Friday, May 31, 2013

The Biggest Changes are Within, a Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

Meet my father. This picture was taken in his home the day he came home from rehab following back surgery. Looks pretty good for almost 90, doesn't he? His physicians, nurses, physical therapists, and other health care providers were all astounded at his age and said they guessed he was much younger. Of course, he is delighted with those compliments, but still, he knows that living alone in his large home is no longer the best option for him. He has made the decision to move into a new senior living complex in the fall, and while this will be a major change for him, he is expressing eagerness and even excitement about the move. Ever since my mother died 10 years ago he has stated firmly that he wanted to stay in the house, so I wondered if he might have second thoughts the day after making the deposit for his new apartment.  He assured me that was not the case and furthermore, he said, "I will not make this hard on you." 
     Amazing! Believe me, I know how fortunate I am to have an elderly parent who is undemanding and also willing and able to make good decisions for his own health and wellbeing. I know of too many cases where that is clearly not the case. True, there may be days ahead of negotiating, but his outlook is positive, and he is open to this next stage of his life.  
     The thing is that not only is this the next stage of HIS life; it is also the next stage of MY life, and I need to be at least as open to change as he is. As I think about the last few weeks, I am aware of so many moments of learning and flashes of insight. I will share three:
1.   Do the next thing. There were moments when I felt overwhelmed and remembered why I chose teaching as a profession and not nursing, but a friend told me I could do anything. She reminded me I am the woman who wrestled a sheep in the ditch, after all! When we lived at Sweetwater Farm, we had three sheep, Wynken, Blynken, and Nod, and one of them escaped from the barn one morning after Bruce had gone to work. I heard cars honking on the road in front of the house and what option did I have but to go charging after it? Amazingly, I tackled it to the ground and then wondered what to do! A passing motorist took pity on us and helped me restore Blynken to its proper place, and all was well. Blynken was safe, and I had a great story. So yes, I am the woman who wrestled a sheep in the ditch, but I can't do everything. What I realized, however, is that I can do the next thing. These past weeks I did whatever the next thing was and then the next thing and the next. The feeling of being overwhelmed lessened as I reminded myself to focus on the next step. 
2. Grow bigger and deeper. I have said for years that as I get older I want to expand my world. I want my world to get bigger, instead of smaller. Even as I have said that, however, I have been aware that in many ways one's world actually gets smaller with age--friends and family die, one's ability to be out in the world or to experience the world lessens due to health or financial issues, and even one's physical space, moving from home to apartment to nursing home, gets smaller and smaller. A friend commented recently that his father in-law's world has gotten smaller and smaller, and I suspect in his observation was a desire not to let that happen to himself and perhaps an unconscious fear that it will. I know people who are squeezing as much travel time into their lives right now, for example, because they know at some point travel will not be as easy a proposition. For many retirement represents a loss of interaction in the world, and there can be a feeling of diminishment and lack of purpose. 
     Still, I feel a commitment to the idea of an expanding world even into the late years. What I realize is that my definition of "world" is changing. Where I sense the expansion can come is in my inner world, my spiritual world, my knowledge of my essence, my True Self, my acquaintance with the God within and without. There are not limits to that kind of growth.
     "A door opens in the center of our being and we seem to fall though it into immense depths, which although they are infinite--are still accessible to us All eternity seems to have become ours in this one placid and breathless contact."  Kathleen Dowling Singh in The Grace in Dying, p. 15. 
     My father is a model for me in his dedication to his spiritual practice of reading scripture and other devotions, including studying a section of Luther's Large Catechism every day. He may not be doing all the things that previously gave him pleasure and stimulated his intellectual growth, but his spirit is getting bigger and bigger. 
3.   Let go and live. When it was time to say goodbye to Dad before they took him in for surgery, I was aware that this could be the last time I would see my father alive. Given his age and his past history of heart issues, surgery was a risky proposition. I thought about all the other times I have said goodbye to him or other loved ones, in most cases fully expecting that a hello would follow soon. This time the outcome seemed good, but was not a sure thing. I told him I loved him, said goodbye, and let go. 
     Letting go of hurts, of disappointments, of expectations, of hopes and dreams, of fears, of possibilities, of plans and routines, of viewpoints, of worries, of control is no small task, but it is one we are asked to do every day of our lives in some way. Each time we let go of our grasp on whatever binds us, we practice dying just a bit. We move towards an acceptance of our own physical death. With that understanding comes freedom, I think, to live in a way that can be transformative. A life full of the fruits of the Spirit--"love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, trustfulness, gentleness, and self-control." Galatians 5:22. A life that provides evidence of an ongoing encounter with God. 
     Everyday it seems I discover opportunities to relearn the lessons that offered themselves so clearly these last weeks with my father. Do the next thing. Grow bigger and deeper. Let go and live. I welcome hearing how these lessons are alive in your own life.   

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Core Strength, a Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

Just a week ago my father had back surgery and his recovery has been amazing, especially for a man of almost 90. He is thrilled, as we are all are, with his  new "no pain" status. After only two nights and three days in the hospital we moved him to rehab for another short stay and finally, home.  Although the results are indeed happy ones, full of relief, the last few weeks have been intense physically and emotionally and will continue to be so as we find the right assisted living situation and facilitate that move. These busy days don't include much time for my usual quiet mornings of meditation and prayer, which brings me to our 10 year-old granddaughter, Maren.
     Recently, she purchased with her own money a ripstick which is similar to a skateboard, but only has one wheel at each end and has a bar in the middle making the board flexible and very tricky to ride! Learning to maneuver it successfully has taken Maren lots of practice, and there have been the inevitable falls, (Yes, she wears a helmet,) but her father is thrilled for she is developing core strength, which will be an advantage during basketball and volleyball seasons. 
     Thanks to Maren, I have been thinking about Core Strength
     Where does your core strength come from? How have you developed it and how are you maintaining it? What shape is it in today?
     I know that in optimal times what sustains me is enough quiet and alone time for meditation and reflection--time to pray, time to meditate, time to write, to read and study. Lots of emphasis on time, which is not always possible in crisis or the anticipation of or follow-up to crisis. However,  because I have been intentional about building my core strength, I have some reserves, a backlog of core strength to draw upon. The body, the soul and the heart seem to remember that I have followed a long time routine of spiritual practices in my life, and I feel supported, even though I am not practicing them daily now in a disciplined way. 
     However, there are still opportunities in the moment, even stressful, full ones, for spiritual nourishment, spiritual care taking,  that can help maintain and replenish one's level of core strength. A few suggestions:
     * Breathe. Just stop, even for a minute or two, wherever you are and become still and breathe. Close your eyes or gaze through soft eyes. This was my main practice as I stood in the hall outside my father's hospital room or as a nurse checked my Dad's vital signs or as I waited for the elevator.  
     * Stretch. Raise your arms. Bend at the waist--whatever. Feel yourself in your body. Remind yourself that you are a creation of the Divine. 
     * Do one different thing today. Drive to the grocery store a different way. Don't make the bed (or make it!). The point is to make a different choice and notice how that feels and what that brings up for you.
    * Notice. Become aware of the moments of beauty or gift in your day, your surroundings. This is not about being a PollyAnna if you are in the midst of a difficult situation, but instead it is about being a witness in the world. As I looked out my Dad's hospital windows, I could watch spring finally come to Minnesota and  sitting on his three-season porch, I watched a cardinal couple creating a nest. 
    * Give thanks. My Dad received such excellent care, and I am so grateful. It seemed he had just the right nurse at the right time--the one who took time to get to know him before taking his blood pressure and the one who in the middle of his first night after surgery, when he was quite agitated, was so calm and sweet and respectful. My gratitude list is long. 
All these suggestions can build your core strength.
     Margaret Silf in her book At Sea With God, A Spiritual Guidebook to the Heart and Soul says, "One practical way to 'collect' the fresh water in prayer is to foster the habit of noticing God's presence and action in every day things, in the people around us and the ordinary events and encounters that happen to us, and to notice any ways in which God has rewoven the brokenness of our experience into new designs for fuller living. When you feel you are adrift, especially, try taking a little time each day to ask yourself: 'What has awakened new life, fresh energy in me today? What has caught my attention and reminded me that I and my life-raft are not the center of the universe? What has made me rejoice,or even feel compassion, or a desire to speak out for justice? What has made me feel loved today?' Where love is, there is God You may find at the end of the day that you have collected more living water than you expected and that God has recycled the apparent 'waste' of the past into pure water for the future."
    How do you build your core strength and what ways do you have for maintaining it when life intervenes?

Friday, May 3, 2013

Lessons in Self-Care: Going to Bed, a Post by Nancy L. Agneberg

I have a confession: I am a hoarder. I hoard alone time. I hoard quiet time. When I don't have my usual amount of alone time or my normal routine for meditation and reflection,  I compensate for it, sneaking it and stealing it from other times. What that most often means is staying up later than my usual 10:00 bedtime. The consequence is that I am more tired in the morning and less able to respond to the demands and even the pleasures of the upcoming day. An unhealthy cycle is often the result. 
      I am not just discovering this about myself, of course. I have been aware when we have family or friends staying with us, for example, and the time is full of wonderful, stimulating, fun, thought-provoking interactions and activities, and the time is busy and full that I am likely to stay up alone in the quiet of a late night house, rather than going to bed. I may empty the dishwasher or straighten the living room and den, fluffing pillows, stacking newspapers and mail, restoring the rooms for a welcoming morning. I may do some preparation for breakfast time. I may watch some junk tv--yet another episode of House Hunters or Love it or List It. I may check and reply to emails or even play solitaire on my iphone (You are learning all my secrets.) or I may get totally absorbed in whatever book I am reading. What I am not as likely to do is move into some brief meditation and reflection time and go to bed. 
     Last week when I was staying with my father responding to some health concerns, there was little time for my go-to spiritual practices and yet, after he went to bed, I remained on the enclosed porch and flipped through TV channels, looking for distraction. I was tired, emotionally, more than physically, but how often the two go together. What I should have done was set the timer on my phone and meditated for just 10-15 minutes and then gone to bed. Doing that I knew would make me fresher and more able to respond with grace and openness in the morning, but I didn't do that. 
     Why is that I wonder? I know I should eat better, exercise more, and I know what the fruits of those healthy activities are both on a short term and long term basis, but oh, how often I am swayed from doing them.  I seem to believe that knowing what is best for my body, mind, and soul is as good as doing them. Wrong!!! I seem to need to resist. The two-year-old in me is alive and well, apparently.  
     The next week or so is going to be challenging. My father will have surgery on Monday and be in the hospital for one to two nights. The orthopedic procedure is not an uncommon one, we are assured, but he is almost 90 after all, and nothing can be taken for granted. I am staying with him now and will be staying with him while he is in the hospital and then again when he comes home. This is an intense time of care taking, and while I am grateful, very grateful, not to be doing this on my own, I need to be at my best, my very best. 
      Before settling in with Dad this week, I had the luxury of a night alone at our apartment in St Paul. After dinner with Dad, I returned to the apartment and immediately got into my pajamas (flannel--have you seen the weather reports about this area?) and got ready for bed. I set the alarm clock on my phone for 10:00. Instead of wake-up time, it was a Go To Bed time. I sent three brief emails. I read for awhile, finishing a wonderful book, The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce, I meditated for 15 minutes and spent time in prayer. I listened to the quiet. At 9:58 I turned out the lights and crawled into bed. I slept well, and I was ready for the day. 
     When life moves out of the ordinary, regardless of the reason, welcome or not, how important it is to adapt what supports you into what is the new normal.  It may not be anything major and may be something that in everyday life one takes for granted, but the benefits are real. Right now I pretend to hear the voice of my mother, "Nancy, it is time to go to bed."