Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Life Values: "Ancora Imparo"

At one of the introductory life legacy talks I did last week at a local senior center, I had the pleasure of listening to a wise elder tell me about the most influential people in her life. She had the longest list I had ever heard from anyone and almost apologetically shared with me that she felt she has lived a "charmed" life. So many people had guided her and made a difference in her life. What a joy it was to listen to her.

At one point in our conversation, she pointed to a silver bracelet she was wearing, engraved with the words "ancora imparo". She said her son had given it to her. Of course, I asked, "what does it mean?". She excitely said with a beautiful smile on her face, "I am still learning!" The words, she said, were attributed to Michelangelo. Thank you, dear woman, for sharing your story and your bracelet's message with me!

Yes, I am still learning! In fact, "learning" has been one of my Top 5 Values throughout by entire life. In childhood, school was great refuge for me and a place where I could feel pride in my achievements and experience the joy of creating (neither of which I felt at home -- pride and joy being major "sins" in a Norwegian Lutheran community in western Minnesota). Going to college -- the first in my family -- was both exciting and challenging in the late 1960's (and finally graduating after 5 years of working sometimes nearly full-time while attending classes -- interrupted by getting called up for Army duty a quarter before graduating -- was a "triumph"). Then getting the opportunity to go to graduate school during my late-30's was an amazing learning experience, packed full of personal and professional growth.

While I haven't returned to "school" for nearly 25 years, I've been teaching "what I need to learn" ever since. Creating dozens of workshops and classes, plus many talks and presentations -- then sharing them with hundreds of people (thousands by now!) over the years has been a most life-enriching, learning-full, experience for me. And, yes, I am still learning!

What has learning meant to your life? When have you experienced the joy of creating something as a result of what you've learned? What values guide your life now? Write them down, reflect on what they have meant to you, and share your learnings with family and friends. When you're ready, create an ethical will or personal legacy letter to future generations of your family.
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Life Legacy Poem: "Thanks, Robert Frost"

This morning, when I heard Garrison Keillor read David Ray's poem "Thanks, Robert Frost" on the radio, thoughts of life legacies came to mind ... so it seemed like a good time to share the poem with my blog readers:

Thanks, Robert Frost

Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right
for what it was, something we can accept,
mistakes made by the selves we had to be,
not able to be, perhaps, what we wished,
or what looking back half the time it seems
we could so easily have been, or ought...
The future, yes, and even for the past,
that it will become something we can bear.
And I too, and my children, so I hope,
will recall as not too heavy the tug
of those albatrosses I sadly placed
upon their tender necks. Hope for the past,
yes, old Frost, your words provide that courage,
and it brings strange peace that itself passes
into past, easier to bear because
you said it, rather casually, as snow
went on falling in Vermont years ago.

By David Ray, from Music of Time: Selected and New Poems. © The Backwaters Press. Reprinted with permission by The Writer's Almanac.

Thanks, David Ray, for your poem. And thank you Garrison for your reading this morning. It was a great way to start my day in sunny, yes sunny, many days in a row, sunny Oregon!

If you'd like to receive a daily email of The Writer's Almanac, here's a link:

The Writer's Almanac from American Public Media
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Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Remember: Wisdom for Living A Spiritual Life

Of all the books I've read about "spiritual life and practice", the one that has had the most important impact on my life (and life legacy) is Wayne Muller's How Then, Shall We Live? Four Simple Questions That Reveal the Beauty and Meaning of Our Lives. His four "simple" questions are:

1. Who am I?

2. What do I love?

3. How shall I live, knowing I will die?

4. What is my gift to the family of the earth?

These four questions, it seems to me, are the most fundamental self-inquiries we can make when considering the legacy of our lives.

Noting that "we are already spiritual", Muller says "the heart of a full, rich spiritual life is driven less by what we do than how we do it." Having spent far too much of my life focused on trying to find meaning in doing, the truth in his statement finally touched my heart after a mid-life crisis (or two!).

How I do it
has become the essential "practice" that reveals meaning and beauty in my life, no matter what it is that I'm doing.

Since reading the book, I have kept one little paragraph in my mind and heart -- and offered it as a blessing at the end of my classes on "wisdom for talking about death" and "lessons for the living from the dying". I also created a handout for people to take home and post next to their bathroom mirror (where it resides in our house). Muller says these simple words are "the heart of most spiritual practice":


Remember who you are.

Remember what you love.

Remember what is sacred.

Remember what is true.

Remember that you will die,
and that this day is a gift.

Remember how you wish to live.

Of all I've written on this blog since I started it last April, these simple words are the most important "guiding light" for my life today -- and for however many days I have left to create the legacy of my lifetime on this earth.

Thank you, Wayne Muller, for bringing "Remember" into my life and may your wisdom bless all those who read your words here ... and pass them along to future generations of their family and friends.

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Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Blessings from Being A Hospice Volunteer

On several occasions, when I've told people I am a hospice volunteer, the first thing they say is "that must be hard!" It was "hard" before I realized that I didn't have to "be doing" anything -- just "show up and be present" with the dying person. And it forced me to deal with my own mortality in ways that only being with someone who is dying can teach you. That was a gift -- a blessing -- which continues to bless me today and every day I'm "still here".

A few years ago, I decided to create and offer a talk that I called "Everyday Blessings: Wisdom for Talking About Death With Loved Ones". While it hasn't become a "best seller" at our Senior & Community Centers, it has drawn people willing to learn (some) of the profound teachings death (and talking about it) has to offer.

Last weekend, I had an opportunity to present the talk for a group of 15 Caring Visitors at a local church -- people who regularly visit elderly members of their congregation who no longer are able to come to church. What a great program! What a wonderful group of people! Every church should have a Caring Visitors program. It reduces the depressing (and often deadly) isolation that so many elders in our community and country experience in their lives.

Presenting the talk again reminded me of the many blessings I received from people who I've "sat with" as a hospice volunteer. In a handout I prepared for the talk, I quoted Roger Housden, author of a beautiful series of books, Ten Poems to Last a Lifetime, Ten Poems to Open Your Heart, Ten Poems to Change Your Life , and Ten Poems to Set You Free.

Housden says that “ . . . a blessing, wherever it comes from, joins us to the larger body of life. It nourishes and heals us with sustenance from the invisible realms.” And “. . . blessings give an experience of the world that is richer, more full of life and meaning, than the one we had known before. . . A blessing is an influx of grace.”

As I thought about my experience as a hospice volunteer, I realized that I have received these blessings from the dying that have enriched and deepened my experience of living:

A blessing of acceptance: I am blessed by accepting death as a natural experience of life, opening my heart to acceptance of all situations, emotions, and people.

A blessing of gratitude: I am blessed by expressing gratitude for all the gifts of life, appreciating whatever comes my way, the hardships as well as the joys.

A blessing of presence: I am blessed by choosing to be fully present with other human beings, connecting heart-to-heart as I listen to their words and their message beyond words.

A blessing of attention: I am blessed by paying attention to what really matters in life, guiding me to choose words and deeds that engender meaning and purpose.

A blessing of time: I am blessed by knowing that death brings time to an end, awakening me to the preciousness of time and compelling me to live in the present moment.

A blessing of patience: I am blessed by being patient with myself and others, relaxing gently into whatever is happening in my life and experiencing a sense of wonder in all creation.

A blessing of intimacy: I am blessed by communicating from the heart, speaking openly, honestly, and genuinely with everyone on my life’s path.

A blessing of kindness: I am blessed by treating every human being with kindness, bringing generosity of spirit and caring to all of my relationships with others.

A blessing of compassion: I am blessed by being willing to be touched by the suffering of others, knowing every human experiences pain and seeks to be free of suffering.

A blessing of forgiveness: I am blessed by forgiving myself and others who have harmed me, letting go of the past and creating a fresh start in the present moment.

A blessing of joy: I am blessed by deeply appreciating the fortunate conditions of my life, embracing feelings of joy and delight in everyday living.

A blessing of love: I am blessed by loving myself and following my heart, opening myself to loving others and receiving their love – to be fully, passionately alive.

How have you been blessed in your life? Who has blessed you? What gifts has life given you? I encourage you to write about them and share them in an ethical or spiritual will that you give to your loved ones while you are still alive.
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Monday, January 08, 2007

Passing Along Your Family Stories to the Next Generation

One of the delights of my Sunday mornings is finding a "Letter from Harrisburg" in our local newspaper. Written by Dorcas Smucker (wonderful name!), a homemaker and mother of six, the "letters" she shares once a month about her ordinary life are extraordinary and always touch my heart.

Yesterday, Dorcas wrote about giving her daughter "a precious family heirloom disguised as a simple story." It's the kind of story I encourage people to put in their ethical or spiritual will. Here's a link:

Stories connect us, one generation at a time

I love what she says about story:

"A story is much more than just a story; it is a connection, a reassurance, a lesson, a door opening. It can last for years and stay fresh and fascinating. It is a mystery -- why do I gravitate to tell this story and not that one?

Through stories, I hope to pass on what's most important -- faith in God, love, hope for the future. When I tell how our lives were spared when we hit a moose and our van burned up, I am saying, "God is real. He still does miracles."

If you'd like to read more of Dorcas Smucker's stories, you'll find them in her book, Ordinary Days: Family Life in a Farmhouse.

Thank you, Dorcas, for blessing me and all of your readers with stories about your family life that will live for generations -- a lasting legacy of your extraordinary, ordinary days.
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Wednesday, January 03, 2007

A Poem of Gratitude for This Day

Garrison Keilor's poem on The Writers Almanac this morning (Jan. 3) was a gem. It's from the book, From While We've Still Got Feet, published by Copper Canyon Press.


Tonight at sunset walking on the snowy road,
my shoes crunching on the frozen gravel, first

through the woods, then out into the open fields
past a couple of trailers and some pickup trucks, I stop

and look at the sky. Suddenly: orange, red, pink, blue,
green, purple, yellow, gray, all at once and everywhere.

I pause in this moment at the beginning of my old age
and I say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening

a prayer for being here, today, now, alive
in this life, in this evening, under this sky.

I wonder ... when is "the beginning of my old age"? No matter. Every day is a good day for me to "say a prayer of gratitude for getting to this evening". I am blessed to be alive ... here ... now ... today ... under this gray sky (with "blue holes"!) in Oregon.
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