn’t revel in the nutty details anymore. I understood that she was preparing for what was to come, but it still broke my heart.
Here’s the strange thing: The day after my mother’s funeral, I woke up to a waking dream. I was standing on a shore full of sorrow, watching a Viking long boat carry my mother out to sea. As I watched it disappear into the sunset, I understood something I couldn’t quite open my heart to when I was awake in the ordinary sense–something about impermanence. At the desert retreat, six years after my mother’s death, I saw that Viking ship again. This time I was standing in the ship, preparing to land in the New World, preparing my heart and mind–not to take this time (as my Viking ancestors tended to do) but to receive.
What does it mean? It was just a dream. But sometimes, especially when we are calm and accepting, real insights and inspirations swim up through dreams and daydreams. I saw that I hadn’t yet lost that inner attitude I practised when I wore the Jell-O mold on my head–a willingness to face the unknown. I came home from the retreat a little bit more ready to accept the whole of myself, the parts I like and the parts I dislike, understand and don’t understand. “Be like an earthworm,” one of the teachers said, quoting her teacher’s teacher. Go down into your life and see what you find.