Monday, February 14, 2011

The Gift of Seeing Beauty

Ada Lou Williams grew up surrounded by beauty. She lived in a beautiful house on Queen Anne Hill in Seattle. Her Irish mother and Welsh father filled the house with music, friends, boarders, delicious food and carefully chosen beautiful things. Her grandfather ran an art and framing store in downtown Seattle. It was like her own private museum when she went to visit him. He gave her books on art, and started teaching her how to draw. In high school she fell in love with the voice of James Melton, an operatic tenor. In college she fell in love with "the cutest boy I had ever seen," Bowman Ross, whom she married.

Ada Lou surrounded herself with beauty her whole life. She studied piano in high school and painting and sculpture in college. Like many of her generation she was a collector, but every single thing she collected was actually quite lovely, from the dolls, to the commemorative plates, to the sets of dishes, to the stamps and, of course, the books. She didn't just collect books for the sake of what was in them. She found the most beautiful editions, with the most beautiful illustrations she could find.

She always had a thriving, stunning flower garden. It was easy to grow great roses in southern California… once she and Bowman had hauled in truckloads of compost and good soil and worked out the irrigation. It was much harder to grow beautiful roses when they moved back to Washington. But she still managed to do it, despite towering evergreens, the ever present threat of mildew, full time work and raising three daughters. She used to send out pictures of her flowers, because they were so beautiful. Because how do you contain that much beauty just in the moment you're witnessing it, all by yourself? You have to share it.

She also saw beauty in everyone around her. It was partly her nature and partly her practice. Years ago she told me that she thought her purpose in life was to Love. And she did. I don't know a single person who met her who didn't feel embraced by her. For a while there, when she was teaching high school students and coming out looking rather naïve, missing certain errant behaviors, it seemed like maybe it was a problem that she always saw the best in people. But I think not. She taught me through stories and example that every single person is lovable, no matter what.

True, she also got tired of people, and irritated with people, and mad. She was human. But she always 'looked for the highest expression' and she usually found it.

The thing is she didn't always see the beauty in herself. As she gained weight, as she aged, as she was repeatedly less than perfect, as she had a harder and harder time doing the things that she loved to do, she had a harder and harder time giving herself that unconditional love that she continued to shower on everyone else.

She and I were talking the other day about Divinity. She had all sorts of words from her religious studies about the perfection of God's expression (us), and being a beam of Divine Love. I asked her if she could actually feel that, if she had any sense of herself that was close to that perception of perfection. "Well, when I was in college." "That's when you knew you were perfection?" "That's the closest I ever got." "It was downhill from there?" "Yep. Pretty much. Downhill from there."

Ada Lou, my mom, died on Monday, Feb 7, 2011. She told a lot of subtle jokes as she was waiting to leave. I don't know if that comment about 'downhill from there' was one of them or not.

My family is naturally feeling a lot of grief at losing her. We all loved her very much. We all love each other, too, but she was the center of that love - the one who brought us together, our matriarch, our example of 'how to feed the multitudes, even if only a third of the multitudes are here.' She read us the best children's stories, showed us the best classic movies, sewed us the best Christmas pajamas and made the best ever sticky buns and lemon meringue pie. She was the one who made sure we always felt abundant, at least in food and at most in love. And even though she was frequently the center of stress at family gatherings with her need to make it all perfect, she is also the one who put the effort in to make them all so very, very beautiful.

I love my mom. She was frequently my champion when I had conflicts with others. She was always there as my champion when I doubted or subterfuged myself. I wanted to be her champion, too.

My sisters and I expressed our love for her in numerous ways. As she aged and her health started to decline we frequently expressed our love by trying to change her – to make her more healthy. Every once in a while she would take in what we said or offered with interest, but mostly she smiled and ignored it. Eventually she got pretty fed up with it.

You know, even though she didn't seem all that healthy to us, she still lived 79 years, and was present, intelligent and funny up to the end. So what do we know?

I finally got the message to quit suggesting 'things she could do to be healthier' a couple of years ago. It was very hard for me. I had to face all the reasons I went into healing, and discard a whole bunch of them. This not only dramatically changed my relationship with my work; it also made it much more fun to hang out with my mom, for both of us.

It was also round about two years ago that I inadvertently took on a whole new assignment of helping her heal. My focus was on my own emotional healing and growth. But the side effects included a lessening of the burden on her.

That was when my parents moved out of their home of 39 years on Ames Lake and into a condominium in a retirement community. I had moved in to the house with them a year earlier, supposedly to help them out as my dad was recovering from cancer. But after a year I think she couldn't stand living with me anymore, so she moved out. Yes, there were other reasons. They were going to sell the house, downsize - move somewhere they could handle. But I think probably even one month of me not wanting to eat non-organic food cooked in her aluminum pans, that she had cooked with her whole adult life, was more than enough for her.

I stayed in the house, ostensibly to fix it up so we could sell it. There was a lot to do, on many layers. I'm still here, still working on it. It has been quite the journey for me to repair and renovate their house, my childhood home. Every single job has had layers and layers of emotion along with the peeling paint, water and rodent damage and rot. Working on the physical location where I learned most of my emotional holding patterns has been a very powerful way to delve into them for healing.

And, as I said, there was this side effect that I was delving into my parents' emotional patterns, too. I found them in myself and in the fabric of the energy of the house.

In the last two years the emotions I've encountered have included a fair set of permutations of "fear," "I believe I am not enough," "I am unwilling to be responsible for my journey" and "I feel unlovable." It's like each emotion has its own disco ball's worth of facets to feel, and they came up one at a time so I wouldn't miss any of them. It's been a great journey, well worth all the hassle of ripping out showers and kitchens and replacing old plumbing and wiring.

The path I take when such things come up is right to the center – sometimes directly, sometimes it feels more like negotiating a maze – to the center of whatever it is that I am feeling, so I can really feel it, own it and gain that part of myself. The usual result is a new level of freedom, and choice, and self-love and definitely self-knowledge. And peace.

But the really interesting part in relation to this story is that every time I felt through something particularly big that was related to my parents, they changed. Now, it can also very accurately be said that I changed, and changed in relation to them. I don't know which is more true. But I do know that we are all connected. A shaman I studied with described what happens in our families as "We help pull each other up the ladder by doing our own work." Each time I visited them after clearing another major physical and emotional manifestation of rot/self-judgment they seemed calmer, like they had less to struggle against.

This hadn't been up for a while, as I've been working much more on my business than on the house, but when my mom went into the hospital two weeks ago I started paying attention again. This time there was no external house project to do. This time it was her, and us, directly.

I tapped in to her and into myself, both when with her in the hospital and when on my own. I had ten days of hooking my energy up with hers and asking "what do I feel in my body, emotionally and physically? Can I become more present in it and allow it to transform?"

Okay, yes. I was trying to heal my mother again. I was also using the opportunity to heal myself. I didn't want to leave anything unfelt, if I could help it. And I wanted to give her a boost, whether she was going to stay or go - especially if she was going to go. If I could help her complete her journey here, before she left, I wanted to do it.

This time it wasn't about simple things like feeling 'not enough.' We went hard core. We went right to contempt for the human journey, and human life has no value, and the choice between life and death.

The night they took her to the hospital I went there as soon as I could. I sat with my dad at her side through a whole series of examinations and the same set of questions from various different doctors and nurses. I listened to the machine that kept freaking out because her heart rate was over 160. Over 160??? Holy…

Once it was decided that yes, indeed, she needed to be admitted, and she was admitted, and was about to be moved to a regular room, I left.

As I was driving home I kept thinking about all the times we had tried to help her get healthy, and I wondered why they hadn't worked. Why was my mom, of all the people I knew, in such resistance? Was it me? Did I just do it all wrong? Was I too obnoxious? Did I talk too much and listen too little? Did I bring in so much judgment that she wouldn't hear it anyway?

I slowed down, and I asked. An image of her lying in the hospital bed came into my thoughts. Only it was exaggerated. She was large, swollen and even less able to move than she had been that night. There was a leering voice that said "This! This is the body I have made! This is the body I have made which perfectly expresses my contempt for being human!"

It made me laugh. Perfect. It seemed absolutely perfect.

"Contempt for being human" might sound a bit extreme, but every one of us carries around some amount of that contempt for the human journey. Every denial of emotion, every attempt to avoid an experience we're having, every desire to fix a situation before we feel it includes at least a little bit of that contempt. You could also call it "I wish I hadn't chosen to do this human journey," or "the human journey, especially all this pain and suffering, was a really big mistake."

What a funny thing to actually hear its voice. And hearing it that way instantly dispelled all of my judgment around it. Of course we create the bodies that express our experience of this journey. Of course we do.

My neck, which had been mildly out of sorts for months, since I did a funny, wrong, twisting-reaching-thing with a drill on a ladder, had gone painfully into spasm the day before she went into the hospital. I'd been at her house that afternoon, doing a bodywork session on her (that she actually asked for…) but I didn't connect my neck pain with what she was going through until I started going in to my neck to find what was there. I even realized later that I had done that funny, wrong twisting thing about a week before she went into the hospital last fall because of a relatively minor stroke.

I have been feeling into the pain in my neck for a very long time now, along with having numerous bodywork sessions. But I had never gotten to the heart of the emotion of it, and the pain has never completely gone away. I'd had glimmers, and many of them had to do with my relationship with my mother. But neither I nor anyone working on me had landed on 'the thing' that let it release.

On the second night my mom was in the hospital the pain was totally up. I was tapped in to my mom, and asking what there was to feel. Looking… feeling… Duh! My neck was there to feel. Okay, what was the emotion?

This was one of those maze ones. I had the clue of the throat chakra being the center of our balance between the belief that we have no value, and our willingness to know ourselves. Value, Life, Life has no Value, human life has no value… what is the value of human life? I was feeling this question for my mother and myself. What was the value? As I paid attention the pain kept getting more intense, like searing white-hot fire. I went further in to it.

What was I feeling? I was feeling pain in my neck! I lay in bed just feeling in to that intense pain, following the maze of truth and distraction. Finally I managed to find my way to stand squarely in the pain in my neck, feeling the question 'what is the value of human life?' And the answer I got was 'This is the value, this pain.'

Now, that might sound terribly strange and wrong. But it is also profound. We're here to journey, to feel, to live in these limited human bodies. In that moment I had intense pain all up and down around my cervical vertebrae, in the core muscles of my neck. That was my current experience of being human. It had a tremendous amount of value, if I was willing to feel it.

In that moment, when I felt the value of being able to feel the pain, this little vibrating shudder went through it all and most of the pain went away. It just dissolved.

I say most – definitely not all. There was still a threat of seizure at the top of my spine, like a pool of dark, hot congestion. In Chakric consciousness that area is the moon center, where lies the choice for Life or Death. For days after I felt the value part I was wondering "okay, so what is this question of life or death? What does it mean to choose Life? Does it mean to choose to live in a human body? Is this about the choice to live or to die?" Seemed like it could be, given the circumstances. But nothing shifted, and I kept thinking I was really missing something there.

Friday night I went to a Kirtan in the city. Kirtans are a version of what I loved to do as a child and in college – singing to God with a group of people. Most of the songs at Kirtans are in Sanskrit, but it's the same thing as the nights of singing hymns at the Principia chapel.

As I was singing I kept tuning into my mom. At that point we didn't know which way it was going to go. When she first went in they talked about several different things going on, but none seemed to be at a critical, life or death point, quite yet. We hadn't spoken 'You may be about to die.' Yet on Saturday afternoon, after one night there, she told me that she was afraid of dying.

She knew I was the one to say that to. In my perception of the world, dying is one thing you really don't need to be afraid of. I told her everything I know about death – about the freedom you feel, about the Joy of connecting with your Divine Self… I told her about all sorts of things that I feel like I know, and then wonder how it is that I know them other than that I've heard them and they feel true.

Except that I do feel like I know this. I have such a clear connection with the non-physical realms, to think of death as a permanent ending, as anything other than a joyous going home, seems just wrong. As one of my friends said, I embrace death with a passion, just like I do life.

This was that conversation when we spoke about Divinity. After that she didn't say anything more about being afraid of death. Death became her longed for friend. A few days later we were discussing with her whether or not she should undergo a surgery to remove the fluid from her lungs, so she would have a chance of surviving. She said "I have been trying to die for three days now, and it hasn't worked."

I found that so endearing – imagining my mom, in her human body, late at night in the hospital by herself, trying to die. Like she could do it from her human self.

She decided to have the surgery. She had woken up that morning wanting to live. So she said yes to the surgery and in a few hours it was done.

She wasn't happy when she woke up from the surgery. She was in pain. And she had a breathing tube down her throat. And she couldn't talk. She wrote in my sister's hand, with her finger, "Pill," which was short hand for "I want a pill with which I can get out of here right now."

But that was the response to the surgery, and she recovered from the parts that were just about the surgery rather rapidly, much more rapidly than the doctors expected. If her body could heal so well from that it looked possible, to us anyway, like she might actually heal the rest of the way, too.

I felt genuine in my support of her going either way – recovery or death. The thing is that I could see the death option as including a whole lot more freedom than the life option.

At the Kirtan that Friday night I kept crying when I tuned into her. She felt so vulnerable, so confused that she had to go through this. I sang and I cried. Sitting there, surrounded by people I love but with the focus of my connection with my mother, I felt her feeling alone, and small, and not at all up to it all.

After a while of this singing and crying, my light body hands found their way to pouring light and love into her kidneys and heart. I wondered if I should be pouring energy into her, if she wanted to die. Instantly the top of my neck seized up. Was sending love into her really going to delay her exit if she wanted to go? Maybe it would just make her last days more comfortable. My neck relaxed.

Then I thought it was pretty silly to think that my sitting there, in Seattle, imagining myself with my mother, was going to have any effect on her at all. Again the top of my neck, my moon center and my jaw froze into intense, searing pain. I quickly asked myself what did it matter if it was real or not? What if I just let myself do what I was led to do and let it be whatever it was? Everything relaxed. Whew!

It was like my moon center was my sphincter of allowance, or something. I kept playing with it, and my body kept responding. Second guessing myself=searing pain in the moon center. Allowing myself to do what I was doing without censoring it=open and relaxed moon center.

Maybe that is what it is to make the choice between Life and Death – to choose to allow yourself to exist as who you are in this moment, or not.

The next day my son and I went to see my mom in the hospital expecting to say goodbye. Dad had called saying she had a very rough night. But when we got there she looked way better than she had before. She had energy. She could speak. She was funny. We both had great conversations with her, and loved on her. She looked so much better we tried to convince her to allow them to put in a feeding tube, so she could get some nutrition. She finally said okay. We walked out of there feeling like maybe she was going to recover after all.

I'm told this happens all the time. People rally in order to say a proper goodbye.

That night my dad called me from her room, crying, saying she had refused the feeding tube. He put her on the phone. I said "Hello mom." She said "I want to die. I don't want any more pain. I want to go home." She said it more forcefully than she had said anything in years. I think she expected me to fight her on it, given what I'd said earlier.

"I'm so happy for you." I said. "I love you. You are going to have a great journey. Thank you so much for being my mother." She liked that answer. "It has been a pleasure," she said, "every single moment of it." We went on like that for a little while, just expressing our love and gratitude for each other.

The next morning, Sunday, we all met again at the hospital, to discuss. Her choice was clear. We just all had to say we agreed so my dad could feel okay about it. And we did. The doctor agreed, too. So we asked them to remove the saline drip. Remove the antibiotics. Let her go.

They said it might take up to a week. But the nurse suggested one of us stay with her, just in case. My mom was in and out of consciousness at first. We wanted to be there whenever she woke up, so she wouldn't feel alone, so she would know we were with her.

Sunday afternoon she asked my sister Mary, "Do you think I'm chickening out?" No. Hardly.

I asked my son on Monday morning if he wanted to come with me to the hospital. Yes, absolutely. So we went. He brought his computer, to have something to do. I sat and meditated, when I wasn't talking to the various people who came in. She hadn't woken up except for very briefly about an hour before we got there.

My dad was going to go home when we came, but he stayed. He kept trying to be practical about it, and go home while I was there, but he didn't want to leave.

In the moments I was able to meditate I focused in to the lines of attachment keeping her here, and helped to dissolve them. Again, I had that choice of second-guessing what I was doing or just following where I was led. I followed.

After several hours I was thinking I had to go, to get ready for a client, but I looked at my dad and he was sound asleep - completely out of the body sound asleep. Ah, I thought. He's with mom.

Leaving without saying goodbye to him didn't feel right. Neither did waking him up. So we stayed.

When he woke up 15 minutes later he remembered that the nurse said she needed to move mom every couple of hours so she wouldn't be in pain if she woke up. He went to get her. The nurse came in with a helper, saying it would only take a few minutes. We waited outside.

Very soon she came back out. She said she wasn't going to move her, because it was clear she would be gone within the hour.

Whoa. Okay. Call Mary and tell her to come right now. Call the client and cancel. Less than 24 hours is really different than maybe a week.

I also rushed down the hall to the bathroom. When I came back in my dad was standing by her side. "I think she's gone." But then there was another breath. I went to stand by her with him. We were both just watching. Was she gone? Another breath. Was she gone? Another breath.

And then I felt a sudden thwunk in my heart chakra. And there were no more breaths. I was standing between her and the window. I think she had to go through me in order to get out.

It was kind of strange, afterwards. Mary came in about ten minutes later, having sped down the freeway singing hymns. She cried. We talked. Then we just sat, thinking of things to say. We called our other sister. We sat in silence. After a week of holding vigil it was hard to realize we didn't have to hold vigil any more. Well, in a way we still did. We were holding vigil for her body, for ourselves, for the moment to be completely done. And there was a bit of paperwork to get through.

When we finally left we all went to their home, so dad wouldn't have to go back there all by himself. When we were all there we went in. But we still didn't have anything to do. Or, more accurately, it wasn't time to do anything, yet. It was time to just be, to feel this moment when our worlds had dramatically changed.

Being in my mother's house, filled with her things but not filled with her, I felt like I had never seen it before. I kept walking around their house, looking at her things, the things my mother had collected and displayed.

I've had a lot of judgment around all the stuff my mom surrounded herself with. It felt overly busy, an obsession, a distraction from what was important. Did she really need yet another set of dishes? Did she really need yet another Madame Alexander doll? She barely had room in the lake house, with the over 3000 square feet that they were living in, bother the packed furnace/storage room in the basement. In the condo it was that much more crowded. All that stuff seemed like such a heavy burden to carry. How could she even know who she was in the face of it all?

Also I always felt a big disconnect between the picture she tried to show the world – lovely, elegant, graceful, happy – and the judgments she held about herself – not lovely, not elegant, not graceful, not happy. Even though I could see that the things she surrounded herself with were beautiful, I could never see them without that filter. How much of it was her judgment, and how much mine, I don't know, and I don't know if it matters. It just always stood there, in the way, coloring the picture.

That afternoon, after she died, it was completely gone. Mary and I walked around their house, looking at her things, and everything was simply, exquisitely, beautiful. The delicate tea cups with the flowers for each month. The paintings. The porcelain figurines. The books. The plates with the birds on them. The furniture. Heck, even the fake flowers looked beautiful.

Without the filter of my judgment - my need to make her other than what she was - and without the filter of her judgment – that she didn't measure up to her own standard of beauty - I could finally see why in the world she would want these things in her life.

Ada Louise Ross saw beauty. She saw it in the world around her, and in the people around her, and in the source of all things. She was tapped in to beauty and Love. It was like she had a direct line that was always open, always available to her.

In the hours after she left her body, and after I wandered around her house, after I went home, I started to marvel that she was able to keep that line open, with everything that she went through. How was it that she was still able to recognize so much beauty, even when she was in pain? Even when she had so much self-doubt? Maybe that's why she gathered so many reminders about herself, so she would always be able to look, and to see beauty no matter what.

And then something else occurred to me. Maybe the miracle wasn't that she was able to keep seeing beauty. Maybe the miracle was that she was able to journey so many things that didn't look so beautiful. Maybe the miracle was that she was able to feel pain, and limitation, and self-doubt, and separation, and unlovable, and worthless in the face of all of that beauty. Maybe the miracle was that she was actually able to feel "human life has no value" in the face of how miraculously, beautifully valuable human life is.

It's now been a week since she died. My journey has continued, with the help of friends, family, time and regular inspirations from my mom. The other day my sister and I cleaned out her closet, at my dad's request. He thought it should be done, and he thought it might help him be there, in the condo, if there weren't so many reminders of her human frailty around. So we did it.

It was so much fun. I loved going through her clothes. It was really amazing, actually. I'd pull out a colorful shirt, or a dowdy pair of pants, or one of her many flower-printed dresses. I would remember her wearing them, and I would just feel so much love. I felt so grateful that she had that body that wore those clothes. I felt such sweetness that she, this Divine beam of light, had allowed herself to spend 79 years in a physical body, with all sorts of limitations and difficulties and pain and joy and love and sharing and desires and disappointments and achievements and anger and irritation and appreciation and loving and giving and dancing and not being able to walk and holding so many babies and sitting at the side of so many who died…

I felt more and more permeated with love for and from her, and with appreciation for the beauty of this human life. She gave me so many things in my life. I had been holding all the work I'd done in her final ten days as my last big gift to her. But I think maybe this was her last big gift to me, the gift of clearing away all those judgments so I, too, could see all that beauty.