Synchronicity, Serendipity, and Gratitude

September 18, 2012

Synchronicity is a concept named by Carl Jung and described as two or more events that are apparently causally unrelated or unlikely to occur together by chance, yet are experienced as occurring together in a meaningful manner [Wikipedia, Synchronicity].  Serendipity is similar yet different: a happy accident or pleasant surprise or having a talent for making fortunate discoveries by accident [dictionary.reference.com, Serendipity].

 

I have experienced more than my share of synchronicity and serendipity.  Maybe you have, too – at least if you’ve been paying attention.   When we aren’t paying attention to the happy accidents or fortunate discoveries that occur all the time, we are likely to think they are just random coincidences, and dismiss them with little thought.  There have been so many in my life that I am no longer surprised when they occur, just grateful.  I believe that such happy accidents are God’s reminders that I am loved, that my life has meaning beyond what I can imagine, and that if I look around with eyes to see I will recognize signs of the Holy.

 

Just this week, it happened again – something unexpected and not likely to be noticed seemed to jump out at me and connect me with a powerful experience from my past.  I was 27 and nine months pregnant when I was widowed without warning.  My grief at the loss of my husband, Rich, was complicated and overshadowed the joy I had felt at being pregnant. I knew of no one else who had experienced the death of a spouse at such a young age, nor of anyone who had birthed a child within days of being widowed. In my isolation, I felt like a pariah, an alien, an outsider.  Others were uncomfortable around me and averted their eyes or avoided me when I came near because they didn’t know what to say.

 

I longed to find someone who was like me – a young widow facing both grief’s ache and the joy of being a new mother.   I had no idea how to walk this path alone.  I needed a mentor.

 

Then . . . synchronicity or serendipity or whatever you want to call it.  Three weeks after Rich’s death, Jessica Richelle was born.  The doctor laid her, blue eyes and red hair and sucking her thumb, in my arms.  I could not believe she was mine.  I fell in love with her immediately but my joy couldn’t heal my broken heart without a partner to share it.

 

Sometime during those first weeks of Jessica’s life, I found a thin pamphlet of true contemporary Christian stories of hope.  One of them was written by a young mother, Paula D’Arcy, whose husband and 18 month old daughter had been killed in an auto accident.  Paula, a few months pregnant, survived the accident and shared an excerpt from her story.  I devoured the short excerpt.  The end note said that D’Arcy had written a book (Song for Sarah) about her experience.  I bought it, read it cover to cover and then read it again.  I felt like I was reading my own story.  D’Arcy’s story broke through my isolation and estrangement.  She knew.  She had lived it.  She had survived it.  She had a 2 year old daughter and they were making a life together.

 

Because of Song for Sarah I could live with hope.  The burden of feeling so different began to lift and I began to build a life for Jess and I with confidence.

 

Occasionally in years afterward, I would come across references to D’Arcy.  It seemed at times that we were living parallel lives – like me, she had deep faith and felt a call to healing ministry as a psychologist specializing in grief.  Like me, she offered retreats and was a frequent public speaker although I never had the opportunity to hear her – at least until now.

 

Last week I saw a half sheet of unremarkable text posted on our Seminary bulletin board advertising a local fundraiser for a spiritual direction center. And who was the speaker to be?  Paula D’Arcy.  She will be speaking on October 27 at 7 pm at Wesley UMC.  I never told Jess about Song for Sarah until now.  Jess and I will be attending D’Arcy’s presentation.

 

One more thing.  I hadn’t thought to see if D’Arcy had a website until last night when I was thinking about this blog.  On www.redbirdfoundation.com was a notice about a pilgrimage she is sponsoring from Paris to Chartres in France.  Anyone who knows me knows that I am a pilgrimage and labyrinth fanatic.  So our parallel lives are even more parallel than I knew.

 

Synchronicity?  Serendipity?  Whatever such happy accidents or fortunate discoveries or meaningful occurrences might be called, to me they are tiny miracles – cosmic sticky notes – sent by the Holy One as reminders of Love. 

 

And I am so, so grateful.

 

                        Jane Williams+

Labor of Love

September 2, 2012

My father is 87 and has kept a journal that records people with whom he has connected throughout his life.  He is an INTJ and because of the “J” has been very diligent in recording stories and facts for years.  I never knew he kept a journal until the past few years.  About 5 years ago, he began to write 2 or 3 page vignettes of his life and relationships with people — beginning in his elementary school years through service in WW2 in the South Pacific to attending college on the GI bill, to living as a Seminarian with 3 children (and a wife!) while serving a 4-parish charge in the Catskills.  His journal-keeping and story-writing has taken him through his parish ministry, Air Force chaplaincy, and VA chaplaincy, and into his retirement.

Dad lives in independent living in a retirement village in Wernersville, PA, and has a “following” of fans who read his monthly stories in the village newsletter.  So many people asked for copies that he began to ask me and my siblings about helping him publish a book.

Dad has always had a dream of writing for publication, but had no idea how to go about it, so he never mentioned it until last year at this time.  Always the techie, I went to the internet and googled a variety of topics about literary agents, publishers, and (finally) self-publishing.  I broached the subject to my Dad, who uses a computer for word processing and email, but doesn’t feel comfortable doing much more than typing his stories into MSWord.  If he were to publish his stories, someone had to edit and prepare the manuscript to be print-ready.  Now, I love editing and writing. but feel like I have little time for much beyond professional reading and teaching and administration.  And I didn’t want to take on something that I didn’t really know much about. I was intimidated.  I don’t know the publishing industry and to try to work on getting a book into print-ready form with photos inserted and table of contents accurately noting pages, etc., etc. seemed way beyond my capabilities.

But it was my Dad’s dream.  How could I not try?  

It has been slow-going.  We first talked about it two years ago. It took me almost a year to finally sit down with the publisher to see what was needed.  It took Dad months to re-read his stories and to disguise identities of folks he mentioned and to dig out dusty photo albums and look through them for pictures to illustrate story timelines.  As he was doing this, I nervously checked the calendar, realizing the my classes were soon to start for fall and that my ability to do any work on a manuscript would be severely curtailed by my job. . .

But Dad finished up a week ago, and I promised I would give my Labor Day weekend to edit and polish the manuscript so that the first week after Labor Day, we could go to the printers and deliver his book.

Unknown to my Dad, I groaned and sighed to my husband and sister — wanting to spend the last weekend of the summer free to do what I wanted, and resenting (I hate to admit it) the sacrifice of the entire weekend.

But what I suspected would be a tiresome and difficult task has become a blessing to me.  I have re-read each story this weekend, sometimes through tears, and I have come to feel a depth of love and admiration for my Dad and the loving work he devoted his life to that is so much more than I felt before.  His ability to connect to people, to elicit their deep trust in him, along with his breadth of experiences and his ability to see God at work in the world create awe and gratitude in me to know that this man and his life are part of my life.

Thank you, God, for guiding me to this labor of love.

                                                      Jane Williams+

 

Beginnings

August 22, 2012

All beginnings are somewhat strange; but we must have patience, and little by little, we shall find things, which at first were obscure, becoming clearer.                                                                                              –Vincent De Paul

 

Classes will soon begin at Moravian Theological Seminary.  And with each new semester, students have new syllabi in each of their courses to guide their work through the semester.  Whether a student has one class (and one syllabus to master) or many classes (and equal numbers of syllabi), looking over the expectations for reading, assignments, and class objectives is often overwhelming at that first “read-through.” 

 

Yet, almost always, if one steps back, takes a breath, and looks at the list of readings and assignments as a series of steps, the task becomes do-able.  Just take the first step, and when done, take the next step. 

 

One of my favorite poets is David Whyte.  His poem “Start Close In” from River Flow (2007) speaks of this:

 Start close in

Don’t take the second step

Or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step you don’t want to take.

 

Start with

the ground

you know,

the pale ground

beneath your feet,

your own

way of starting

the conversation.

 

Start with your own

question,

give up on other

people’s questions,

don’t let them

smother something

simple.

 

To find

another’s voice,

follow

your own voice,

wait until

that voice

becomes a

private ear

listening

to another.

 

Start right now

take a small step

you can call your own

don’t follow

someone else’s

heroics, be humble

and focused,

start close in,

don’t mistake

that other

for your own.

 

Start close in,

don’t take

the second step,

or the third,

start with the first

thing

close in,

the step

you don’t want to take.

 

Learning from the Dying

July 30, 2012

During our MAPC Internship year, we almost always have at least one student who interns at a hospice or works with the bereaved. Some students, when offered a hospice setting for internship, have a strong aversion to working with the dying or bereaved, and choose a different type of setting. Other students actively pursue hospice internships. For the latter, there are rich rewards.

Working effectively with the dying and grieving requires one to befriend silence and mystery. One must be comfortable accompanying a dying person on their final journey without expectation of how that journey will unfold. None of us who counsel the dying have made that journey ourselves. So we must be open to learning from them what they need and want — not what we think is appropriate in the situation — and to set aside our urge to manage our fears and anxieties by directing the situation with words or advice.

The most useful suggestion to hospice interns is to let the client lead — just as we teach in other counseling settings. Offer open and reflective observations (e.g., “I heard that your brother came to visit you last night . . .”) and don’t fill any silence that follows with words. If there is no response to your reflection, let silence “be” for awhile. If the hospice patient has concerns it may take awhile for him or her to actually voice them. Letting silence be for a while gives the person a chance to decide if and how to share their concern.

And when the client does make a comment, do not treat it as a conversation — you are not there to cheer them up. Reflect back not only the surface content of what they say, but any emotional cues you pick up (e.g. “you enjoyed seeing your brother, but I sense that you’re worried or concerned about something . . . can you share that with me?”). Again, don’t fill the silence (if the person doesn’t answer right away) — it may take a time to consider whether they can or want to share this with you. And sometimes they will tell you they don’t want to share it. Accept that, and reflect it (e.g., “Sometimes there are things we just want to hold close to us, and not share with someone we don’t know . . . “)/

An often forgotten learning when visiting someone in hospice or at home is the pace of the place you are visiting. You may have just rushed into the hospice, hospital, or home after being caught in traffic, caught on a phone call, or having had an upsetting conversation with someone else. Consider what the patient’s experience of time has been today. It is likely not to have been nearly as rushed or hurried as yours. Patients in hospice typically have to wait on others’ schedules and have little experience of being able to rush through anything. The energy of a counselor or chaplain who rushes into a room and begins a conversation at a quick pace in a regular (and rather loud) voice can be jolting not comforting. So before you join a patient, take a few minutes to slow your breath, center yourself into the present moment, put aside (at least for the moment) any demands or items on your to do list. Slow your pace of walking, talking, and responding. Ah-h-h . . . now you are ready to be more fully present to the person you are about to see. And now you are more open to learning from them about the journey we all will take some day.

Jane Williams+

A Theory of Limits

March 25, 2011

Why do I keep thinking I can finally get it all done?  Why do I imagine that I must finish the ever-lengthening to-do list before I can kick back and relax?

I continue to fool myself daily, thinking, “today is the day I will organize all my class notes into one notebook,” “today is the day I will finally get to act on the little orange sticky notes stuck all over the desk beside my computer.”

And try as I might, everything takes longer than I expect, new “to do’s” demand my more immediate attention, and responses to emails take twice as long as I expect…

I am not complaining, I am just marveling at how there are always more things that call for my attention than there is time to complete them. I need to figure out how to cope with those things—important things—that need to be completed but must wait for another day.  I am definitely not good at living with unfinished business.

I am hoping that a part of this is just the first year in a new position: first preps for all my classes, curriculum surprises that take time and energy to resolve, new routines and different schedules.

But the reality is that I can never complete all that needs to be completed—not just at work, but in my life.  I cannot spend as much time with family as they need and I want to.  I nurture friendships as intensely as I wish.  I cannot write all the articles and stories that are in my heart and soul.  I cannot really teach my students everything that I feel they need to know.

Still, I give what I can and finish what is possible to finish.  The problem is not so much that I cannot finish it all (no one can) but that I do not let myself be satisfied that I have given what I can.  Parker Palmer calls it “the theory of limits”:

There is as much guidance in what does not and cannot happen in my life as in what does.

Dawn Markova writes about this, “…we burn out not by giving away too much, as most of us think, but by trying to give what we don’t possess.  In other words, our limitations as well as our gifts are great indicators of where and how we should be living our purpose.  None of us can do everything – the skill is in knowing how to capitalize on our strengths and allow our limitations to indicate what not to give.”

And so, this Friday afternoon, I am powering down my computer, despite the unfinished “stuff”.  I have given what I can today. Tomorrow will be another day.

A glimpse of spring in the dead of winter…

March 23, 2011

After 70 degree temperatures and warm breezes last Friday, Monday’s snow was a surprise.  At 6 am that morning, I had to open my front door to see if it really was snow on our walk, or just reflected light from the streetlight.

This week in my Pastoral Care and Counseling class we are discussing loss and grief.  I find a parallel between the grief process and that first warm day—a parallel with how we breathe a sigh of relief that winter is finally over with spring’s first warm day– only to be surprised with another snowfall (and another and another…)

Grief is like that.  It sits heavily on your chest, making it hard to breathe.  It colors the world in ugly grays and muddy browns.  It slows your movements like a heavy anchor attached at the waist.  Your eyes feel gritty and you never feel rested.  You feel like part of you has been ripped away and you are sure you will be permanently crippled—only half of who you once were.  Grief steals your energy, your joy, your ability to feel comfort, and leaves only a sharp ache of longing and emptiness that seems never to fill.

And then, there comes a brief pause in grief (sometimes after several months, sometimes more or less) when color seems to return to your world.  The anchor seems to be a manageable few pounds.  You remember a snippet of your life before loss and smile (instead of cry).  The hole left by what has been ripped away from you seems to be less a bottomless pit and more like a slowly filling well.  You breathe a sigh of relief that the worst of loss must be over.

Then grief returns and steals it all away.

Grief is like that—alternating moments of unbearable sorrow with moments of reprieve.  At first, healing comes in tiny slices of a day… moments when the sun seems to shine brightly, or when your step seems lighter, although not quite joyful.  But always, it seems, grief comes rushing back to reclaim you for its own.  You are certain that you will never again feel deep joy.

At 6 months post-loss and again at 12 months, the grief seems bent on destroying any progress you have made.  But if you pay attention to the healing  journey, you begin to notice that the occasions of hopeful moments come more frequently, and the gray fogginess of grief seems to obscure your path for fewer days at a time.  Little by little the lacerating stab of longing becomes more like an ugly bruise tender to the touch.

There is no timeline for grief and loss.  Like spring, the healing of grief comes early in some lives and very late in others.  Yet, the invincible healing force of life is always at work just below what seems lifeless.  Life and healing always prevails over all that would crush it—winter’s death grip or grief.  Always.

“Ah, yes. I see the resemblance…”

March 11, 2011

In this week’s Pastoral Care and Counseling class at Moravian Theological Seminary, we are considering family transitions . . . births, adoptions, pregnancy loss, the impact of parenthood on the marital relationship.  Researching articles for class, I came across a true story related by Jean Stevenson-Moessner in her Journal of Pastoral Theology article, “One Family, Under God, Indivisible” (2003). Stevenson-Moessner tells of a child born to an unmarried mother in a small Appalachian town where everyone knew everyone else and where the grapevine was the social technology of the time.

The boy (who would grow up to become a two-term governor of the state of Tennessee) was teased and bullied unmercifully by students in his school, called “bastard” and worse by neighborhood bullies.   He hid during recess to escape the ugly name-calling.  He tried to screen out the adults’ whispers as he and his mother went to town – their stares said they were trying to guess who his father could be.

The boy felt great shame, and could easily have become one of the sad headlines we see when children, rejected and judged and with little positive support from those around them, grow into angry, hopeless adults.  If it hadn’t been for the following experience. . .

When he was starting middle school, his mother and he started to attend a small Church.  It wasn’t much to look at – an old structure, back in the woods, no electricity and only kerosene lamps to light the small, plain sanctuary.  The preacher was an old man with a long beard, a weathered face, and a deep voice.  The boy liked to hear the preacher speak, but also was aware of the adult “looks” he and his mother received each Sunday.  To escape the embarrassment of stares, the boy would stay through the sermon, and then immediately rush out and wait for his mother down the road.

One Sunday, the boy stood to leave after the sermon, but found his way down the aisle to the door blocked by parishioners.  He looked frantically for a way to escape when he felt a hand on his shoulder.  Stevenson-Moessner continues:

“I looked around and I could see the face and the beard of the preacher.  I was scared to death because I was always afraid of being embarrassed in public.  He stared at me as though he was trying to guess what man in the community was my father.  After he looked at me carefully, he said, ‘Boy, you are a child of …’

He paused there.  I just froze.

‘Boy, you are a child of … God.  I see a striking resemblance.’ He swatted me on the bottom and said, ‘Go claim your inheritance.’

That was really the first day of my life.”

In that moment, the boy became part of a family.  The family of that Church, certainly.  But also a part of the family of God, a family which includes within its circle of relatedness every people, every religion, every ethnicity.  That journey from Other and Outsider to One Who Is Claimed By God was life changing.  The shame which had bred self-hatred was slowly blotted away through the Love that was incarnate in the old preacher and congregation.  And this young boy went on to touch thousands of other lives in a life of service spurred by adoption into the Family of God.

“Beloved, you are a child of God.  I see a striking resemblance.”

The preacher’s message is for you – and for me.  Today, let the old preacher’s message sink deep into your being.  Let it be incarnated in you so that it may be your message lived out with your clients, friends, strangers so that all may hear and know: “Beloved, you are a child of God.  I see a striking resemblance.”

Ashes to Ashes

March 9, 2011

Today is the first day of Lent.  Some of us will go around today with black smudges on our forehead.  If we are spending time in our counseling role today, what will clients perceive about us?  Is it appropriate to wear such a sign of our faith and practice?

Pastoral counselors perhaps have a bit more leeway with visible symbols of faith practice than counselors with a more secular practice.  Yet, one may wonder if the visible practice of one’s faith tradition is consonant with the inclusive, accepting stance of the ethical therapist?

What about wearing a cross or star of David or a head scarf?

A therapist is always a target of projections.  No matter what we wear or what we refrain from wearing, therapists working in anything beyond the brief therapy mode will need to be aware of transference and client projections.  And as with any kind of transference, client projections onto symbols of faith will need to be unpacked and brought to consciousness.

What is called for in such therapy is a therapist who is conscious of his/her own counter-transference and who can use that as a clue to the transference occurring in the therapy session.   Seen by Freud as a negative indication of the therapist’s need for further analysis, countertransference is actually a powerful therapist tool which can, indeed, indicate the need for further work on oneself, but which also can create in the therapist the internal emotional awareness of the client’s feelings and issues.  In this post-modern age, countertransference is a valued part of the therapist’s toolbox as long as it is consciously noted and used appropriately.

So ashes on Ash Wednesday, you ask?   I am reminded of the bumper sticker “Honk if you (fill in the blank) “ and how easy it is to forget you put this on your car when others honk at you. . . .   So be aware, if you participate in this faith practice, that the black smudge on your forehead will be noticed.  Be prepared to acknowledge it, if you sense the client looking at you differently, or if you are questioned.  This is not a time for proselytizing, but of calm, brief explanation that today is the first day of Lent and that you observe it by being aware of your mortality and the value of each day’s opportunities to serve the Holy One.  Then let it go.  If your client wants to talk about this, use your therapist sensibilities to determine if this is about him/her and a valid issue within his/her therapy, or if it is a distraction from other issues.

Everything within the therapy interaction is appropriate for consideration,  especially something visible.  So practice your faith tradition, but don’t impose it, and be aware of your client’s response.

The Wonder of Walking a Straight Line and Touching the Sky

March 1, 2011

Before you read further, stand up, stretch your arms toward the ceiling, put them down comfortably at your side, then close your eyes for 15 seconds (Yes, I mean it …I’ll wait …  :^)

A week ago, I would not have been able to do that.  As I reached for the ceiling, it would have begun to whirl around, and if I dared to close my eyes, I would have had to grab a chair or the desk to keep my balance.  I couldn’t roll over in bed without feeling like the room was spinning.  I was baffled by this vertigo that seemed to come and go over the past 2 years, and that was treated repeatedly and unsuccessfully by my docs as an ear infection.

But this week, I can walk a straight line, close my eyes without losing my balance, reach for the ceiling, and roll over in bed without symptoms.  The problem was tiny crystals in my inner ear that had somehow wedged their way out of where they were supposed to be and were causing havoc by being in the wrong place.  A 5 minute procedure called the Epley Maneuver put them back in place  (http://www.neuroanatomy.wisc.edu/selflearn/BPPV.htm).

As a result of this miraculously simple treatment, I am filled once again with gratitude to God who created our astonishingly complex bodies and gave us the intellect to discover what can restore us to health.

Wonder, awe, surprise, astonishment.  Such tiny miracles there are in each day.  Miracles like walking sure-footed without fear of falling.  Miracles like having eyes that see letters on a page and a brain that perceives meaning in the patterns of pixels.  Miracles like the calm that replaces anxiety when we breathe slowly and deeply, recognizing that with each breath we are breathing in the breath of God.

I am grateful today to walk sure-footed, to feel rooted and grounded, to feel certain of my steps.  How easy it is to take for granted such simple miracles.  A yoga teacher of mine, many years ago, suggested that we buy a strip of tiny colored adhesive dots—the kind you find at an office supply store that are no more than a quarter of an inch in diameter—and go around our houses putting a small dot here and there where we are likely to see it sometime during the day:  in the corner of the bathroom mirror…on the inside of the cabinet where we keep our morning coffee mugs…on the wood trim surrounding the door we use to get to the car…on the clock radio by our bed.  Whenever we notice one of our dots, we are to stop what we are doing and breathe slowly as we let ourselves become gratefully aware of our surroundings.

I haven’t done that in a long time, but today I will buy some dots.  I want to be more aware of the tiny miracles that I take for granted.  So when you see my little red dots…take a breath and be grateful!

Open my eyes,
O God,
to the marvels that surround me.
Show me the wonder
of each breath I take,
of my every
thought,
word
and movement.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov
The Gentle Weapon

Having a Mind of Winter …

February 21, 2011

I’ve been intrigued this year with how easy it has been for me to cope with a tough winter.  Snowfall was substantial.  Ice covered everything for weeks after one storm.  It has been a season of record-breaking cold.  And I moved less than a year ago from Memphis, TN, where in early February the daffodils are blooming.  I thought I that by now I would be booking a flight to wherever there is sun and warmth.

Cabin fever? Yet another forecast for snow at the end of the week?  I have felt pretty equal to Mother Nature this year, and have seemed to float (or ski?) through the winter without a lot of angst.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not gloating.  I am looking forward to spring and to lilacs and daffodils and putting my hands in dirt to plant more flowers.  I just wonder where the struggle is?

As a native Pennsylvanian prior to moving to Memphis, I grew to hate winter.  Biting cold winds, shoveling snow until my arms ached, driving on ice-slick roads … winter seemed endless and certainly not welcome.  Yet, coming back to Pennsylvania, I have come to delight in the change of seasons – late August when it seems like someone flicked a switch to bring cool fall nights; late November when pungent woodsmoke tells me a neighbor has lit her fireplace; the quiet stillness of just-fallen snow; the brightness of a midnight when the full moon shines on our snow-covered yard.

It is probably the newness of this year’s experience of winter that triggers my delight rather than frustration.  Next year, I may complain and sigh as others do. But this year, as Wallace Stevens (a native of Reading, PA) writes in The Snow Man, I seem to have developed a “mind of winter”:

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.


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