Wilderness Love

As Mom came around the corner and saw it, she gasped, stumbled against me and started to cry.  “There are no words,” she said. “No words.” Touching that beauty, knowing it was real made her weep. It was the Taj Mahal. We had pushed our way through Agra’s appalling tourist bazaars, paid rupees for our tickets and stepped around the corner to see this. My eighty-year-old mother’s tears made it a holy moment. 

The wilderness where I live is like the Taj Mahal. It’s so magical, so enchanting that when people here describe a campfire or a misty dawn, they often choke up. When I first moved to the north woods, this surprised me, but now I expect it. People’s eyes change. Their voices get husky. “It’s the place where I see God,” a big man tells me. “It’s my church.”

Ten years after we visited the Taj Mahal, Mom died. Dad had died just a few months before, and she went from diagnosis to death in about 20 days. And then, a few weeks later, my ex-husband’s body was found. For me even meditation and church couldn’t touch the edges of this grief. It seemed hundreds of miles across with no roads through. I couldn’t grasp where the pain started and stopped.

We decided to paddle out into the wilderness. There were long days of paddling on rivers and lakes with only the sky for company. The lakes led one into another, day after day, and we camped on rocky islands with only red squirrels and grey jays to talk to. It felt like the rivers, lakes and trees had no beginning or ending. The trees rose high around us and the water shone. 

The sky never faltered. As I paddled, the sky wrapped itself over me, over all of it. Finally I felt I could almost breathe. It’s not that the deaths were okay. It’s that awe and silence became common for me. Every day the massive presence of shining water and kind trees held me with a power so huge that even a grief as terrible as mine could soak into the earth like rain.

We live next to that wilderness in a house in the woods on a hill. At night, it’s mostly silent. The  lake across the road opens into a million acres of lakes, islands and forest without roads or people. Right now, it’s -26 F here, but every day in the summer, campers paddle by on their way into the silence.

Now, in February when it’s often -20 or -30 F at night, all we hear is one car spinning its wheels on the icy hill. Our neighborhood follows a one-lane dirt road through the woods, and only two other houses have fires going and lights on. Sometimes packs of coyotes wake us, yipping as they run by. Every now and then we hear wolves. But living here we see how wrong the fairy tales are. The wolves melt in and out of the woods like ghosts, avoiding people. To see one trotting down the road feels like a blessing because they vanish like a dream.

Sometimes we hear a logging truck on the highway a mile away. There is no traffic at all. Sirens are so rare that everyone stops talking and looks around because it can only be for a neighbor or for someone lost in the wilderness.

I moved here from a big university town. I needed to rest and leave behind the scandals and the competition. Mostly I needed to see if I could ever have a happy relationship. So I came here with a man to try it out.

Only a few people move here to stay. After all, there’s a massive filter. In the city, people come to get training, degrees and great jobs. The pay is so good that they ignore the traffic and cement. But Ely is a small town far from everything. No one moves here for ambition. People move here to get close to the wilderness—which pays little.

There are locals here who have stayed, but they stay for tradition and family. There used to be mines here that paid well, and there are still a few. But iron mining has changed, and without that security, families struggle.

People here know how to stay warm. They form book groups, go fishing together, ski on the lakes, practice yoga, play music, paint, quilt and write. They meet for breakfasts and dinners. The place is crowded with brilliant, gifted people. Among the people who came here from outside, I know a music therapist who sells canoes, a psychologist who preaches every few weeks and a veteran union organizer who can catch walleyes while he’s sleeping. Among the locals, I know a quiet stay-at-home mom who writes brilliant blogs, a crack mechanic who can resurrect a truck with 200,000 miles on it and a nurse who can sweetly change the mind of the most arrogant doctor.

People here have the time to be friends. My church is small but warm. When I walk in the door, people smile and call my name. The young Presbyterian pastor guides by listening and encouraging. In city churches, there are semi-pro musicians who sing and play. Here we have a few, but mostly in the choir we have the fun of just singing together, joining together. We can’t be ambitious, but we can sing together, week after week, for fun and beauty.

I came to the woods to become. I’ve learned how to trust and how to have fun. Of course I miss the city, especially the thrilling array of people, cultures and food. But maybe I’ve unlearned the worst of my city lessons. There is no race to be won.

The wilderness surrounds us. The silence holds us all.

Mom came here once just before she died, and she loved it. It was right after Dad’s death. She didn’t know yet how sick she was. Mom could always sense enchantment. She often lost herself in the moment. The Taj Mahal made her cry because it holds the same untouchable essence as a thunderstorm.

When she visited that summer, every day she lay for hours on our sun porch. When she came in, her eyes had changed. “Did you sleep, Mom?” I’d ask. She shrugged. “I don’t know. I couldn’t really tell if I was asleep or awake.” She shook her head in wonder. “The sky here…The trees….There’s just something about these woods.”  

by Jean Gendreau


When Christmas Hurts

I once made up my mind to get a divorce on Christmas morning. My alcoholic husband had not come home. It wasn’t the first time and Christmas wasn’t his holiday, but this was my Christmas morning. It wasn’t what I deserved and it wasn’t what my little girl deserved.

Another Christmas, my heart hurt so badly I could barely go outside. My new baby had died. I had his blanket, but he was gone. I didn’t want to live because it hurt too much. And Christmas—every image of Mary holding baby Jesus—made me cry again.

When your heart is broken, Christmas can really hurt. It’s easy to drown in false family images and media hype. It feels impossible to swim against the tsunami of “should’s” and “if only’s.”

Here’s how to survive a blue Christmas.

 1. See the hype for what it is.

The first step is to see the media hype for what it is: lies told by advertisers. Every advertisement wants to sell you an emotional image because that’s how the companies make money. They don’t know you personally and they don’t care about who you are. They know that manipulating people’s dreams increases sales. Images of happy families and romantic couples sell products but do not tell any truth about real families, real couples or real life.

So shut out the false images. Turn off your TV. If you watch old movies, remember that the movie producers needed to make money too. You can sing “White Christmas” all you want, but in the real world, snow is cold and needs to be shoveled.

2. Look to January.

Try taking your mind past the Christmas season. January is real so go there. Make concrete plans to start new things in January. If your heart is broken, try experimenting with online dating in January, just to see how it feels. Maybe you’ll learn something new. Is there a hobby you’ve always wanted to try? Sign up for a class in January, and do it now.

3. Be honest about family.

Family dysfunction is a third source of Christmas pain. Even if we only see our family once a year, Christmas really rubs our noses in the yuck. Not only do we get all the old patterns shoved in our face, but myths about so-called happy families make everybody crazy.

It’s a myth is that all families are happy or should be. What’s real is that families are happy sometimes, but all families—all families— have hidden, unhealthy, unhappy patterns.  Some have a few, and some have many, but all families have problems.

There’s only one way to move towards a happier family, and that is to openly work on what is not working. But media and our culture pretend that none of that exists. We think, “Wow, what’s wrong with me?” And the holidays, with all the “family togetherness” messages make us feel that we’re the only ones who aren’t happy.

One way to handle this is the temporary patch, the “I can do it for a few days” technique. If it makes your mother happy that you go to church with her, you can try doing it, telling yourself that it’s only one day a year. As you sit in church, you can plan amazing and creative January rewards for yourself.

But what if sitting with your belittling, criticizing father makes you feel hopeless and crazy? There are good people who do not go home for Christmas.

Just because it’s family does not mean it is good.  Just because someone says they love you does not mean they know how to love you in the best way. Some of the cruelest wounds from families happen when a family member says they are loving you when in fact they are manipulating, hurting, belittling or abusing.

Maybe you need to find other family. Not blood family, but people who support you and care for you. That’s what real family love is— not a false façade, not fake emotions.

And you need to talk to a therapist. Many family patterns destroy individuals with their cruelty.  A therapist’s job is to support you while you learn how to love yourself better.

Perfect families—which is such a part of Christmas hype—are a fantasy that hurts people. Even though most people want to hide family problems, denying them is exactly what causes emotional pain and illness.

Lasting joy comes when we see the unhealthy along with the healthy. I am  whole and so are you—but we are complete, complex packages with both good and challenging qualities. And that is okay.

Being happy and whole with your own family is possible. There are  truly happy families— But their joy is neither automatic nor easy. Taking the first steps towards real family happiness means seeing a sympathetic therapist and getting open-hearted, nonjudgemental support for the real you. Then you can scrape off the fake roles and discover the truth of love that might lie hidden underneath.  A  real family loves the authentic you, not the pretend you. That’s where real family love is.


4. Look for the light beyond despair.

But what if someone you love has died? There’s no quick fix. Turning off the TV and making new plans won’t touch that pain.

Think instead about love itself. The love that person had for you still exists because love itself never ends.  Yes, it’s easier when they have their arms around you in physical form. But real love is an unseen, eternal thing.

Love is forever, without beginning or ending. It’s stronger than bodies and bigger than time. Love stretches unchanged from before time began to beyond the horizon of eternity. You still have that love now, today. You always will. If you sit quietly and close your eyes, you can still feel the love.

Buddhists teach that after death the family or loved ones should send thoughts of encouragement and love to the dead person. The idea is that the one who has died can then feel that it’s okay to move on into another level of existence.

Try sitting quietly and sending your loved one a message of encouragement and gratitude. Even if your loved one died in pain, you can feel gratitude that the pain has ended and that your loved one is free and at peace.  It doesn’t bring them back, but it might help you see today in a new way.

If there is just no relief from your grief, then see a therapist. The death of a loved one can feel like trying to carry 1000 pounds. You don’t have to carry it alone; it’ll hurt you to keep trying to do it alone. Grief therapists exist to help you carry the weight.

Light in the Darkness

In the end, Christmas—like life—is about light in the darkness. I’ve been in despair. What I know for sure is that, if I get help and keep breathing, the year turns. It happens slowly, but the light comes back. Not in the way I wanted, maybe. After all, my marriage was really over. My dead baby was really gone. But eventually something changed because things always change. I had three more perfect, exquisite babies. Eventually I found a partner who cherished me as I really was.

And so sit with me now in the darkness. I know your despair. Life is sometimes cruel. Families hurt us and loved ones abandon us. And no matter how much we love someone, bodies stop working and people die. I know that darkness.  It seems that the light will never come back.

Here, take my hand.  Breathe with me. Let yourself open to the things you have never imagined. The darkness around us is complete and that is okay.

Darkness is the source of all birth. Darkness is the womb of hope. The year always turns. The sun always rises.  Death is a beginning, not an end.

Breathe slowly with me. Be gentle to yourself. Wrap yourself in kindness like grandma’s quilt and wait.

I know something that you don’t know. The love inside you is a seed. Your only job is to wait for the sun.

Christmas matters because it is the darkest time of the year. It is the longest night. Our job is to trust that change happens. Sit with me.  I promise you that the light will come again.

In Ely, Minnesota, we will have a “Longest Night” service for people who feel quiet, thoughtful or sad at Christmas. The service will be at the First Presbyterian Church at 6 pm on December 21st. This will be a gentle, quiet, heart-energy service of love and remembrance. Everyone is welcome, whether or not you are Christian.

Where the Miracles Are

Can I really trust God? I mean REALLY?

The thought runs through my head, but the words keep changing. “Well, that’s not realistic.”  “Nobody can forgive that.” “No point in trying that again.” “That’s how things always turn out.”

What if, instead, it’s the thoughts themselves that block blessing? What if our smart little busy brains are churning out all sorts of roadblocks to God’s deep will—which is kindness, love and joy?

I do not know what is the best outcome in anything. I never know what SHOULD happen. That’s it— That’s all my wisdom. But it’s a lot, because it means I am not second-guessing God. All my clever plans, all my hard-won life experience and cynicism and sorrow, all of it is just thought-trash. Junk. Messy little packages of worry and doubt from my busy brain.

Instead, I can smile, bless my thoughts and let them go. I can say, “That’s just a thought. I don’t know what was or what will be. I do not know what should be.”  

The great Christian scholar Rev. Richard Rohr says this:  

Whenever I think there’s a perfect pattern, further reading and study reveal an exception. Whenever I want to say “only” or “always,” someone or something proves me wrong. My scientist friends have come up with things like “principles of uncertainty” and dark holes. They’re willing to live inside imagined hypotheses and theories. But many religious folks insist on answers that are always true. We love closure, resolution and, clarity, while thinking that we are people of “faith”! How strange that the very word “faith” has come to mean its exact opposite.

People who have really met the Holy are always humble. It’s the people who don’t know who usually pretend that they do. People who’ve had any genuine spiritual experience always know they don’t know. They are utterly humbled before mystery. They are in awe before the abyss of it all, in wonder at eternity and depth, and a Love, which is incomprehensible to the mind. It is a litmus test for authentic God experience, and is — quite sadly — absent from much of our religious conversation today. My belief and comfort is in the depths of Mystery, which should be the very task of religion.  Click here for Rohr’s discussion.

I meditate because I want to relax into the profound reality that is NOT thought. Trusting God means transformation—Not a new version of my busy brain’s plans, not what everybody thinks would be best, given the situation.

God dances to music more exquisite than anything I can imagine. God offers joy so new that I gasp and weep. It’s an opening that rips through what I think is real. Light pours in and drenches us all.

The key is saying “I don’t know.” I have to surrender to God, let myself fall into God and trust the Divine Emptiness—because when I lift away all my little plans and thoughts, all existence opens to God’s possibilities.

And that’s the miracle.



Opening to God in a New Way

At first, Christian meditation sounds weird, especially if you’re used to church and scripture and sermons. But here are three teaching videos by two well-known, devout Christian teachers.

The first two videos are by James Finley, a meditation teacher and psychotherapist who studied under the great Christian mystic Thomas Merton.

In the first video, Finley talks about how we think we know what’s going on in our lives, but we really don’t. We have the plans our egos have made, what we think SHOULD be happening, but the Divine has other plans. Finley’s teaching about “don’t-know mind” is profound. He says that it is when we finally give up our ego’s plans that God can really reach out and heal us—even when life is very tough, as in serious illness or addiction.

Finley video on “Don’t-know mind”

In the second video, Finley explains what Christian Meditation is and how to do it. He discusses it all– how to sit, what to think, how to relax, and how it helps the individual open to God’s presence and healing. There’s a link to Finley’s book, Christian Meditation, in the Bookstore.

Finley teaching Christian Meditation

In the third video, Cynthia Bourgeault teaches the well-known Christian meditation technique Centering Prayer. Dr. Bourgeault’s teaching is easy and makes sense within the context of Christian faith. Links to her books are available in the Bookstore.

Bourgeault teaching Christian Meditation