Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Devote Yourself

"Yours is to live it, not to reveal it." - Helen Luke 

I am reminded of the gift of Mark Nepo's gentle wisdom as I read the piece he has selected for each day of the year in his luminous work, "The Book of Awakening." Today's reading begins with the quote above, from his mentor Helen Luke - some of her last words to him before her passing. As abrupt as this quote sounds upon first reading, Nepo goes on to explain:
"...I've come to understand her last instruction as an invitation to shed any grand purpose, no matter how devoted we may be to what we are doing. She wasn't telling me to stop writing, but to stop striving to be important. She was inviting me to stop recording the poetry of life and to enter the poetry of life.
"This lesson applies to us all. If we devote ourselves to the life at hand, the rest will follow. For life, it seems, reveals itself through those willing to live. Anything else, no matter how beautiful, is just advertising."
This passage struck me deeply. What does it mean to "devote ourselves to the life at hand?" Looking up "devote" and "devotion" tells us that it involves wholehearted giving of oneself and one's resources; the root is in "consecration," - the word's origin is "vow."

It resonated with one of my favorite passages in "Radical Grace" by Richard Rohr. Writing about Mary, the mother of Jesus, and her actions upon receiving the visit from an angel who announces Mary's pregnancy, Rohr says:
"The events themselves will be her guide and teacher. She does not need to figure it out and plan accordingly; the plan will be given by God through life's encounters. Reality is her teacher. That is why she could hear angels.
"Decisive action beyond our fears gives us a sense of our own power and the power of God within us. [Mary] can hold her power comfortably because she knows it is from Beyond."
I held on to this passage when Katie was in the hospital. My prayer practice had been so peaceful and regular, before her illness; once we were uprooted and transplanted from our old life, my practice became prayer-in-action, pray-as-you-go, the prayer of living service. It was the prayer of devotion, wholehearted giving. Now, eight years later, I pray to work and live as wholeheartedly today as I did then, in the midst of the crisis of illness.

Since Katie's passing, I have accepted invitations to serve in places which - eight years ago - were not even on my personal radar: the University of Washington's School of Medicine and Field's End Writer's Community are two examples. Serving on panels, taking classes and teaching classes are fun and rewarding ways to give. Now, I have entered a new field of learning and service: I recently completed the first level of Jikiden Reiki training. Reiki is a spiritual healing practice which is not linked to a religion. It originated in Japan, and it is a way to practice healing prayer, relying upon the power of Universal Life Force, or ki (which is another name for God). I am enjoying the practice enormously.

This is a natural step, after a summer of suffering physical pain, limitation and the medications which masked it. It is also a natural step, considering my attachment to my DVD project as "the" way to help clinicians deal with their grief and pain. In releasing my grip on that project, I can now see other ways to serve. Reiki is practiced in medical centers and has unlimited potential. Its Gokai, or five principles, are:
Just for today -
Do not be angry
Do not worry
Be grateful
Do your duties 

Be kind to others

In "Do your duties," I hear, "work wholeheartedly,"  or "devote yourself."

Life itself is revealing where I need to go. God provides the inspiration, and the power of His creativity and love, and I follow, as wholeheartedly as possible.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Creativity in Healing & Spiritual Growth

Grace Episcopal Church on Bainbridge Island, WA
is hosting a series called
"Spiritual Practice Saturdays."
On December 6, from 9:30am - Noon, 
I'll be leading "Creativity in Healing and Spiritual Growth,"
and you're invited to attend!
Here is the description, from Grace's email:
 "God as Creator has made us creative. Inviting that creativity into our spiritual practice can be daunting, and an authentic pathway into healing and growth. Come spend a morning with us as Karen Gerstenberger, author and speaker, guides us as we write and walk and draw mandalas as spiritual practice. Together, we will playfully and skillfully encourage our 'unencumbered self' to authentic expression - the kind of expression that leads to healing, growth and joy. 
To help us plan, please contact Robin Livingston robin@robinmlivingston.com if you wish to attend."

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Power of Love (or Serendipity)

On Thursday, David and I traveled to Seattle to meet a photographer and a representative of Seattle Children's Hospital's Guild Association. I had been asked to to coordinate a comforter delivery with a story which will be published in the Guild News (a regular publication of the Guild Association. By the way, if you don't know about the Guild Association, please follow this link and look around. It is a fabulous organization of which I am thrilled to be a member). I will post a link to the photos and article when they are published.

David came with me on the spur of the moment. We brought a batch of gorgeous quilts from the Fearless Quilters of Rolling Bay Presbyterian, along with a batch of fleece blankets from our dear neighbor, Cami - 28 in all. As we pulled into the driveway, I said to David, "I should have called Carly, and told her we were coming!" Carly is our representative at the Foundation, where Katie's Endowment resides.

The fact is, there are so many staffers within the organization of Seattle Children's Hospital who have touched our lives and blessed us that I would probably need to visit every week in order to see each of them - so I often don't tell anyone when I am coming, and just slip in and out delivering quilts. On this day, I was focused on the photo shoot, thinking we would meet in the reception area, hold the comforters and smile for the camera. Well, serendipity was at work behind the scenes...

We took the comforters to the Volunteer Office, and there was one of my favorite volunteers: Jane Humphries, a.k.a. "The Blanket Lady." Jane volunteers every week, delivering comforters to patients who have been admitted to the hospital. She was loading a cart, and brightened up when she saw the bounty we had brought for her to deliver. We learned that Jane was going to be part of the photo shoot, and that we were going to be allowed to go on the ward and actually GIVE a blanket to a patient. This just doesn't happen anymore, due to HIPAA regulations, so this was a rare treat.

Seattle Children's has a fantastic new facility called "Building Hope." Its design is gorgeous and family-friendly in the most progressive ways, filled with light, beautiful artwork, well-designed, attractive furnishings and comfortably-equipped rooms. It is a wonderful place - that is, if you have to be a patient in a hospital. I had a quick tour a while ago, but David had never seen it. That was our destination for the photo shoot - a nice surprise.

The photographer and manager of Guild Marketing arrived. As we were getting acquainted, Carly walked into the Volunteer Office - serendipity! She and David had never met, so I happily took care of that. She revealed that she was expecting a "special visitor" to tour the hospital with her, and was going to be in the same area as we were. Looking forward to running into them later, we said "goodbye" and prepared to deliver quilts and blankets.
Please visit #strongagainstcancer on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter
We took some #strongagainstcancer photos before we entered the cancer unit. #STRONGAGAINSTCANCER is a new initiative being launched by Seattle Children's Hospital. A BIG announcement will be made during half-time of the NFL Thanksgiving Day football game. Please be sure to tune in!

Once we were admitted to the ward, we noticed a number of the staff who had taken care of Katie were on duty. Many hugs followed, with exclamations of surprise at seeing David, "all grown up." The nurses posed for photos with us around the cart, each one holding a blanket. What a beautiful, full-circle moment that was - to see our comforters in the hands of staff members who have brought such comfort to our family!

There was so much palpable love in the air that I kept saying, "This is the best day ever!" Then I thought about it and said, "Well, this is the best day on the cancer ward." And it got even better...

We were introduced to a lovely young patient who selected a pink fleece blanket with owls on it, and we posed together, with me handing it to her. As our eyes met, and I looked at her sweet mother standing behind her, something deep within me connected with them. I longed to join them in the room and just stay there; of course, that wasn't possible, and I would not have suggested such a thing, but I felt a kinship with them, without words. I have been in their place.

The serendipity continued when we ran into Carly and her "special guest:" it was Macklemore, at the hospital to visit patients. (You may have seen him on Instagram or Facebook in photos at the hospital with Russell Wilson, who visits every.single.week.) Carly invited us over to meet him and his friend, so WE MET MACKLEMORE on the cancer ward! I thanked him for visiting the hospital and told him how much it means to the patients and families. We spoke for a few minutes about the blankets; he has noticed them on his visits. He was so present as we spoke. (He has also been out on the streets at night, without fanfare, with Seattle's Union Gospel Mission - another reason for admiring him.) Oh, serendipity was at work - and David just happened to be along for the ride!

We also had a wonderful visit over lunch with one of our favorite doctors - one who has become a close friend, and who took care of all of us when Katie was in the ICU.

Lying in bed last night, I reflected on the day with overflowing gratitude. My one regret was that I wished I could have done more for that sweet patient and her mother, but I also know that I am living their worst nightmare, so I always - and I mean ALWAYS - stay away from people who are in active treatment, unless they seek me out. I wasn't at the hospital as a chaplain, I was there as a guild president, for a specific purpose, but oh, my heart was there in pastoral care!

What a day, filled with the power of love - of Katie's love for her comforter, our family's love and gratitude, the love of staff and benefactors, our guild member's loving acts of generosity, and the appreciative love of the hospital organization for its guild members. And what is serendipity, anyway - isn't it really LOVE in action?

Happy 22!

It's that time again...
...party time!
David is turning 22 today!
We could not have asked for a more wonderful son 
 and brother for his sister;
we are grateful to have been chosen as his parents.
He has brought so much goodness into our lives in every way, and
we are thrilled that we get to celebrate his day with him.
Happy Birthday, David! We love you!

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Enjoying Autumn

To every one who has served in the military forces for the United States of America, Thank you. I know that "freedom isn't free." We cannot "catch" it from others, and it is not "given" to all human beings to live in a free country. Though each of us has freedom within (as unique creations of our Creator), not everyone has the privilege to live freely. For that privilege in this time and place, paid for by your sacrifice, dear veterans, I thank you.
The last time I visited the Bloedel Reserve, I was rewarded with the pleasure of rich, intense colors of the remaining leaves on deciduous trees, and the patterns they created on the ground. I expect that the next visit will reveal many changes wrought by the high winds and heavy rains of autumn.
Just now, we are enjoying gorgeous, cold, clear days here in Western Washington. This was the view as the setting sun painted high clouds a tender pink, and a lone boat struggled against wind, whitecaps and current.
The wind caused widespread power outages that day.

On Saturday morning, I awoke early to this sunrise view...
It was a perfect day for a trip to Port Townsend. We never tire of walking through that town and the surrounding area.
This is the view looking over the old military buildings and parade ground. If it looks familiar, you might be remembering it from the movie, "An Officer and a Gentleman." Mt. Rainier looms on the horizon, faintly visible and wreathed in clouds.
If you had to make a caption for this photo, what would it be?
The deer were enjoying an apple-feast under that tree; not timid at all!
We walked around the marinas, and admired the craftsmanship of many wooden boats, especially the sailing ship Adventuress.
We saw tiles with messages from supporters of the maritime center.
Good advice.
I colorized the mermaid tile using Picasa.
I am thankful that Gregg and I still have so much fun doing something which is free of charge and open to anyone, which we enjoyed from the very first days we met. There is something comforting in the fact that, as much as our lives have changed during these 25+ years, this simple pleasure remains for us to enjoy again and again, in different places, seasons and moods.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Gold Ribbon Night

Katie with Dr. Pollard (left) and Dr. Gardner (right)
Last night, I had the pleasure of attending the 2nd Annual Gold Ribbon Night for Pediatric Cancer Awareness, put on by Seattle Children's Hospital and Research Foundation. It was held in a beautiful private golf club in Seattle which is called "Broadmoor."

(Whenever I hear that name, I think, "detained during His Majesty's pleasure...in Broadmoor Asylum"* in England. I wonder if the founders of the exclusive club and gated community in Seattle had any idea about the name's "other" meaning...) 

Anyway, last night's event was a warm, elegant, yet informal affair, filled with passionate advocates of pediatric cancer research and the local clinicians we support, who are doing fantastic work in the field. It was delightful to mingle with friends, acquaintances and familiar doctors, nurses and researchers, sharing news and memories.

The program was led by our friend Jeff Towne, co-founder of the Ben Towne Foundation, and moderated by Dr. Bruder Stapleton (one of my personal favorites in the administration of the hospital). The panel consisted of three researchers who are doing ground-breaking work in different areas of pediatric cancer (two of whom - Dr. Rebecca Gardner and Dr. Doug Hawkins - took care of Katie) and a parent-advocate. They answered questions, and shared their thoughts about their current projects and personal research goals.

We watched this video, which tells the story of one of the patients recently cured by T-cell therapy at the Ben Towne Center for Childhood Cancer Research in Seattle. Please take a few minutes to watch - it will inspire you!

One of the highlights of the evening, for me, was sitting with Dr. Julie Park (Katie's primary oncologist) and our friend Charlotte, who was my "date" for the evening, and sharing in a heartfelt discussion with them after the panel program ended.
Another highlight was returning home and checking my messages to find that yet another patient has been cured by T-cell therapy here in Seattle. That is the 11th patient cured, as far as I know!

And today, even more wonderful news: an immunotherapeutic clinical trial is has just opened, under Dr. Park's leadership, for pediatric patients with neuroblastoma. This awful solid tumor has a horrific treatment regimen and a dismal survival rate, but now, there is a new way to treat it - using the knowledge gained from the successes in Dr. Jensen's T-cell therapy trials. This is the cancer from which Ben Towne suffered and died, so it is particularly meaningful to have this clinical trial at the BTCCCR.

If you would like to know how you can get involved in this important work, which will also benefit adult cancer research, please leave a comment here and I will reply privately

*quoted from A System of Medicine, Volume 8, edited by Thomas Clifford Allbutt, Sir Humphry Davy Rolleston

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

All of Creation is a Song of Praise to God

Japanese Garden, Bloedel Reserve

 The fire has its flame and praises God.
  The wind blows the flame and praises God.
In the voice we hear the word which praises God.
  And the word, when heard, praises God.
So all of creation is a song of praise to God. 
- St. Hildegard of Bingen
Strolling each week at the Bloedel Reserve is continuing to inspire and bring solace and healing to me, even in places where I didn't anticipate healing. One of those areas is ART.
The shapes and colors of the leaves, and the changes in the landscape from week to week keep me in deep, yet gentle observation. It is like Christmas morning each time I start out walking the paths. I move in different directions on different days - responding intuitively to the mood and the map. I find that I observe as an artist, and even if I think "I won't take photos today," I can't NOT take them. I am seeing - and composing with my eye - as an artist, and it's joyful.
It so happens that one of my favorite art bloggers, Collage Diva, started a new project using mandalas. She calls it #100MandalasChallenge, and the idea is to create 100 Mandalas in 100 days.
I'm not sure I'll complete it in that amount of time - and there is no pressure to do so - but I am loving drawing mandalas using the Zentangle concept of Zendalas, inspired by all that I see at the Bloedel Reserve.
Here are a few of my drawings...
It's relaxing and fun to draw in this way. It has opened me up and relieved some of the stress I felt around doing artwork. It is play, not work, and it comes naturally, rather than being forced.
I'm deeply thankful for this season of strolling, healing and renewed creative energy. It is a time of quiet joy and praise to our Creator.
This struck me as a "faerie's-eye view" of the Bloedel residence
 No detail is too small for the Creator's creativity. I love that fact.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Poetry, Art & Music

I think of myself as a prose writer. I wrote the occasional poem as a younger person, for school assignments, but it has never been my primary language. Yet I love - and I mean LOVE, memorize and sing - song lyrics of every genre, which of course are poems. And my senior project (for college graduation) incorporated a famous poem.
We were assigned a self-portrait as part of our graduation requirement. This came after I discovered that my fiance had been unfaithful; I had broken our engagement, was facing an unclear future and did not really know how to see myself. In addition, I had not gained great facility with watercolor painting (the favored medium in the art department at that time), so I had not the means to render an accurate self-portrait - but I used it anyway, which says something right there.

I decided upon an abstract composition; then, feeling it was raw and incomplete (which was in fact an accurate portrayal of my self-image at the time), I incorporated a photograph and a roughly hand-lettered fragment of a poem, because it is what came to me. It was not considered a great success by my professor, but it expressed my feelings at the time; even then, as a 21-year old fine art major, I could not suppress the urge to use language in my artwork. So perhaps there is more poetry in my soul than I know - perhaps there is in each one of us - expressed in a variety of ways, not always recognized outright as poetry.

I wrote a poem about the beach when I was a little girl. I remember - and can still see in my mind's eye - the exact place I pictured as I wrote it. I showed the poem to my grandmother, and was happily surprised to find later that she kept it in a drawer in her bedside table. I wish I knew where it was now.

Poetry has been on my mind lately for several reasons. Friends read, write and share poetry; poems appear on blogs and various other places online. I follow a caringbridge site which has exposed me to a wealth of absolutely gorgeous poetry, with which patient and family express their feelings at the end of each update. As a Core Team member of Field's End Writers' Community, poetry has come to my attention as a deep need in the community. Though perhaps not freely acknowledged in mainstream consciousness, poetry is all around us; it's a natural language of the human spirit. We seek poetry to express what may be unutterable in any other form, in our own words or those of others; this makes us feel less alone. Sometimes, these poems are set to music.

This beautiful fusion of music and poetry has been playing in my head for several days. It says a great deal to me about stopping, seeing, feeling, listening, hearing, speaking, silence and being. I hope you will enjoy it. (Video credit: YouTube)

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Awe, Refreshment & Shinrin-Yoka

It’s becoming essential that we learn how to relate sanely with difficult times. The earth seems to be beseeching us to connect with joy and discover our innermost essence. This is the best way that we can benefit others. - Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
Our goal should be to...get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted...never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.Abraham Joshua Heschel
I also remember coming upon a clearing in the woods so densely overgrown that it felt depressing, for nothing seemed capable of getting through. Something in my own makeup resembled this and made me return there several times. But it was finally in winter, without its leaves, that this same clearing undressed itself as a magnificent bed of light that happened to be on the crest of a beautiful hill. It humbled me to realize that winter can be freeing, too, and that I am often overgrown with memories and reasons and twigs of mind that block me from the light. - Mark Nepo, The Book of Awakening
Slowing down and truly listening to the wind, birdsong, frogs croaking, running water, the sound of our own footsteps, alder leaves susurrating, fir needles whooshing like ocean waves - really hearing whatever is around us - is a gift. The sense of hearing is a gift.
Seeing the wonder of a leaf drifting on the wind, two trees growing together - entwined like passionate lovers - berries sprouting from a decaying log, moss cloaking trunks of maple and roots of upturned cedar, alders dancing, trailing fingers in a pond, ducks diving in duckweed, clouds passing overhead, ripples on water - is a gift. Seeing is a gift.
Caressed by a breeze, temperature changes, heart lifting, pulse rising in the freedom of open spaces, muscles working up and down trails, a slippery boardwalk or the crunch of stone and bark underfoot, smoothness of grass, ripple of roots, soft springiness of moss - is a gift. Feeling is a gift.
The scent of turning leaves, a salty breeze, pungence of skunk cabbage, decaying mushrooms, rain-washed trails, sap-filled pines - is a gift. The sense of smell is a gift.
The Stroll for Well-Being is teaching me that the Japanese healing intervention of Shinrin-yoka, or "walking in the forests to promote health" is effective. Nature's variety of shape, color, scent, function and form remind me that everything, at every stage of life, has its own particular beauty. We are not made to look - or be - the same as others. Each one of us has unique purpose and gifts, revealed as our lives evolve. What might be your gift, in this time and place?
The Bloedel house, viewed from the bluff

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Things Literary

book cover
We went to a superb event on Saturday evening, hosted by Field's End. New York Times best-selling author Ann Hood came to Bainbridge Island and gave a writing workshop in the afternoon. In the evening, we gathered to hear four excellent actors read from her wonderful book, Knitting Yarns (a collection of essays, edited by Ms. Hood). After the reading, she spoke about the book, about her life, and about how she came to be interested in knitting; she was gracious, funny, witty, and engaging. After that, we gathered in the bistro next door for a fun, informal reception and book-signing.

Ann Hood is also the author of Comfort, a memoir about her life after the passing of her daughter, Grace. I read it after Katie died; it was a deep, beautifully written, stirring book. Who could have guessed that I might have the privilege of meeting its author a few years later, of looking her in the eyes and telling her, mother to mother, that I had been moved by her work?

Knitting Yarns is about so much more than knitting - its stories include family, life-changes, pets, community, gender roles and more. Gregg and I laughed until we cried, nodded in agreement, and listened with pleasure as each actor brought to life the voice of a character who had something vital to say about the craft of knitting. Do check it out, even if you are not a knitter.

Being a new member of the Field's End Core Team is already enriching my life and stimulating my imagination. Everyone has been welcoming, and I am excited about the possibilities ahead. If you live locally, check out the upcoming offerings at www.fieldsend.org!
My grandfather, Morton, in the library
Meeting Ann Hood is one of many serendipitous things that have happened since I started working through The Artist's Way (serendipity is one of the effects predicted by Julia Cameron, author of AW). I have been busy writing, listening, studying, observing, and reflecting. My (waking and sleeping) dream-life is richer than it was before - another of Julia Cameron's predictions for those who are practicing The Artist's Way. 
Nana Emilie in the library
Memories swim up to the surface from deep down in the depths of consciousness. Perhaps this is why, today, I remembered a small item which used to sit on my grandfather's desk in his library. He and my grandmother were avid readers and book collectors.
Morton's desk
It was a ceramic paperweight, very simple, made in the shape of an open book. Someone had written these words in rough black letters on the white-glazed pages:
Do more than look; observe.
Do more than read; absorb.

I wish I had thought to keep this paperweight after my grandparents' passing. I read the words dozens of times, and yet forgot all about it - until today. Wondering where the quote originated, I looked online, and Google revealed the source:
Do more than exist; live.
Do more than touch; feel.
Do more than look; observe.
Do more than read; absorb.
Do more than hear; listen.
Do more than listen; understand.
Do more than think; ponder.
Do more than talk; say something.
- John H. Rhoades
Wise words, suggesting an intentional approach to living - to move beyond the superficial and go a step farther, deeper.

This led to a search for photos of the home where my mother grew up. The house is still standing, but the property has been subdivided, so the orchard is gone.
My grandmother designed this house in every detail (with an architect's help), including the recycled brick
The entry hall, with portrait of my great-great grandmother
The staircase my mother descended on her way to her wedding in the garden
My brother and me with Nana Emilie on the south side of  the garden.
Living room
More living room
I loved this house for its exquisite, understated beauty; it informed and shaped my taste in furnishings and interior design, and inspired me to study the subject. 
And yet more living room
I'm grateful to my grandparents for their love of books, beauty, education, culture and their appreciation of all of the arts, which they freely shared with us. I'm thankful to have happy memories of this house - including the recently rediscovered wisdom of John H. Rhoades.