Thursday, April 10, 2014

Strategies of Life and Death

The beauty after death of this big horn skull
haunts me.

One of my good friends was just diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer.  It started me thinking about strategies.

It seems that more people I know have a permit to carry a concealed weapon or are interested in the process of obtaining one. Many of my friends are stock piling water and/or food for emergencies and there's more and more talk about living off the grid.  We want to get away from the prying eyes of the NSA, the insidious creeping of GMOs into our food supply or the fracking of our water system. Regardless of the actual statistical probabilities, we have internalized the threat of crime, identity theft … assault.

Assault.  We all seem to be living within a bubble of fear of being assaulted by the external forces of nature or man and developing strategies to deal with those assaults. What we don't seem to prepare for as well is the inevitable … death.  

Every single one of us is going to die.  Forty-one percent of us will get cancer of some sort, and almost all of us face the possibility of dying from a dozen different sources:  disease, diabetes, heart attack or stroke, traffic accident, or misjudging the wisdom of running with the bulls in Pamplona.  Something will get us and, one way or another, at some point, we will be dead, our molecules released back into the Universe.

There are a lot of strategies for dealing with death, however most of them tend to deal with the legal and tangible stuff you leave behind, or they're developed for people who have been given a terminal diagnosis and know the trajectory of their life is coming to an endpoint.  The rest of us try pretty hard not to think about death, as if somehow that would stop it from being a fact of life.

It seems to me there's a gap here … every single one of us needs a life strategy that includes death rather than pretending it's something "out there" that may never happen.  Our strategies will vary, however, it seems that some things will be universal.

Build a support system -- don't miss an opportunity to help a friend or loved one and also learn to receive their support.  For most of us, receiving is harder than giving. Learn to rejoice in the expression of love and support that comes from others; let them love you and encourage them to let you care for them. 

My favorite aunt, the source of unconditional love during my entire life, was a giving spirit who took in every hungry or homeless child who came her way.  When she became ill and needed the care of others, it almost broke her spirit.  She needed to be the giving one and could not accept the fact that she was "needy." We tried to tell her it was her turn to be cared for and that she was giving us a gift  to let us help her, but she never could relax and just accept our loving service.

Speak your heart -- do not leave words of love and friendship unspoken, thinking you can always "do it later." Make a list of all the people you love and send them love letters/phone calls/emails/texts.  It doesn't matter what form your words take, just tell them how you feel and that they matter to you. 

At this advanced stage of life, my heart has been broken open by a new love and it is pouring out of me like water through a rusted bucket. I am appalled at how little I've spoken my love for my very dear friends and for those who have nurtured my journey. It breaks my heart to think that if something happened to me tomorrow, they might never know how important they were to me.

Set yourself free -- recycle your stuff and keep it moving … clear out your storage units and cubby holes … sell it on craigslist or ebay, give it away or trash it. You can't take it with you so why let it weigh you down now?

My dad lived in a tiny house with a garage that you could not enter because it was floor to ceiling stuffed. After he died, I hired a firm to help me clean up and they brought in a construction-site sized dumpster and filled it. Do your kids a favor and start getting rid of stuff.  Do yourself a favor and replace all that stuff with light and air and space. If you need something because it contains a memory for you, try taking a picture of it … sometimes that's all you need and memories don't collect dust or leave something behind to squabble over.

Thinking about death and developing a life strategy that includes death is not morbid or negative.  It is actually life affirming.  Knowing that, at some point … which could be later this afternoon … we might be dead, makes us think about what is truly important in our lives.  Life is a gift; however, it's not a gift that we own and treating it as anything other than a short-term loan doesn't make sense.  

We may not know what comes after death but we do know that death will come.  Until it comes, we have this thing called life and we have a certain, limited, time to enjoy it and fill it with all the love it will hold. 

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Do Not Stand at My Grave and Weep

This morning at meditation, a beautiful poem was read from one of the Wisdom Crone cards.  I was disappointed to see that it was attributed to "author unknown" since I knew I had seen it attributed at some point.

The author is Mary Elizabeth Frye and the story about the poem is almost as good as the poem itself.  It was written in 1932 by a Baltimore woman who had not written poetry before.  Wikipedia tells this story:  

... the plight of a young German Jewish woman, Margaret Schwarzkopf, who was staying with Frye and her husband, inspired the poem. Margaret Schwarzkopf had been concerned about her mother, who was ill in Germany, but she had been warned not to return home because of increasing anti-Semitic unrest. When her mother died, the heartbroken young woman told Frye that she never had the chance to “stand by my mother’s grave and shed a tear”. Frye found herself composing a piece of verse on a brown paper shopping bag. Later she said that the words “just came to her” and expressed what she felt about life and death.[1]

Frye never published the poem but circulated it among friends and it drifted into popularity and was often read at funerals.  Abigail Van Buren finally established the authorship in 1998.   It looks like the copyright on the crone cards is 2004 so maybe they were developed before the authorship was widely known.

As my childhood hero, Paul Harvey, would say, "And, now you know the rest of the story."  Interesting to find out later in life just how conservative he was … but what a story teller … and voice!

Do Not Stand At My Grave And Weep
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow.
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain.
I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning's hush
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry;
I am not there. I did not die. 

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Martin Luther King, Jr.

A few days later than his actual birthday, but tomorrow we will celebrate his life and also the life of Rosa Parks since their lives wove together in a way that changed us all.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every year I post this poem on Martin Luther King, Jr.'s 
birthday in honor of all that he gave us and in hopes that
we live up to his words.

Twenty-six he was when destiny crooked its finger,
beckoning the still-green minister-scholar into the world.
Forty-two she was when she pounded on the door
Theoretically opened ninety-four years before.

It was the first of December, 1955, when history wove
Their fates together into a multi-colored tapestry of change.
“Tired,” she said, “Bone tired. Tired of giving up.
Tired of giving in,” she said and sat in the front of the bus.

Montgomery, Alabama, shivered as the temperature rose.
The old ways could be heard keening long into the night
As 42,000 people left the buses to stand by Rosa’s side.
381 days they walked: nannies, maids, carpenters, all.

Two hundred years of anger rose up to shatter the silence
And from this deafening roar came a molasses-rich voice
Spinning a song of hope with a melody of peace and love.
“I have a dream,” boomed and echoed across the land.

The young minister-leader painted a picture of a life
without color lines, a world without violence.
His voice lifted the dream: Richmond, Little Rock,
Dallas opened their buses, took down their signs.

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent
about things that matter," he said, never silent again.
He took our hands and led us step-by-step onto a new path,
Brothers and sisters connected by heart rather than skin.

“Always avoid violence,” he said.
“If you succumb to the temptation …
unborn generations will be the recipients
of a long and desolate night of bitterness,
and your chief legacy to the future will be an
endless reign of meaningless chaos."

Thirty nine he was when one man with a gun silenced the voice,
But not the words …those four words branded into our brains:
“I have a dream …,” saffron-rich messengers left behind to
Carry forward the dream of a color-blind world of hope and peace.

Dedicated to Martin Luther King, Jr. born January 15, 1929;
Assassinated April 4, 1968.
And Rosa Parks, civil rights activist, born February 4, 1913
Died October 24, 2005

-- Joyce Wycoff, copyright, 2011

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Find Your Purpose: Bah Humbug!

"Your purpose in life is to find your purpose 
and give your whole heart and soul to it" 
-- Buddha

Energy Unleashed
I'm sorry Buddha, Oprah, Deepak, and all you other self-help gurus … you, too, Joseph Campbell, you blissful one … I love you all but I think you led me astray.

Google "find your purpose" and you'll find 715 MILLION responses.  Scratch a therapist or consultant and you'll find the word purpose … or bliss.  And, yet, sit down with any one of your friends over a cup of coffee or glass of wine and ask them if they know what their purpose is and then listen to the hemming and hawing that comes forth.

Very few of us can clearly state our purpose and I'm not sure that's such a bad thing. While the experts claim that knowing our purpose energizes and focuses us, they don't mention that it can also be limiting. The child who knows that her purpose is to be a doctor may feel the joy of saving lives but miss precious moments of her own child's life or the opportunity to discover she has a talent for growing succulents.

There is a common trail that leads to this "purpose" and "bliss" line of thought. A writer, thinker or researcher is intrigued by what makes some people "successful" while others with similar levels of talent, education and opportunities never break out of the pack.  What they find in most cases is that these leaders and accomplishers of great tasks are driven, have a sense of mission  … and, yes, purpose. What goes unquestioned, of course, is our definition of success which values the start-up of Facebook more than the raising of a child.

Nevertheless, after the research and interviews comes the book, the speaking tour, the articles and the TED talk, all explaining how, if we just find our own purpose, follow our own bliss, we, too, will be more successful, more wealthy and more celebrated for our achievements.

Grinding wheels. Screeching halt. Wait a minute.  

What if the purpose of life has nothing to do with success, money or grand accomplishments?  What if the purpose of life is to live life?  What if the purpose of life is kindness … kindness to those around us and to ourselves? What if the purpose of life isn't to follow some orgasmic bliss but to simply keep moving toward what attracts us, following those momentary fascinations that sometimes lead to grand passions or gritty determination to do a job that needs to be done, and sometimes flitter away like bright butterflies that lifted our hearts during their brief lives?

What if we don't have to buckle down, get serious, stay focused, keep up or make a difference? What if our only job is to allow our lives to unfold like a flower in the sunshine … or to follow the bread crumb path the Universe seems to sprinkle before us?

After experiencing life for almost seven decades now, I can look back and understand that I was never competent enough to state my "life purpose" and probably still am not. I keep discovering new pieces of myself that I never knew existed … new interests, new strengths, new weaknesses, new fascinations, new burning passions.  The world is always shifting around me and it seems like I am just some ball of ectoplasm that jiggles in a new way with each shift of my world. Why would I even try to nail a ball of ectoplasm to a plank of purpose?

Several years ago in reaction to taking one more workshop that was trying to help me find my life purpose, I wrote the poem below.  Obviously, I didn't heed my own advice because I kept looking and falling into the trap of "find your purpose and suddenly everything will be crystal clear and you will ride the shooting star to fame and fortune."

Today, on this fifth day of the first month of this new year, I quit.  No more purpose for me.  No more looking for that elusive bliss to follow. No more expecting myself to have a clear focus, a life mission, or a heroic path. I now give myself permission to follow whatever calls me, to be kind to myself and all around me, to relax and be completely grateful for each day, to accept myself as flower, weed or cactus.

In thinking about this post, I found an article from Kris Carr who thought she found her purpose when cancer struck and she thought she could help others.  After that illusion passed, she wrote an article in Huffington Post:
Your purpose has nothing to do with what you do. There, I said it. Your purpose is about discovering and nurturing who you truly are, to know and love yourself at the deepest level and to guide yourself back home when you lose your way. That's it. Everything else is your burning passion, your inspired mission, your job, your love-fueled hobby, etc. Those things are powerful and essential, but they're not your purpose. Your purpose is much bigger than that.
"To guide yourself back home when you lose your way."  I love that.  

So here's my new year's wish for you (and myself) … May your year be filled with purposeless joy, fascinations to follow, and gentleness with yourself and the people around you. May you recognize the perfection in Ram Dass's words when he said, "We're just walking each other home."

Life Purpose

The child walks 
toward passion
as naturally 
as she reaches toward 
a bright toy.
Wherever she looks, 
a world of joy beckons.
No thought of “should”
 or “ought” enters her head.
She just points herself 
in the direction of 
the bright beloved
and puts one foot 
in front of the other,
Moving, totally focused.

She doesn’t stop
to ask for it.
She doesn’t worry about
whether or not
it’s the right it.
She doesn’t stop to 
consider the possible responses.
She feels no fear;
she hears only
the siren call
of her one true joy.

Oh, that I felt
that clarity,
that ability
to feel passion
For every cloud 
and dust mote,
every shiny bauble
and every glittering face,
Rather than searching
high and low
for that one
right calling
That one
all-fulfilling wish,
that one bright island,
when life is a sea 
of perfect possibilities.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Wonderous Meander

"To practice any art, no matter how well or badly, 
is a way to make your soul grow. So do it." ~ Kurt Vonnegut

Journal Vision Board #2
Wonderous Meander ... those are the words on the cover of my journal and my intent is to spend 2014 meandering ... following my fascinations and the wonders that call to me.

Last year, it dawned on me that the bottom line of my attempts to sell my art in the normal gallery and shows fashion was a large negative number.  So I quit.  For several months I did not make art.  I spent a lot of time looking for more "productive" projects (read financially rewarding).  

I kept thinking, "I followed my bliss and the money didn't follow."  But, then, after chasing money projects for several months, I realized that they were making me a little crazy (and depressed) ... and weren't all that productive financially either.  

So, I had a long hard talk with my checkbook, who said, "You've got a year to make up your mind.  Either make more money or cut your living expenses." It's pretty simple really ... just arithmetic ... dollars in ... dollars out.

So, I have a year.  I'm going to meander along an unmarked path trying to see where it will call me.  I'm going to make a lot of art, write a lot of words, meet a lot of people and see where it leads.

Page 1 of my collage journal tells me, "The daring are never done."  This year I will be daring ... "audacious" (the word that's on the back of my journal) ... willing to say "yes" to the universe.

I invite you to join me ... for me, posting this is the first step into a year of unknown.  If you're a blogger on a similar journey, comment with your blog address and I'll add you to the "Companions on a Journey" list.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

The More I Paint

Yesterday a group of women sat together and made vision boards as a way to begin the year.  Since I begin a new journal every year, I put my vision boards on the inside covers of my journal so they are always with me.

Here's the board and some of the thoughts that came with this page:

Journal Vision Board - #1
The new year is the perfect time to ReImagine our lives and to remind ourselves that we are "never done." Sometimes (sometimes?) when I start a new project, I over-complicate it so this is a reminder to start simple and follow the path ... in this case the diamond "stepping-stones" which are there just to remind me that the way doesn't have to be hard or ugly.

This year I want to spend a lot of time being inspired in San Francisco so the picture of Coit Tower is a reminder of that commitment with, again, a caution that it doesn't have to be fast ... I can take my time and wind up in a magical place ... a crystal palace of glass and light and color.  And, of course, ART is part of the destination.

The quote which is too small to read in this picture says, "The more I paint, the more I like everything." -- Jean-Michel Basquiat.  It's probably true that the more we do anything we love, the more we love everything.

So do something you love every day ... that resolution alone might change the world.

PS I am doing Lisa Sonora Beam's 30 day journal process ... if you want to join us, go to  It's free and powerful.

Monday, July 15, 2013

102? You Must Be Kidding!

My friend Reg Wilson delivered a wake-up call this week.  It's not the first he's handed me in our 30+ years of friendship but this one really has me thinking.

He sent me a link that asks several questions and then delivers an estimated longevity.  Mine showed up as 102!  Here's the link if you want to try yours.

I'm very healthy so I've assumed that I would live well into my 80s or 90s … but 102?  Even knocking off a few years, that's 30+ years … long enough to learn to play a musical instrument or another language, long enough to read and re-read the classics, make a lot of new friends (and probably lose a lot of old ones), see my granddaughters reach adulthood, and smell a whole lot of roses.

Of course, we never know how long we have to live but the thought that I possibly have another 30 years is really making me stop and think about what I want to do with them.  It's an interesting question because, even when the words are not actually spoken, the social expectation is that those of a certain age will … relax and enjoy our leisure years … take it easy, rest, travel, play with the grandkids … slow down, take care of ourselves, get our affairs in order.

However, 30 years is a lot of time to basically drift carefree through our senior years.  I don't want a job but I do want a purpose. I don't want my days filled with other people's agendas, but I do want to wake up with something juicy pulling me into action.

For years I've struggled with the DO-BE conundrum.  Are we "human doers" or "human beings?" I think it is important to be in the present, to be grateful for everything in our lives, to be loving and kind toward all … however, I think this earth passage is a time for doing. We're in a physical incarnation that allows us to turn the soil in order to create food and flowers, build bridges that connect one land to another, write words that open minds and touch hearts, generate ideas that transform problems into solutions, raise children so full of confidence and love that they can march boldly into the world asking, "What do you need for me to do?"

I'm in the center of a roundabout … you know, those confusing, although highly effective, traffic control devices where you enter at one point and exit later in the direction of your destination … or drive round and round the middle not going anywhere.  I'm circling and keep seeing exit possibilities and waiting for one to light up and say, "this way please."

Now that I'm told I have 30 more years to explore the possibilities, maybe it's not about choosing the "right one;" perhaps it's just about choosing one and going all the way to the end of that particular path, knowing that, statistically at least, I'll have time to come back and do another one later.

What do you think about your last 30 years … or whatever number your age calculator spits out?   In the meantime, I'm asking the Universe, "What do you need for me to do?"