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Hands enhance life’s experiences: dimpled hands of a toddler mouthing everything within reach, sinewy hands of a laborer plying his trade, willowy hands of a dancer enhancing her art, knowing hands of a father responding to his children.

Other hands are set aside for matters of spirit: those of the Jesuit priest James Keegan come to mind. Decades of holding the Body and Blood of Christ during Mass, of holding others’ torments, of holding words until matured into images, of holding spiritual directors under his care, of holding his God in the face of debilitating illness that culminated in his death—all marked his scarred hands with an uncanny beauty.

Its reflection is found in These Hands (2017), the slim volume of his poems drawn from the crucible of his lifelong humble service. Nothing escaped his attention: seascapes, seasons, people, animals, death, even his Parkinson disease. His chaste spirit foraged for precise words until the sought-for image burst into consciousness, imbued with humor and compassion. Within each poem shimmers an intimacy toward something larger than life. He, too, played with words during his final days, sourced by his Creator. Such fired his imagination and now surprises his readers with “Ah!” The book’s cover suggests this response.

Keegan’s concluding poem, And Give Our Best to Uncle, contains such a moment: “Before my teeth fall out/ and more joints start to click/ like a metronome collecting silence,/ I want to say, ‘I love you,’ once/ and have it understood/ the way the mirror/ understands my face.”

 Such a relationship he had with his God…

I awoke with this dream feathering my awareness:

A dung beetle meanders down the sidewalk, its stout body glistening with moisture, its fan-shaped antennas slanting sideways. Sidling toward it is a monster insect, its mandibles grinding as if anticipating a meal. The moment I try redirecting the beetle, it darts into the arms of the insect that leaves beetle parts strewn upon the ground. It happened that fast.

While I composed this blog, memories of my 1996 Egyptian tour warmed me.

The dung beetle’s intake of excrement from the ground offends most sensibilities, but not so the ancient Egyptians. In their religious imagination, the beetle’s rolling pieces of dung into burrows morphed into their god Khepri: each morning he created the sun, then carried it across the sky to its demise, only to reappear the next morning and nurture plowed fields dependent upon that energy. In time, the dung beetle became likened to transformation, renewal, and resurrection.

 

So what has the dung beetle to teach me in my present circumstances?

In the dream my slowness prevented moving the beetle out of harm’s way and left me frustrated. I did have a plan, but the beetle had another: within the jaws of death.

Perhaps my denial still hides out beneath meticulous self-care, despite subtle diminishments. In no way can I my restore my depleted energy. I’m following a life path designed by Another. Yet, my dung beetle wants out of here and has no fear of monster insects. Would that I felt similarly. Perhaps I will, in time…

 

Something red flickered, gentling the branch of the viburnum shrub outside my study window: It was the cardinal, its feathered crest bespeaking authority. Mesmerized, I sought its spirit. For a split second, turned inside out in riotous colors, it happened. Then, I was alone, the branch slick with raindrops still trembling from its visitor.

I had been visited. Its import would be revealed. I’d just have to listen.

Earlier in the morning, I wondered whether I was still eligible for hospice, given Medicare’s second benefit period winding down. I was still performing my ADLs, albeit more slowly, still managing with helpers in my home, still content with new learning each twenty-four hours. Yet imperceptibly, I was still losing ground. The steroid, at first helpful with my symptoms, was less effective, rendering me weak and lightheaded. Breathing still limited my endurance, increased my need to pace myself, and messed with coughing up phlegm during the day.

“Of course, Liz, you still meet the criteria for hospice,” Alice said later as she wrapped the blood pressure cuff around my upper arm. “We’ve also gotten to know you these past months—you’re doing very well—and you know to call us whenever you need help with personal care.” Often, she had offered this additional service. I brightened with her words, seeping into vestiges of denial still lurking within my psyche’s depths.

So again it was about acceptance, deeper than previously experienced. I felt its sweet release. This was working out, literally one day at a time. I only had to show up and keep an eye out for the cardinal, my backyard companion and teacher.

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