A Real Mother

It’s not conception, not pregnancy, not nursing, not even wiping snotty little noses. After all, dogs and cats give birth and lick their kittens and pups clean.

Real motherhood is a banner we raise for the young…real fatherhood too. Real motherhood is about dancing where the young can see us. My birth mother always ran outside to stand in thunderstorms, and she gave me that. But my music mother—who never bore any child—conducted her own sinfonia and gave me the passion of music itself. Real fatherhood means being consistent, strong and gentle. It means touching with kind hands, even though we have the strength to hit.

But it’s not male or female. This has nothing to do with what sex organs are between our legs.

What do caring adults mean to a child? Think back to being tiny.  Things don’t make sense. Grownups loom over us, cooking, feeding, driving, going away and coming back. They are powerful, and we are small. Some grownups—maybe even our mothers and fathers— hit us and tell us we’re worthless. But there are others—teachers at school, the man who sells bikes, our brownie troop leader—who look deep into our eyes and see us as we really are. They are big too and have wonderful power. They bind the hurt places and tell us the things no one else has said: “You are awesome just the way you are. You don’t deserve to be hit. Here’s a different way to dance. I am here for you.” Little people need safety and a big person who sees them as important.

Making sperm, getting pregnant and giving birth mean almost nothing. Instead, it’s the fidelity, the daily caring that tells true motherhood and fatherhood. My violin teacher nudged me through years of difficult technique practice. She loved a gorgeous tone. She used to lean close as I played, whispering “play, play!” When I played well, her highest praise was “not bad.” I had a Hindi teacher who praised me and always served up more challenges. In his class the fun was seeing what twisted little grammar assignment he would give me next. These were the people who were there for me, year after year. They raised me just as much as my birth parents, and every child needs such adults.

Often people talk about a child’s “real” mother or father as if giving birth or making someone pregnant—often by mistake—was a sacrament. A holy thing. That adult is then labeled as the “real” mother or father.  This is nonsense, and it is cruel.

Here’s what holy: My violin teacher welcoming me back as an adult. After a disastrous divorce I needed to find my true self again. With no comment, she smiled wryly and handed me Sevcik’s book on bowing technique.  “Let’s get to work!” Later that year I was playing better than ever in my life. That’s true motherhood. She showed me a way to dance through the shame and come out better.

In our schools, in our neighborhoods, in our circles of friends, small people need safe adults. A real mother or father—not just a biological parent—comes back day after day. Small people need someone faithful and safe who bends close and says, “I see you. You can make it through this. Let’s get to work!”  

That’s our work. Children need all the help they can get. It’s the fidelity of daily caring and the utter safety of an adult who only touches kindly. It has nothing to do with genetics or childbirth.

We big people need to dance in the open, show our own work, show how we found our joy. We bend down, take the hand of a child and say, “I see who you really are, and you are wonderful.” It’s a holy moment, and the answer is the soft smile of hope.

by Jean Gendreau

 

Why Do I Go to Church?

I go to church because I like holding hands while we walk forward. We’re all lost, but we’re all walking. “We’re all just walking each other home.” It’s a good quote, and it might be right. But we’ve forgotten where home is.

Where is the Divine? Is anything sacred? Where is hope?

Terrible signposts hang on the trees around us—Our climate is ruined, and whole species are dying out. Children practice hiding from gunmen at school. Cancer is everywhere, and most of us go bankrupt because we can’t even pay to get treated. Our democracy no longer works. Our country has put children in prisons. Addiction is everywhere, and more people die from opioids than from heart attacks. And on and on.

What I know for sure is that we can only find a path if we believe there might be a path. If we think despair is safer, if we think that no path is possible, we surely will never find one. And we won’t figure it out through logic and thought. I can’t do the calculations on paper; no one can figure it out in advance. No one can outthink despair. No one can use logic and analysis to prove hope.

I know there is a path because I’ve wandered onto it several times. Not on purpose, not with planning. In my life—and I’m an old woman now—I’ve usually been lost. Like everybody else, I never really knew where I was going.

Then suddenly, out of nowhere, something would tell me that God is. Not “God is… fill-in-the-blank.” Not “God is real,” not “God is Love,” or anything that defines the Divine in complete sentences. Not “This prayer will always get what you want.” Not “Say these words and you’ll get saved.”

Think instead of the mist rising at dawn and the very first murmuring of a bird. Think of the smell of stew when you’ve worked all day. Think of the sweaty, sticky kiss of a toddler in summertime. Think of looking into my eyes. Think of a surprise gift, something you never expected. These are the proofs, and they are real. Think of the joy in my mom’s eyes a few days before she died. All are signposts hanging in the trees around us, and they are as real as the signposts about despair.

Joy is as real as despair, and we get to choose. Wayne Dyer said, “When you believe it, you will see it.” We have to choose. With all the world’s negativity, we have to consciously choose joy over despair. It takes practice. It’s not easy or automatic. When we catch sight of joy, we have to shout it out so others on the path can hear us.

I go to church because I like holding hands as we walk forward. For all the brutal mistakes—and there are thousands— that churches have made, when we sit in church, we’re choosing hope. Many of my church friends are different from me, from all sorts of families and beliefs. That’s okay. Our families didn’t protect us and neither did our beliefs. We’re all equally lost.

But if we hold hands, somehow things get better.

Maybe following a gentle teacher helps us all forgive. Maybe singing old songs reminds us of the joy of childhood. Maybe just not hating for an hour every week eases our tired hearts.

Life presses down on all of us. We try to pay our bills, raise our children, fight temptations and face illness and death. Holding hands really helps.

Holding hands is an act of hope, and that is why I go to church.  I like being able to sing “God is” as loudly as I can. Beauty is. Love is. Trust is. There is a path and we can choose to step onto it. Church certainly isn’t the only path, but I like the part where you and I hold hands.

I’m singing at dawn, just like the smallest bird. All of us are singing as we walk forward. It’s a simple song:  “There is a path. We are all right. We’re not alone, we’re never alone. Love matters. We’re almost home. Hold my hand, hold me close, and don’t be afraid.”

by Jean Gendreau

 

Christmas vs. Easter

Christmas comes as the darkness grows. Easter comes after the darkness is complete. At Christmas, we light candles in the blackness. At Easter the worst has happened. The blackness has won.

At Christmas we try to protect ourselves as blackness comes near. We strain to see any flicker of light. We hold a baby and dream of the future. But at Easter we admit our despair. Did the baby even matter? It’s over. There’s nothing left to hope for—The body is already cool.

This isn’t about religion, although people think it is. Think instead of a paddler in the wilderness. He’s a bit lost and he paddles hard. Storms come and go. He finds his way along rivers, portages through thick forest, discovers lake after lake and then gets lost again. He never knows the end. One day, he’s paddling along a rocky shoreline. There’s a point up ahead, but he can’t quite make it out. Working hard, he pulls close enough to see. Finally he can make out that it’s a point, a rocky point. There’s a corner to turn. The wind pushes at the canoe, and he has to paddle hard. His arms ache, but he’s got grit. He keeps going. Finally he makes it around the corner and gasps. Goosebumps ripple down his arms. Awe. Wonder. Mystery. It takes his breath away. This lake is flat and brilliant and easy. He’s never seen such light. And it has no end. It’s easy and it has no end.

Thirty-four years ago on Easter weekend, I was holding a baby. I was trying again. I had a new life after crawling out of the shame of my divorce and the griefs of my baby’s death and my husband’s alcoholism. For me, this laughing, easy-tempered, pretty baby proved rebirth. As mothers do, I had fallen deeply in love with her. She had a fairy-like quality, a magical way of moving softly through the days. My older girl had a sister, a family. And my husband’s surprise and wonder was holy. He loved my older daughter but had never held a baby of his own. When he held this little girl, you could feel his shock and joy at such tenderness. He had never imagined such love.

On that same Easter weekend, my little nephew died from neuroblastoma. None of us will ever forget the sound of my brother’s voice that day. A few days later, when everyone else went to the funeral, I chose to stay home.

What was real to me was Easter. It’s not that I wanted to avoid the pain of my nephew’s death. I had had a baby die. I knew that the light can disappear completely. Darkness sometimes wins.

But even after total defeat, after irreversible destruction, something happens that makes no sense at all.

On that Easter weekend, I held joy in my arms. This wasn’t Christmas. It wasn’t about the darkness that might come. This was Easter. This was after the darkness had won—And that was the whole point.

There are times when we have howled until we are empty.  We cannot cry harder or louder or longer—And still it isn’t enough. Nothing is enough. Then there is a quiet that comes. It’s a kind of peace, but you can’t call it easy because getting there is the most brutal road in all human experience. Yet finally we come to the silent place, the emptiness. It’s a terrible openness in which everything is possible.

Even though it makes no sense at all, there is something beyond the rocky point. The paddler turns the corner. My nephew let go of this body to open into the wonder.

I am not talking about heaven here. This is about a reality, a dimension, a quality of awareness that underlies everything we think is real life. It’s a veil, a sheer curtain, a wisp of breath right under our noses.

In the winter, a seed has no choice but to lie in the blackness deep under the ice. A caterpillar knits its chrysalis without hope. It has no idea how to make wings.

I can’t out-think this mystery. I have no choice but the next step, even though I have no idea what the next step is. I do not know the deep magic because thoughts and beliefs distract me. I worry, hope and fret. I do not trust what I cannot imagine.

The mystery requires utter blackness. Thinking doesn’t work. We cannot plan or understand. There has to be the release of giving up because that’s when we finally relax.

That’s when the deepest magic, the power, the tenderness can take us over, knowing us better than we know ourselves. It shatters the seed’s shell by trusting the softness of a seedling’s leaves. It tears the chrysalis open by loving the joy colors of wings.

On Easter, we raise our heads from the ground. We look up because we hear something, a wisp of song. We cannot know what it is. We do not understand. It makes no sense. But it is good.


Here’s the best book I have seen on death.

On Life after Death, by Elizabeth Kubler Ross.

This tiny book packs a huge wallop. I’ve read it many times and given it to dozens of friends. Kubler Ross was the world-famous psychologist who developed the famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Her speciality was dying children.  But late in her life, she realized through many experiences that death does not exist. She says, “My real job is… to tell people that death does not exist….You don’t have to do anything but learn to get in touch, in silence, within yourself. Get in touch with your own inner self and learn not to be afraid. One way not to be afraid is to know that death does not exist, that everything in this life has a positive purpose.

The Song I Hear

Wake up and listen. There are sounds you’ve been taught not to hear: Joy is as real as despair. Love is as real as loneliness. So-called life lessons are often lies.

At birth we slip into confusion. As infants we can only learn what surrounds us, and many baby lessons are harsh. My mother’s depressed face says, “You only get hugs when I can handle it.” My father’s angry face says, “Don’t be a sissy. Boys should never cry.” Like tiny puppets, we start performing. We don’t even know words yet, but we’ve already learned cruel things.

A few lessons are lovely. My mother felt the ecstasy of a thunderstorm. She’d run out into the storm laughing when other mothers were pulling the shutters closed. Nature was her bliss.

As tiny children, we sense what’s true but don’t know the words. We sense that “Grandma wants to cry.” But then a grownup tells us, “Grandma likes sitting alone” and we adjust to the untrue grownup version. We see the little girl next door dancing on the porch, and we laugh and clap our hands. But a grownup says, “You see that? They don’t know how to work. It’s just the way they are—lazy.” It’s two lessons in one: how to judge others and how to shut out joy.

Mind you, we have no choice. Little children must get along. Tiny people need to fit in because they need food, shelter and protection. They comply because they have no choice. And certainly the adults around them are not being cruel on purpose. They’re doing their best to protect the child, teaching the old ways, the so-called safe ways. A father who whips his little boy for putting on lipstick and perfume wants his son to be safe from bullies and from society’s ridicule. It never occurs to him that maybe showing femininity is okay—because he got this same whipping when he was a four year old.

There are sounds you’ve been taught not to hear. There are sights you’ve been taught not to see.

One morning when I’m playing in the yard, there’s a sound, an undeniable touch, something that makes me gasp in wonder and laugh at pure beauty, joy that overwhelms me and gives me goosebumps. But Dad shakes his head. His eyes are sad. “Nothing like that is real, sweetheart. It’s just pretend. You’ll have to grow up someday.”

As a teenager paddling on a river early one morning, I see stunning light in the sky and shivers go through me. I’ve touched something true and I know it. But when I try to tell my friends about it, there’s contempt in their eyes.

I get older, and painful things happen. My boyfriend dumps me, and I label love as hurtful. My career goes sour; I want to help others but the system twists my work into boring, useless hours that hurt me and help no one.

I try to protect myself, curling my arms over my head, bending over, whispering to myself, “That was bad. That hurt.” I lower my hopes as far as I can. “If I expect less, it’ll hurt less. That’s a safe truth.” I turn bitter. “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “If I hide who I am, life can’t hurt me anymore.“ “I’ll never believe in anything again.” “I’m safe now.”

We learn to limit what we see and hear, and as we get older, we sense less and less. Like babies who grew up hearing the language of pain, we speak pain. The dawn could be breaking and we would say, “That’s not light because last night was dark.”

Right now there are sounds you cannot hear, no matter how hard you try.  All of us hear only what society thinks is important—Power, prestige, life story, shame, guilt. It happens to everyone.

Even when I think I am listening as hard as I can, I simply cannot hear the other sounds. I want you to know that this can change. It’s possible to learn to hear joy. It’s just like learning a language you’ve never heard.

In college, I learned the Hindi language. While English has one “t” sound, Hindi has four. And there’s more—Hindi has at least twelve other consonants that simply do not exist in English. No matter how gifted a student I am, no matter how carefully I listen, I cannot hear these sounds. Sitting in the college language lab, trying as hard as I could, all I could hear was the one English “t.”  Trying harder did not help. It took me months of listening and learning to be able to hear all four Hindi “t”s.

When joy sings, I miss it because no one taught me that language. I need to ask myself what sounds made up my family’s language? What sights did my culture say were real? We learn to hear despair instead of joy and judgment instead of love.

There is a song that sings all life. There is light that shines in every prison. There is touch that holds us close in the night. Joy is as real as despair. Love is as real as loneliness.

But I have to believe it is possible. I must loosen my consciousness and reach for it. I have to choose to hope and then act on it in some way.

One way is to meditate. Another is to spend long, silent days in nature. Another is to work among the addicted, poor and dying.

I can start now, sitting by a window, sitting in silence. Just breathing. Letting go of the safety and smartness. Letting go of mind chatter. Opening to the maybe.

Trying to be safe from pain doesn’t work. When I only believe the negative, what I’m really doing is making my prison bars thicker. Instead, somehow I must say, “It’s possible….”  It’s possible that joy is as strong as despair. It’s possible that love is as strong as loneliness.

It is possible that there are sounds all around me that I have never heard. When I let go of what I think is true—that my despair is too strong to overcome, that I’m alone and so are you, that my life story means I will always be unhappy—my chains start to melt.

It’s not what the world does to me. It’s what sounds I choose to hear and make real.

Here’s the real song:

Awe, beauty, love and light are real.

None of us is ever alone. The holy awareness holds me and you and every part of existence in its arms all the time. Every breath. Every instant. I can trust this. I can rest in it.

The divine awareness sings me a sacred song, a lullaby, a tender dance that never ends. It’s a sound that’s always there, a light that never fades, a touch that never lets go. It is the scent of water in a drought.

I let the sky hold me. Dawn’s silence turns out to be louder than all despair and loneliness. Joy thrums around me, and the wind chants love. Once I hear it, all I can do is sing along.

You have to be willing to listen in a new way, in a way that society rejects.

Take my hand. Dance with me. Morning is calling out a wild tune. The melody is love, joy and kindness, and the beat is my heart and yours. There’s only the song.  This is forever. This is now.

 

 

 

Burrowing into Darkness

Things seem a shambles. Outside, I question if democracy is worth it. Fire deaths, atrocities, shootings and massive hardship blare from every screen and hit me like gut punches. Inside, in my close life, the confusions, the missteps pile up and tear at me—Friends with harsh diagnoses, addicted family members, uncertainty, confusion. It feels like my heart, and the world’s, is just broken. A shambles.

Things are turning dark. Yet that’s as it should be. I know this about Fall. All the leaves let go. Hollyhock stalks bend and collapse. Pods open, seeds fall. Mist rises as the lake cools. The wind smells of a neighbor’s morning fire. With the leaves down, I can see the lake. The light is both brighter and darker.

Everything has given up. The broken stalks and bright skies have surrendered to change. Leaves jump in the wind and pile up in corners by stones and under bushes. When I meditate, mornings are black.

There is magic ahead. Rebirth doesn’t happen in April, just as conception doesn’t happen in the delivery room. Rebirth requires conception, and that miracle—and I use the word “miracle” on purpose—needs darkness.  In the womb, in the earth, in life, undreamed-of things burst out like those first tiny cells of an embryo—in darkness, in power, in hope.  

I trust the bare trees, the pumpkins, the chill and the darkness. The hummingbirds and robins left weeks ago. Nuthatches and chickadees peer in at me, wondering about suet. The longest night is coming. I think of bonfires, feasts, tombstones and candles. I think of shattered dreams, despair, tears and death.

I trust winter’s silence. It feels right. Seeds burrow into the earth mother. Conception needs utter darkness. I trust what is hidden, the things I cannot comprehend. There are Holy Secrets that come out of the Divine, and I can’t pretend to understand them. Grace is real.

My thoughts don’t work. I think I know what should or should not happen, but I am wrong. The bare trees and dancing leaves have surrendered to the coming darkness. I follow them and trust.

Every year, every century, dark magic happens again—A light in the darkness. Under the bitterness, seeds lie in the earth. One day their cells change. I’m too small and foolish to know exactly when or how, and that’s okay.

What I trust is the darkness itself—the presence, the awareness, the magic, the love. I am a bare tree branch, a fallow field. Emptiness and silence is what I need. I am a seed. I am potential. I burrow in and trust the holy life force. What’s needed is exactly the darkness. I have to be a seed, not knowing, not planning. I have to be the magic of what might come, the possibility of something I do not understand.

Hope happens. New life pops. The wind turns soft. There’s something new that only the universe could have dreamt up.  An exquisite crocus. Fresh grass. An easy breath. New life. Healing.

So I rest in the darkness and trust God. I am a seed and so are you. The light will come, but not in the ways we expect. All we need to know is that Love holds us close. The darkness is safe and right.

 

The Flash Up Ahead

Life hits hard. Death rips away what’s false, and all I can see is clear light. When someone dies, there’s a flash. I realize—again— that only love matters. I gasp as if lightning had sizzled and lit the night.

I remember being young, walking up the stairs of a red brick church with Mom and Dad. The parents of the dead teenager stand next to her coffin, hugging people, talking. Their eyes shine so that it hurts to look. It’s not the tears. It’s the flash, the clear love, that stuns me.

Her death was foolish. Who would sit on a light boat as it was being towed on a trailer? It was nothing, just a second. One bump.

The brilliance in the eyes of this mother and father blinds me. I look away because I’m young. I can’t look because it finds every crack in me. 

When I was young I hadn’t learned that love itself is bigger than happy or tragic, good or bad. It’s bigger than any label or word. It’s everything, like the sky beyond the clouds. It’s awareness itself, love calling to love, God outside of time.

Daily life and thoughts hide the sky, even though we yearn to see it. We want hope, but we don’t know how to find it.

Death’s work is so strange. It tears us open. It rips the clouds away so that the sky beyond, the awareness that is love, is just obvious. Undeniable. The flash, the vision of love, shocks us so completely that, even in our childishness and our denial, we fall to our knees.

When I was young, I didn’t know that being on my knees—knowing that I love and am loved—is the whole reason for life. It doesn’t matter if I’m on my knees to button someone’s coat or kneeling at a funeral.

I wish I could say that meditating taught me this, but it didn’t. Pain, loss and despair taught me, and they were harsh about it.

What meditation taught me was that what I thought was flashing off and on—the love, the light, forever, peace, kindness—shines as a beacon, steady, never flashing, never dimming. In silence as I meditated, I learned to sense the deeper reality that is God. I learned how to see the sky that the clouds hide.

Now, as an old woman, I’m always searching for those flashes, the moments when God is undeniable, when only love exists. Each one is priceless. I gather each one close and roll it in my fingers because I know this is the only thing that matters.

Here’s one when my baby sleeps on my chest and smiles in her sleep. Here’s another when my love holds me close and doesn’t let go. Here’s a tiny white coffin. Here’s a girl skating alone on a lagoon, a toddler singing in the bathtub, my grandmother combing her soft white hair, and a teenager practicing Shakespeare. “As you from crimes would pardon’d be, Let your indulgence set me free.”

What I know now is that in love, there is no time at all. There is no before and after. At this funeral, the brilliance in the parents’ eyes is the exact same instant as when they danced in the living room with that baby girl, when they combed out her snarls and braided her hair, when they daubed baking soda on her chicken pox, when they taught her to parallel park.

Victor Hugo said, “To love another person is to see the face of God.” Yes, it’s a cliché. But above the sentiment is the open sky itself. No storm can touch it.

And so I gather my flashes and smile. This is my life. I look into your eyes, and it’s your life too. You reach for me.

It’s the movement between us that is sacred. It’s our dance, the flash of light on faces, the light of one kind glance, the shape of hands touching that is the divine spark.

I stay on my knees now, knowing there are flashes all around me. This is my holy place. This is how I worship. I gaze into the flashes and never look away.

 

Mrs. Stanley’s Lesson

It’s how these things so often happen. Early on a Monday morning in about 1979, after I had finished meditating, something came to me. It was Mrs. Stanley’s face or maybe her voice. It overwhelmed me.

These things come like a distant bell, a magical, haunting, beautiful sound that you cannot ignore. I hadn’t even thought of her in more than ten years, but there she was, my high school English teacher, calling me.

By then my life had gone seriously wrong. My first baby had died, my poor drunk husband had gone home to his own country, I was poor, and every so often depression crippled me.

The joys I had were my little girl and a new sense of hope and love. I had started to meditate.

On that Monday morning what I suddenly knew—out of nowhere, I thought—was that I had to tell Mrs. Stanley thank you. It was obvious. Looking back, heaven was prompting me, but at that time I hadn’t figured that out yet. I got a card, wrote a note and mailed it.

A week later the phone rang and there was a trembly fairy voice. “Jean, is that you? Is that you? Where are you? Where are you? Come and see me.”

She was in Madison General Hospital, dying. By now I knew a little bit about death, so I went right away.

She is lying on pillows, oxygen tubes in her nose, IVs in her arms—Of course, all her smoking. Lung cancer. The room smells bad, and it’s dim and grey. Her voice is still low, but she can barely whisper.

“Your little girl? I thought you’d bring her.”

“I was afraid to—I didn’t know how you would be.”

She nods. “What did I give you? Why did you write? Was it my teaching?”

This part I know. “No….The teaching was good. But it was never what you said. It was how you were.”

“How?”

“Remember when that girl tried to kill herself and she came into your room?  And you climbed into the ambulance with her and went with her to the hospital?”

She sighs a little. “Poor girl. Yes…yes.”

“You cared so much. You would say anything, do anything…. We were so stupid. So immature. We laughed at you, and you just ignored us. It was how you were, not what you said, not who you were. You were there for us, for all of us, even when you weren’t supposed to be. Even when it was embarrassing. You told us the truth. You were strict but you cared. You always showed that passion, and damn everyone else.”

“How did you hear me? How?”

I shrug. “I just knew. I just knew—It just came one morning.”

She falls back onto her pillows. “So there is something….Oh God. Oh God.” Tears slide down her cheeks.

It was the only time I saw her. In a few days she died. She was one of my most important teachers.

Here is Mrs. Stanley’s lesson: It’s not who you are or what you are that lasts, that matters forever. It’s how you are. Kind. Tender. Caring—No matter who laughs at you. How you touch. How you speak.

Touch kindly. Be there for others. Let your eyes shine because that’s God’s joy. Tell others how precious they are so they know.

How you are is exactly how God happens in this world. How you are is the only thing that matters. That’s it—the whole thing. It’s not what to be, not who to be. It’s how to be.