Divine Appointments

I am walking along the Mississippi River near my home in Minneapolis, Minnesota. After dithering around in my house in full procrastination mode for several hours, I am finally outside and moving in the chill November afternoon. Suddenly I hear a woman sobbing… loudly…and see her walking right toward me on the path.

My first thought is, “Good for you, Sister! Let ‘er rip!” I decide right away to offer witness and support for the bold tears of that brave stranger. As I draw closer, I recognize the woman as a beloved friend. As soon as she sees who is coming up to her, laughter mixes into her tears. Still crying, she keeps repeating, “Oh my God! You’re an angel!” Then she falls into my arms and cries out her storm of grief. When she is finished, she tells me about her grief as we continue our walk together.

My 92-year-old mother would call this a “divine appointment.” It’s an ideal description of that experience of running into just the perfect person at the perfect time. Is it just me or are those divine appointments happening more frequently?

Just yesterday I was out on that same path again. I’d lollygagged around my house procrastinating and puttering just like I did months ago. I recognized a woman walking toward me as someone I’d met out in the world somewhere. She stopped and said, “Barbara, I can’t believe you’re here!”

Here we go again.

That morning she’d gone on Facebook (which she swears she never ever does) and read my blog post about grief. She told me that her mom had died recently and that the grieving was challenging. Something in what I’d written helped her….and just a few hours later, here I was.

So there’s a double divine appointment. One – she goes on Facebook just in time to read my post in the feed. Two – we run into each other on the river path. She confessed that she’d been postponing her walk for hours as well. I told her about “divine appointments” and told her the story of running into my sobbing friend on that very path.

Still awestruck and grateful for that connection, I went to the grocery store for a few things. You’ll never guess who I found in the produce section. Yep. The weeping woman. Her. I hadn’t seen her in the months since I encountered her on the river path.

This time it was my turn to say, “Oh, my God! You’re an angel!” I told her about “divine appointment” that had just happened on the river path. One thing led to another and before we parted ways, we had decided to attend a weeklong singing workshop together next summer.

Heaven knows who we’ll run into there!

If you have a good “divine appointment” story, I’d love to hear it!

 

 

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Singing in the Light – The Tale of a Long and Shining Collaboration

 

For over ten years, my monthly community song circle has supported the work of Fifty Lanterns International, a Minnesota-based nonprofit that brings solar power to people in the developing world. We call the gatherings “Singing in the Light” for that very purpose. (And we like the double entendre….)

When the singers arrive, they put money in a basket at the door. All of the funds go to the cause. The church where we meet (Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, Minneapolis) donates the space and I donate my time. In the past months each gathering has included over 60 singers of all ages and musical abilities. We sing just for the joy of it in the oral tradition. We raise anywhere from $250 to $500 each time we meet.  Once in awhile someone writes a big check to support the work.

At the beginning of every gathering, I mention that our singing together that afternoon is going to have a direct and positive effect on specific people far away. We sing for our own illumination, for that of our community, and for strangers we’ll never meet. The awareness that what we are doing is having a direct benefit on people’s lives enriches our experience.

Over the years our singing has helped fund diverse projects that bring light and power (literally and metaphorically) to

War widows and their children in Afghanistan
Health care professionals in rural India
Earthquake survivors in Pakistan, Haiti, and Kashmir
Midwives in rural Honduras
Coffee farmers in Rwanda

More recently the work has focused on providing larger solar installations for structures where there is no electric power available. One Fifty Lanterns project installed solar power at a Rwandan health care clinic that provided services for 20,000 refugees.

In a recent conversation with Fifty Lanterns founder, Linda Cullen, she told me about their current project – providing solar power for a fast-growing school for Maasai girls in Tanzania.

These girls are mostly from rural villages where they are often expected to forego education for early marriage. The founder of the school, Minnesotan Deb Pangrel, works closely with the girls’ parents to advocate for education. A number of the students feel compelled run away from their villages in order to escape forced marriage and further their education. The school has grown quickly and is currently adding another building and a science lab. Learn more about the school here: http://www.imagetanzania.org

Fifty Lanterns is in a transition now after years of good work. Linda has decided to focus all future donations on the school in Tanzania and to sunset the non-profit over the coming year. She is still passionate about the work, but has found that the care and feeding of a nonprofit is not her calling.

She and her husband, Mike Gallagher, recently completed a beautiful solar-powered house north of the Twin Cities. They aptly named it Peacefield Farm. Plans are afoot to host a Singing in the Light gathering there sometime this summer.

It will be a joy to bring song to our friend and “shero” in gratitude for her beautiful work in lighting up the world.

 

 

 

 

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York Peppermint Patties and the Art of Kindness

My mother is nearly 92 years old. We spend a lot of time together out in the world now that she has stopped driving.

Once a statuesque 5’10-1/2” tall, gravity and arthritis have left her bent over. She uses a walker to help keep her steady. Her hair is snowy white and her blue-blue eyes twinkle. She’s a kind person with a soft heart, but don’t let that fool you. The lady is also one of those tough-as-nails members of Greatest Generation who came of age in the Depression and witnessed World War II right out of high school. Directly after she and dad got engaged, he went off to the war for four long years.

These days whenever someone does a kindness for her – opens a door, provides service at a restaurant, or helps her check out her groceries – she hands them a shiny silver York Peppermint Patty and a big smile.

She gets great pleasure out of people’s surprise and delight at her spontaneous gift. Many of them exclaim, “Oh, that’s my favorite!” Once I made the mistake of getting her a giant bag of the Pearson’s mint patties at Costco. She loves telling people how nobody reacted as positively to those as they do to the York ones. The York people would have to look far and wide for a better spokes-model.

She claims that when you’re as old and fragile as she is, people do a lot of nice things for you. She likes acknowledging their kindness with some of her own.

I also think she does it to interrupt the social patterns we have about old people. I’ve witnessed how invisible she is to many people. Sometimes the server at the restaurant speaks only to me. Sometimes people assume that she isn’t as smart, keen-eyed, and observant as she is. (She frequently beats me at Scrabble, for goodness sake!) It can be dehumanizing to be elderly in this fast-paced, distracted world.

The mints humanize her. They take people by surprise and require them to relate to her differently. And does she ever get a kick out of it! Once after giving a mint to a delighted stranger, she chortled as we walked away. “This is so much fun!” she said. “I do this instead of drinking booze.”

Awhile back I told her that I’d made a decision: we’re going to hand out little bags of mints at her funeral so people can carry on her tradition of giving them away to strangers.

She liked that idea…and reminded me to make sure they were York Peppermint Patties. Now all I have to do is contact the York people about getting a few cases donated when that sad day comes. We are going to need a lot of them to supply her huge circle of friends, a circle that keeps right on growing one mint at a time.

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The Temple of Sweat

I just love to go out dancing.
And yet there are so many things that interfere with a great dance experience.

For one thing, I’m a musician. So that makes me particularly sensitive to the quality of the music. Is the groove right? Are the musicians having a good time together? Is the sound mixed correctly?

And then there’s the dance floor. As a tall woman with a large “wingspan” and a lot of enthusiasm, I tend to take up space. I was dancing at a social event at a large conference last fall. Rarely have I heard a better band. Problem was, the floor was just jammed with happy dancers. My body’s impulse to express that fine music was confined to shuffling my feet within a 3-foot-by-3-foot square. Sigh.

Finally, much of the dancing that happens in this culture happens in bars. Those environments often feel toxic to me. I don’t like being around drunk people, especially when they are crashing into people on the dance floor and spilling beer on our shoes.

One night in St. Paul, Minnesota, I had a dancing experience that met my very high expectations and then some. There was a fine and funky band with lots of shiny horns, a great groove, and a divinely inspired singer. The floor was inhabited by a small group of joyful dancers.

On one of the breaks, I told the trombone player that his band had turned that club into a veritable “Temple of Sweat.” The phrase stuck with me and I began to conjure a story – and then a song — about a mythical place by that name. What would happen there? Who would be our host?

Soon I began to “see” it – the Temple of Sweat – tucked away down a forgotten alley and hosted by an elegant, elderly man in a white suit named Deacon Gray.

I imagined a wild place where people danced with sacred abandon.

Brothers and sisters, here’s a call to worship
In a temple of a different kind
Here’s a place where you can free your spirit
And shake your body ‘til you lose your mind
Here’s some water; here’s a thirsty towel
Here’s a place to ease your troubled soul
Here’s an extra shirt – you might get wet
When you worship in the Temple of Sweat….

Yesterday I found another Temple of Sweat at Dance Church.
Yep, Dance Church.

It’s held at a local folk dance center every Sunday. There’s a DJ curating tunes and dozens of people from all parts of the human family. Kids tear around giggling. Trained dancers trace elegant arcs with their limbs. Hula hoopers fill one corner. Grey-haired elders mingle with dread-locked young adults. Some people skip around the margins on the floor while others move subtly in place, eyes closed.

In the midst of that joyful crowd of dancing humans, I realized that I’d found one more Temple of Sweat. A wholesome, sacred, and playful place where ….

…women shimmied and the men were shaking
Moving everything from head to toe
Sin and shame were nowhere to be met
They never show up at the Temple of Sweat.

Take a listen!

….and feel free to DANCE!

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Oh For Goodness Sake – Stand At My Grave and Weep Already!

Death has been visiting my life a lot in this past year. During those times, I have frequently heard Mary Elizabeth Frye’s well-known poem, “Do No Stand At My Grave and Weep.”

This morning as I was lolling abed, I began naming my departed-beloveds in my mind, calling their sweet faces to mind and silently speaking their names one by one. This is one of the ways I honor them and deal with their absence. In the midst of that familiar ritual, I “heard” a distinct voice speaking into my mind. This is what it said.

Now, Honey. You just go ahead and stand at my grave and weep. As a matter of fact, you could fall to the ground if you wanted to. If there’s snow or mud, no matter — you can always get that funeral suit cleaned later on.

Or you could forego the suit altogether. Wear your pajamas or your favorite sweats to my funeral. You’re hurting enough all ready without having to wear tight clothes and uncomfortable shoes.

And please, please…weep! It’s bizarre to be where I am now — in this lovely though totally indescribable place – and see you expending such precious energy on NOT weeping, NOT breathing, NOT living this experience. Sweetheart, you are still alive. So be…alive!

 We don’t get to weep here. We don’t get dirty. Our hearts don’t shatter. That only happens where you are. To be honest, I miss the mess of living. It’s a privilege. So go ahead and weep, wail, rant, gnash your teeth, carry on a bit. There will be plenty of time for silence and stillness when you’re where I am.

And when you are finished with crying – or when you pause for awhile – go ahead and sing. Singing reaches right across the divide between where I am and where you are and brings us together in an instant. You’ve felt that, haven’t you? You’ll know the song to sing, but not until you take the breath to begin it. That moment will allow me to plop one right into your heart and out it will come. Be warned it will likely make you cry again. I think I’ve made myself clear about what to do when that happens.

Now here’s another thing. This one is for much, much later — after your suit is back from the cleaners, the casserole dishes have been returned, and the rest of the world has moved on from your cataclysmic loss. Begin to find some life around and beyond your grief and gently, gingerly start to live into it. Sadness and loss will still be around because frankly, you won’t ever “get over it.” You’re not supposed to. 

I don’t know how you will find your way back to living your life beyond grief, but I hear rumors over here that being out under the sky is good start. Connecting with other living things is good as well – plants in the garden, friendly dogs, old friends who don’t bring creased brows and “concern” to every encounter.

So – go ahead – stand at my grave. Cry your damn eyes out. Ride the storm of grief bravely and it just may carry you – in time, Dear One, in time – back to the amazing place of being alive.

I’ll be cheering you on from here.

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A Blessing for Entering Hospice

My beloved friend Jim is nearly 92 years old. His mind is sharp and keen though his vision, hearing, and mobility are weaker every day. Jim doesn’t have a major illness. He’s just losing energy and appetite. A few weeks ago, he decided to enter hospice and forego any further medical interventions in whatever might go awry in his weary body.

A group of people who love Jim recently came together to help him mark this important transition – his conscious turning toward dying. I’ve attended many “memorial-services-in-advance” for people who know their time is limited. This event was different. It was more like a Blessing Way, a Navajo tradition that honors and prepares a woman about to give birth. The Blessing Ways I have attended have consisted of a gathering of the expectant mother’s female friends and family members. She is pampered, supported, and surrounded by beauty. The ceremony acknowledges that she is entering the mysterious territory of birth and motherhood – that she is about to be forever changed.

In a similar way, we gather with Jim in his apartment to honor and support him as he enters his dying time. There is a large contingent of old friends from his liberal Catholic church. Four of his seven children and their spouses are there as well as a few friends. His daughter’s dog wanders around his room, gathering head scratches.

The event is an informal religious service – a kind of last rites delivered by the community instead of a priest. After some opening readings and songs, we are invited to offer Jim a blessing. Each person steps forward and anoints his head with a bit of rose oil as they speak words of gratitude and good wishes for Jim’s journey ahead.

Jim has difficulty hearing many of the readings, but the songs are loud enough for him to hear and join in with gusto. Though his breath is short, his strong baritone carries on with sure harmony. He is the only one in the room who knows all of the verses of “How Great Thou Art.” We have a good laugh about that.

Finally Jim offers his blessing to us. He raises his beautiful, bent hands and begins the familiar blessing from the Old Testament: “May the Lord bless you and keep you. May the Lord make His face shine on you and be gracious to you…” From there he launches into his own words. “May you always look for the goodness in everyone you meet. And may you always remember how wonderful you are and how loved.”

We share more joyful singing, bid adieu to a smiling Jim, and disperse with full hearts and damp eyes.

I look forward to bringing this ritual to other friends who are facing their dying….to mark this profound choice in beauty and community. The late Irish poet, John O’Donohue, created a blessing for just such an occasion. It was part of Jim’s gathering and will travel with me to many others in the future.

Entering Death
By John O’Donohue

I pray that you will have the blessing
Of being consoled and sure about your death.

May you know in your soul
There is no need to be afraid.

When your time comes, may you have
Every blessing and strength you need.

May there be a beautiful welcome for you
In the home you are going to.

You are not going somewhere strange,
Merely back to the home you have never left.

May you live with compassion
And transfigure everything
Negative within and about you.

When you come to die,
May it be after a long life.

May you be tranquil
Among those who care for you.

May your going be sheltered
And you welcome assured.

May your soul smile
In the embrace
Of your Anam Cara (loosely defined as “soul friend”).

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Turn Off Your TV

Children between 2 and 5 spend an average of 32 hours per week looking at a television. For children 6 to 11 that number is 28 hours per week. Adults average five hours of TV per day. Five hours. Average.

I’ve come to think of television as a kind of colonization of our minds. How can we even know what we think, how we feel when so much of our perception is crowded by programming created by other people whose motivation is to sell us stuff? How are our deepest fears, dreams, and addictions manipulated to make us buy things that we don’t need and can’t afford?

For the past twenty years, I haven’t had a television in my home. I don’t miss it. On the few occasions I do watch the news with my mom or flip through channels in a hotel room, I’m struck by the …well…violence of it. Not just the bang-bang-you’re-dead kind of violence – which is rampant and disturbing enough. I mean the loud, harsh, yammering noise of it. The cacophonous ads that urge me to “act fast, buy now, don’t wait!” By the time I turn off the tube, I find that I like my fellow human beings a lot less.

I do enjoy watching films or television shows on my laptop every week or two. That’s different. I choose the timeframe. There are no ads. When the movie is finished, that’s that. I turn it off and go about my business.

I find the television screens intrusive and ugly, even when they are turned off. When I stay in a hotel room with a large television screen, I bring a scarf along to cover it. My well-traveled nephew does the same and even unplugs the thing.

Last night I was meeting with two beloved clients to do some planning for their upcoming conference. I get to be the singing emcee – or, as they like to call it – the “weaver” for their symposium on relationship based health care next year. I treasure every moment with these two visionary, brave, and loving leaders. The wine was delicious, the conversation lively and inspiring. And there were screens everywhere, blaring the latest horrors of the world via CNN. There wasn’t a place in that elegant hotel bar that didn’t have a direct sightline to a screen.

One of the consequences of not having TV in my daily life is that I can’t ignore it when it’s around. My eye gets irresistibly drawn to the screen. Yesterday instead of bringing my full attention to co-creating something remarkable with two brilliant colleagues, I was managing the tug of the screen at the corners of my eye.

Our time is our most precious gift. Our full presence with each other is invaluable. So take a listen to this song….and consider turning off the boob tube for awhile…or forever!

Turn off your TV.
Look around.
Green things are growing out of the ground.
Water is falling down from the sky.
There’s a lot of fine things your money can’t buy.

Click here to listen….and dance!

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