Miz Barker, the dancer

Miz Barker, the dancer

Perhaps you’ve seen it. How can you not love it?

Personally, I loved it the minute Miss Barker told of always having her name misspelled.

“They always left out the ‘r’,” she said. As a Haymes (‘m’ not ‘n’) I can relate. But i loved this video for another reason.

More than a frail old lady

Unless we have known them for a very long time, we tend to judge people by the selves they put before us. Young or old or in-between. Accomplished or struggling. Weighed down by jobs or scattered by families.

We see the one hundred-year-old-and-some-change old woman in the bed. We don’t realize that we are also looking at a Harlem dancer who could pull off quite a shimmy and shake. Only as we listen do we see the little girl who ran away from bath time to dance, naked as a jaybird by the music of a neighborhood band, concerned only when the music stopped playing. And in our listening, she is no long the woman in room 105 but is a real live, unique person.

Knowing me. And you.

Even if our dancing days are long behind us, we never lose the people whom we have been. Inside us is still the little boy who played baseball until the dark chased him inside or the little girl who climbed trees with fierce abandon. Sometimes that’s a painful thing, like when a boss calls us on the carpet and suddenly we’re five years old inside, quaking before a critical parent whose love and approval could be never quite earned. Sometimes it’s a wonderful thing, like when we start building sandcastles with the kids and realize we are kids as well.

For joy or for struggle, we are inside all of the ages we’ve ever been.

I am. So are you. So are they.

Hearing their stories transforms them from a flat, two dimensional portrait to a being with all the shades of life. I may disagree with you and you with me, but if we know something of the stories that have shaped us we may understand each other.

The problem is, we don’t spend an awful lot of time listening to each other. Mostly we talk at each other. Even in churches, which ought to know better, there’s precious little time for us to share our stories with each other.

She was an old woman on my mom’s Meals on Wheels route. When my mom learned that she was going to be alone on Christmas Day she insisted that the woman join us. She was an old woman, but over the course of our lunch I also learned that she was a little girl who awoke one Christmas morning to find a pony tied to her bedpost.

We are all of the ages we ever have been and we are all of the stories we ever have lived. There is a richness inside all of us.

Sometimes we just need to take the time to see the dance.


sexual abuseHave you ordered your copy yet?

Here’s what pastoral therapist James Stillwell (Frankfurt, KY) had to say:

This book could well be required reading for therapists, even for those not consciously dealing with a victim of childhood sexual abuse. This is because there is a very good chance that if you see a lot of clients, you probably are dealing with some who are not even conscious of the source of their pain. Walking through Peggy’s journey has given me the confidence of “being there” which enables me to sit with empathy and compassion to others…

What makes Peggy’s book so incredibly readable is her sense of humor. Such a tough subject requires it. Her humor carries the book, even as it carries us all as we travel through this world. The mindset that sees the ironies of life. In reading Peggy’s book, you’ll smile and laugh with her almost as often as you have those intense moments of compassion for pain.

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Order now from Amazon

The grace of old clothes

The grace of old clothes

Recently I was reading about a new company that rents clothes online. You order it, wear it as long as you like and then return it. Now  I can see the value if you’ve got a fancy ball to go to (or in the immortal words of Archie Campbell’s Rindercella, “a bancy fall”) and you’re not the kind who ordinarily does such things. Why spend hundreds of dollars on a dress to be worn once?

But the owner was positioning the company for ordinary clothes as well. She used the example of a winter coat. “Don’t we just rent that?” she said. After all, we wear it for six months and then put it back in the back of the closet. (For those of us in the south those numbers are adjusted accordingly.)

I thought about my camel colored pea coat, a bargain I found several years ago, on sale and inexplicably in my petite size (even the sleeves fit – a rarity for me.) When I slip it on the soft wool feels like a hug. It’s familiar. We’ve bonded through the miles we’ve traveled together on the barely-cool-enough-for-it days of fall to the bundled up days of winter.

I thought about other clothes in my closet… the clothes that  I can date because my mother gave them to me and it’s been more than a few years since she cruised a Talbot’s store. The clothes that felt just right form the very first day and that are a part of my weekly rotation. The clothes that are a cause for celebration when I can fit into them and wear them.

I think about the clothes now worn with frayed edges and bald spots. Some are passed along to the yard work/painting drawer. And some are put out of their misery – or at least put out in the trash, too far gone for Goodwill.

Perhaps such musings are nothing more than the first world nostalgia of someone entitled enough to have more than a few outfits in my closet, who has the luxury of switching from summer to winter closets. But it made me think of deeper things.

It’s tempting to be dazzled by what’s shiny and new. It’s what this clothing rental business is counting on. After all, aren’t you getting the new iPhone? But there’s something to be said for the connections that come through the years. I enjoy making new friends, but as the Girl Scout song says, not at the expense of the old.

Old clothes. Old pets. Old friends. They may be a bit worn but what a treasure it is to share the miles with them.

Boomers, Suicides and Church

Several news organizations have had recent stories about the sharply increasing number of suicides among baby boomers. In this story by the Washington Post a number of factors are examined: the relative ease of our childhoods, the emphasis on youth that has led to an inability to accept aging, despair about a world that didn’t turn out like Woodstock envisioned.

I have some of my own theories which the Post didn’t address. As I work with people who are struggling, a common theme that I hear is a lack of meaning and a lack of community. People feel isolated and lacking in connection with anyone. They may have hundred of Facebook friends but few middle of the night friends – people you can call on at any time when your husband has left or your mother has died or the lab report wasn’t good.

Some of the clients  I see at midlife are struggling with depression and/or anxiety. A large factor in their struggle is a lack of a sense of meaning. They don’t feel connected to anything bigger than going to work and paying the mortgage and maybe getting a round of golf in on Saturday. They may not know just how to articulate it but they know they need something more, something bigger than just them. They need to be challenged to give something more of themselves than just a check to the United Way.

Community and meaning are what helps us weather those storms of life. They give us a way to ask the hard questions when life gets hard and a context for working out answers that are at least bearable.

This is not just psychological theory on my part. I’m working my way out of a challenging four year period in which I suffered a significant accident and had to navigate (thankfully) a temporary disability as a single person, moved my parents into a retirement home, lost both parents (one suddenly and unexpectedly and one by inches), grieved the death of several friends (both unexpected and anticipated), lost both cats, cleaned out our family home of fifty years, found a new office and moved… and tried to keep figuring out how to keep functioning as a business owner in the midst of it.

I cannot imagine how I would have made it through had it not been for faith and community. Faith gave me a place to land and to learn and to vent when it was all too much. Faith gave me the perspective that even in the worst of grief and suffering, this was not the whole story and there was yet light and grace being held for me. Faith allowed me the grace of being less than perfect, even on the days when I felt perfectly useless.

My faith community stepped in to do the things  I could not, like fix dinner and mow my grass and change a light bulb. To be sure, neighbors and other friends helped but I knew I could depend on that community.

If you think this is an evangelistic post directed to all of those people out there, then you’re wrong. This is directed at the church. We have what people are dying to have but too often we’ve put our energy into debating and arguing about who qualifies for admission and who gets the best seats of power and who should be allowed to minister in Christ’s name. If you’re drowning, I don’t think you really care if the person who throws out the life ring is man or woman, gay or straight.

People are dying because they can’t see any meaning that gives meaning and all they hear from us is how upset we are because they changed the doxology. People are dying but what moves us to take action is our outrage at the service going past noon on Sunday. People are dying and God knows they aren’t going to come through our doors because we’ve ceded the Jesus talk to fundamentalists so all these people know of Christians are the very things we don’t like either.

As people of faith we have such a feast. If the starving people outside find their way to us and come through our doors, we’ll welcome them (well, most of them.) But God forbid we take this feast to the world.

I don’t have the answers as to how this is done. But boy, I’d rather us spend our time on that question than debating whether or not a woman like me could actually be a minister (I went to seminary 30 years ago – can we just move on already?) or what color the carpet should be or who makes the coffee on Sunday mornings. People are dying while we debate the questions they’re not asking.

Anne Lamott tells the story of going dress shopping with her best friend, Pammy. Pammy was undergoing treatment for cancer, the disease that would later kill her. Lamott describes her friend sitting in her wheelchair, “her Queen Mum” wig on her head. Anne comes out in a dress that’s quite different from her usual style, which, as she says, is a bit like John Goodman. Shyly and self-conciously she asks if the dress makes her look fat.

“Annie?” her friend replies. “I don’t think you’ve got time for that.”*

As a church, I’m not sure we have time for much of what we spend time on.

 

*I tell this story from memory. I am fairly certain that it is from her book, Operating Instructions.

 

Facing Change

I recently came across this very good article in Huffington Post on mindfulness. I’ve written before about what a valuable tool just paying attention is, how increasing our awareness helps us increase our capacity to deal effectively with the ups and downs of our lives.

“Don’t look for mindfulness to cure your anxiety, depression or addiction, look at it more as a new way of relating to life, a way of coming home, nurturing a healthier heart and opening up to the experience of being alive.”

More than once when a client comes into my office they are looking for a cure. After all, that’s what they seek from their medical doctors. They want to make the sore throat go away or the painful knee to stop hurting. I have to break the news to them that what our work is about is not so much curing them.

I can’t make it so that they will never be sad again. I can help them deal with and perhaps even transform sadnesses that they’ve carried for far too long. I can help them identify the feelings that really don’t belong to them, that are based on faulty beliefs or someone else’s pain inflicted upon them. And I can give them the tools to deal with sadness that comes  in the future.

But things like sadness, grief and even anxiety are part and parcel of our humanity. They are acknowledgements of the inevitable changes of life, the ebb and flow that is as relentless as the tides.

I was at the beach with my five-year old great-nephew. He decided that he didn’t like the tide coming in. “Make it stop, Aunt Peggy,” he said. I  told him that I didn’t have the power to do that. It’s  just what the ocean did.

And change is just what life brings to us. Some changes are better than other, more joyful than others. But mindfulness is one way that we can navigate with some grace the changes that come and the feelings that they bring.

Listening to a Life: Death

If you came to my house (and please do not consider this an invitation), among my many books you’d find an entire shelf or more of biographies and memoirs. I love reading about other people’s lives. As  I read about how they faced their challenges and followed their dreams I learn lessons for my own life.

So I want to focus a couple of blog posts on learning from one particular life.

Joe Haymes

My father, Joe Haymes, died earlier this month at age 87. He was, by all accounts (and not just mine) an extraordinary man. I learned a lot from him over the years, but I think he still has things to teach us.

So I start with the ending.

My father had Pulmonary Fibrosis, a progressive lung disease in which supple lungs gradually grow hard and unable to take in oxygen, probably the result of nearly 30 years of smoking, a habit he began in the war. At the end, he also suffered from dementia. The dementia really began after my mother’s death and  I am convinced that after a lifetime together, his mind could not accept being in a world where she was not.

In January he began going downhill sharply. He also started to tell us he was dying.

Lesson # 1 – Listen to what dying people tell you. When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross (EKR) began her work, part of what was ground-breaking (and scandalous at the time) was that she listened to people talk about dying. Before that dying patients were shuffled off into far corners of the hospital where they could be safely ignored.

When my father began saying, “I’m dying,” some of his caregivers became upset and told him not to talk like that. Because of my work and my training, I knew that it was important to pay attention and to begin preparing for the final stages. He was telling us what was coming.

Lesson #2 – Listen for symbolic language. After my father had been moved into the nursing care unit, he asked me one night, “Do I need to pack for my journey?” It took me a few seconds to realize what he was asking, and  I reassured him that no, he had everything he needed. He smiled and relaxed.

EKR used to tell stories of families who tried to correct patients who told them that they were going home the next day. The families didn’t want the patients to be disappointed when they were unable to leave the hospital. But, of course, in a deeper sense going home is exactly what they did.

Lesson #3 – Sometimes dying is a lot like birthing. Over the last weeks as I sat by my father’s bedside, I realized I felt a lot like a midwife. Now I’ve never actually been there when someone was giving birth (well, there was that one New Year’s eve party that wound up moving into the maternity waiting room, but I digress.) Even so,  it seemed so similar to me.

We were waiting for it to be time, a time no one could predict or control. I couldn’t make it happen or not happen. All I could was sit and tend to those elementary needs – a sip of water, rubbing his back, sharing a chocolate chip cookie, reassuring him. I felt like a midwife.

Dying seemed a lot like birthing, and as a Christian, that is exactly true. We believe that death is not an ending but a transition. There are times when our faith demands of us a dying as a gateway to a birthing – and in the end our bodies get in on the action as well.

Lesson #4 – Sometimes death is a friend. After being moved to nursing care, my father developed pneumonia. “I’ll call the doctor about prescribing antibiotics,” the nurse said. “No,” I stopped her. “If you cure this, he is still dying of lung disease.” Actually, pneumonia was known as the old person’s friend because when they were ill and frail with no hope of better, it came in and ended their suffering.

There is a temptation to do a medical intervention just because we can. We feel as if we are being mean or heartless or abandoning them if we do not do everything that can possibly be done (which these days is a lot.)

But we were not made to live forever. At least for now, all of us will come face to face with that point at which our bodies have gone as far as they can go. Even so, with modern medicine, we can be kept here beyond that point. Beyond the point of life having any meaning or value, the point at which there is only pain and discomfort. There comes a time when the most loving thing we can do is to let someone die as their body needs to die.

Lesson #4 – Hospice is wonderful. While Hospice had been involved in my dad’s care for several months, for the last week of his life he had the gift of being at the Kate B. Reynolds Hospice home in Winston-Salem. When he first arrived, the doctor announced that they were taking him off all medicine except what was needed to keep him comfortable. (I mean, really – did we care if he had high cholesterol at that point?)

They took it as their mission to make him comfortable and did not rest until they had the right combination of medication that allowed him to be peaceful. They also took it as their mission to care for me and other family members who were present.

I’ve occasionally heard older folks say they didn’t want to go to hospice because “my friend was there and they wouldn’t even give her food and water and that’s just cruel.” They took my dad off food and water for the last couple of days as well but not because they were cruel. It was because they understood that one of the ways that the body prepares for the end of life is to start disengaging from life. The patient no longer wants food or water. They are moving beyond those things. The patient isn’t suffering hunger. They no longer need those appetites.

As  I see it, the purpose of hospice is to create a place where a person may be  gently held as they make this last and maybe most sacred journey, a place where the body is allowed the grace of doing what it needs to do with the only intervention being for comfort. It is also a place where loved ones are held, sometimes literally as well as metaphorically. Families are given all of the support they need so that they can focus on the holy task of supporting their loved one.

For me, it was a place where I could relax and just be present with my father. And that is a priceless gift.

 

Next time we’ll have a little lighter look as we learn from a childhood in which adventures were had.

Happy on Myself

Amidst the vast wasteland that is internet videos, every often I come across a true gem. This is one of those videos.

A little boy has just learned how to ride a bike, and he is more than enthusiastic about it. He is inspirational.

Here’s the video: I feel happy on myself 

For us psychologically oriented folks, we’d say that he was expressing a sense of mastery. He achieved something he’d never been able to achieve before. And the feeling of that achievement, in his words, was “feeling happy on myself.” That may be the best feeling description I’ve ever heard.

It’s one we adults tend to feel less and less. As we move through adulthood, the list of things we’ve mastered grows longer and longer. Conversely, the incentive for us to try new (and unmastered) things grows smaller and smaller. We might not do it well the first attempt. Why not stick with those things we can do well (or at least adequately)? Why risk the foolishness of failure? Besides, we might break something.

Learning something new can also take time. Artists and craftsmen know the value of repetition and practice. You don’t just read a book on making pottery. You learn about it and then you learn by doing it. You get your hands dirty. You make terrible, misshapen pots. and you keep working at it. And on that day when you throw a pot that comes out right… well, you feel happy on yourself.

I think that people age in one of two ways. Some people grow dry and brittle, like leather that’s been left out and never nourished. Their lives are brittle with fear and regrets and smallness. Other people have a glow about them, like the soft beauty of leather that’s been nourished over and over again, that’s worn but is worn smooth and beautiful.

The willingness to learn new things and risk new things is, I think, part of the nourishment of our lives. It helps keep us alive while we are yet living. It helps our lives to keep growing and keep shining.

So, what new thing are you going to learn or try or even allow yourself to think? If you need inspiration, here are some words from a very young but very wise man:

Everybody ! 

 I know you can believe in yourself. If you believe in yourself, you will know how to ride a bike.  If you don’t you just keep practicing. You will get the hang of it, I know it. If you keep practicing you will know it and you will keep getting better and better at it….You can do it.

Thumbs up everybody! 

Rock and roll!

Nothing more than feelings

Through the graces of Twitter,  I recently read this fine article for caregivers by Wendy Lustbader in the Huffington Post. I particularly liked this quote:

You can’t take away someone’s loneliness. No matter how many times caregivers phone, visit, or take their loved one on outings, there will always be the time in-between contacts for the person to feel the sadness of separation from lifelong friends and the loss of once cherished activities. These are consequences of frailty or illness that caregivers cannot rectify. It helps to recognize the unavoidable fact that the hours of companionship they provide for their relative go quickly and the empty hours still pass slowly.

It’s a challenge for caregivers but not just caregivers. Many people struggle with wanting to take away another person’s pain, grief or struggle. After all, we love them. We don’t want them to feel badly. We want them to have lives of joy, no matter what their age and physical condition.

One of the things that I learned in working with the former staff of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross is that we cannot take another person’s grief from them. We cannot protect someone from their feelings. Trying to do so may not be only fruitless but also disrespectful. We all have a right to our own feelings. The grief that comes with the many losses of aging and declining health is hard won. It recognizes the value of the gifts the person enjoyed, whether it was a loving life partner, a treasured home, the ability to do a favorite hobby or even to talk a walk on a nice day. To allow the grief that comes is a way of acknowledging those losses.

Our task isn’t to keep someone from grieving; it is to provide a safe space in which they can grieve. It is to support them. It is to help them with any concrete tasks of life with which we can help. And, if necessary, it’s to help them find ways and tools for expressing that grief.

Years ago pastor Charles Poole wrote a book entitled, “Hard Things Are Hard.” Indeed they are.

When a friend or loved one is going through a hard time, we do them no service to try to pretend as if we could make it be easy.  They don’t need us to take away their feelings. They need us to be able to speak truthfully about those hard things. And then to be present with them in the best way we know how.

If you are looking for a safe place in which to grieve whatever losses you’ve had, I invite you to the Life,Loss and Healing workshop in Durham, NC (March 23-25, 2012.) The workshop gives people a chance to acknowledge many different kinds of losses, to express their own feelings and to find tools for healing. If you’re interested, contact Nancy Mullins at lifelosshealing@nethere.com.