Thursday, April 29, 2010

Hospice embraces the good of dying ...

Today I went through day 2 of hospice training with Allina Home & Community Services. Our training began with a reflection - a moment of silence to reflect and to ground ourselves. Then Fr. Jim Cassidy spoke to us about spiritual care and its role in hospice .... "hospice is about living up to the time of death ... hospice embraces the good of dying." He shared a reading from Henri Nouwen:

"When we honestly ask ourselves which persons in our lives mean the most to us we often find that it is those who instead of giving much advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a gentle and tender hand.
The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not-knowing, not-curing, not-healing, and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is the friend who cares." 

Needless to say these past couple days of training have brought up a lot for me. I am glad I am doing this. Fr. Jim shared a story with us ...

there was a young single mother with a 4 year old daughter who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She would not be around to celebrate her daughter's 5th birthday. She was a type A personality, always on the go and needing everything to be organized. She worked out with her sister (who had 3 other kids) that her 4 year old daughter would join their family. They began the transition while she was in hospice. She wanted desperately to leave a legacy for her 4 year old. In conversation with Fr. Jim they came up with an idea of having a birthday present for her daughter  .. where both the present and gift wrap were age appropriate and where there was card for her that she wrote for her daughter ... for her 5th birthday, her 6th birthday, her 7th ... and all the way till her 21st birthday. Fr. Jim shared how it was a hospice volunteer who worked with the young woman to plan the birthday presents and went shopping for the cards and gift-wrapped the presents.

The young woman passed on before her daughter reached the age of 5. Every year till she becomes 21 she will continue now to receive gifts from her mother, and her mother will continue to live in her heart.

Like this little girl, I too lost a parent, my Papa, when I was 4 years old. What a gift it would've been for me to receive a present from my Papa every year. What a gift this hospice volunteer gave to this little girl and to this young woman.

If there is one thing I continue to learn and hear from the hospice training I am going through .... hospice is about living fully up until the time to transition. What a wonderful service Allina is offering to families who have loved ones in hospice.

Tomorrow is our final day of training and "graduation" ... tomorrow I also get to bring my therapy dog Ahnung so everyone can meet her and she can join in the final celebration and have her photo taken for her own Allina volunteer badge. As I left the training today those around me said they were really looking forward to meeting Ahnung. I think Ahnung is pretty excited too ... i'll make sure she gets her beauty sleep tonight :) We will be volunteering as a pet partner team as we get teamed up with a hospice patient. I have to go through 3 days of hospice training ... my pet partner and wise companion Ahnung simply knows instinctively how to simply be there for those in their final days. I know I have so much more to learn from this journey I am embarking on ... for the many years I have been volunteering in animal rescue here in Minnesota, I have come to learn and to believe, with all my heart what is a piece of the St. Francis of Assisi prayer ... "for it is in giving that we receive ..."

Hospice training: Day 1

Yesterday was day one of hospice training with Allina. It's been a long process to get to this point with paperwork, interviews, and tests. But something has called me to want to volunteer to do hospice work ... and the final nudge that got me going was my therapy dog Ahnung. After I complete this training we will be able to work in hospice as a pet partner team.

There were 25 of us in the all day training session yesterday. The session began with a welcome and time for reflection. The lights in the room were dimmed and relaxing music played in the background. We were asked to leave our worries at the door and to center ourselves and to be present. When the music ended, we were thanked ... thanked for being here, thanked for being willing to step outside of our comfort zone, and thanked for being willing to give ... the trainer opened with a quote:

"There is a light in this world, a healing spirit more powerful than any darkness we may encounter. We sometimes lose sight of this force when there is suffering, too much pain. Then suddenly, the spirit will emerge through the lives of ordinary people who hear a call and answer in extraordinary way." 
- Mother Theresa

 Yesterday was an intense day. A hospice nurse spent two hours talking about what happens in the last 72 hours ... what to expect and the importance of leaving our own values, beliefs, judgments at the door. She shared ... "We die the way we live." Compassion. Patience. Presence. Peace. It's hard for me to even put into words what day one of hospice training was like ... I love how they honor and respect the wishes of the person who is dying. There were tears, lots of tears. There was also laughter. 

I am grateful to be going through hospice training. I am looking forward to day 2.

"The work of dying is theirs, not ours. Ours is to travel alongside, as companions on their journey."
- Penelope Wilcock 

Tuesday, April 20, 2010


Last week Mama arrived in San Francisco. My brother flew home to the Philippines to accompany her back to the U.S. She's been wanting to return after being gone for 4 years ... her health has prevented her from returning recently. Last fall I returned with hopes of bringing her back with me. Her doctor did not think she would be able to make the trip back. I returned to the States by myself.

She's back in the U.S. I am truly grateful for that. We had a little bit of a scare last week as she was admitted to the hospital in San Francisco for severe pain in her legs. What was supposed to be a short stay in San Francisco visiting my cousin and her family and to give her a little rest before continuing on to Florida with by brother turned into a 3-4 day stay at the hospital. They could not find the cause for her pain. What they did discover were some concerns with her heart. She has an extremely low heart rate ... in the 30s and 40s. It even dropped to down to 28! And on quite a few occasions when her heart rate was in the low 30s, it "flat lined" causing the nurses to come rushing into her room. For approximately 24 hours she was in such a deep sleep we couldn't wake her up at the hospital. I feared she had slipped into a coma. Prior to falling into a deep sleep she wasn't lucid ... nurses were telling us she was showing advanced stages of dementia. Fortunately when we awoke from her deep sleep, she was back to her usual self. Memory failing but nothing out of the ordinary for someone 83 years old. After she was released from the hospital I showed her the photo of our family ... it was our last family photo before Papa died in 1968. She smiled. Not just a small smile -- but a big smile.

My mom has shared with me how she didn't really want to go on after Papa died. She shared with me just a few days ago how Papa was "perfect". She shared stories about him and how kind, gentle, and patient he was. When she talks about him today there's a glow in her heart and a lightness in her spirit. She tells me, "Your Papa didn't want to die. He didn't want to leave us. He told me he was sorry and to please take care of the kids."

She has done just that and she has loved us with all of her heart....  thank you Mama for all you have done for us and all you have sacrificed for us. Thank you for always loving me, no matter what. Thank you for accepting me as I am. Thank you for always being there for us.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Turning to my dog to shift my perspective

Yesterday was a rough day for me on many levels ... It started off well then started spiraling down. I found my head spinning and finding myself getting super stressed for a lot of different reasons. This morning I stumbled across a blog posting of Ahnung's from June, 2009. It made me smile. I needed that. Puts perspective back for me and reminds me to lighten up :) Thanks Ahnung!

Her blog is titled "Enough is Enough" ... and yes, I stole this post from my dog's blog:

I've been living here now for almost 6 months. Now, don't get me wrong ... I appreciate that my Humans have taken me in and rescued me (via the path of Karen Good of Red Lake Rosie's Rescue, and then Pet Haven, from a horrible life of having to scavenge for food on my own. But enough is enough .... We get fed twice a day. My Human tells me we all get high quality food made from organic human-quality ingredients (editor's note: Ahnung is fed California Natural lamb and rice kibbles topped with organic yogurt and organic carrots; Mister is fed Nature's Variety raw diet because of food allergies we discovered this is the only food that works for him; Missy is fed Evo reduced fat kibbles - she is on a diet, not that she cares to be on one!; Henry is fed Nature's Variety raw rabbit).  

Well, YOU be the judge of what i'm protesting ... Take a look at the photo at the top. There's a little bowl and a big bowl ... Okay ... now take a look at the photo of Mister with his cute red bandana (yes, I admit, he's cute!). And then take a look ... no, take a close look at me with my easter bunny ears. You see my expression? .... just as i'm protesting those silly bunny ears, I'm protesting the lack of equality when it comes to food.

I digress ... back to my point: 

Little bowl vs. Big Bowl
Skinny Dog (Mister) vs. Big Dog (Ahnung ... that's me!)

Now, who do you think gets to eat out of the little bowl? And who do you think gets to eat out of the big bowl?? Have I made my point yet? And if I haven't, let me tell you what pushed me over the edge yesterday. My Humans bought this contraption they call a "grill" ... it takes up space where I sleep on my patio, but I was even willing to be okay with that, until yesterday! Take a look again at what I get to eat, and now take a look at what my Humans get to eat!  
Please don't think i'm not grateful, but let's be real now .... if you were given the option of little bowl, big bowl, or marinated grilled veggies (and my one Human even had shrimp on a few of the skewers) .... what would you choose?? Me ... i'm deprived of both quality AND quantity! Today, I am officially submitting a complaint to the powers at large ... join me in my protest!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Simplicity: How would you live then?

Last night I started reading the book "How Philosophy Can Save Your Life: 10 Ideas that Matter Most" by Marietta McCarty. It was one of several books i purchased when my partner and I were up north in Nisswa, Minnesota. What caught my attention were sentences from the opening few pages:

"What is the good life? ... so many of us are longing for richer, more vibrant emotional and mental lives. We're tired of running in circles, flitting from one barely finished task to another in the pursuit of things that likely don't matter all that much. Sadly, while we're busy spinning, curiosity and awe are cast aside. All too often, we do not take the time to think and therefore have little idea what it is that we need for the good life ... Ideas are the building blocks of our lives - they help us find our way and know what really matters."

There was one sentence in particular that resonated, like a note on a piano ... i digress, for just a moment ... My first year in college began with aspirations of becoming a concert pianist. I had received a full music scholarship to study piano under Ruth Slenczynska, a renowned concert-pianist. She was woman of tiny physical stature but a presence and aura of a magnificent mountain. I practiced piano 8-10 hours a day, seven days a week. Ruth demanded excellence and she asked us to reach deep into our soul, "these aren't just notes. These aren't black dots on paper. You must feel the notes. You must feel the music." She taught me, in essence, to be the note. I wanted to play Beethoven because there were many more notes and it sounded more majestic and powerful. Instead, she challenged me to master a Bach fugue  ... "you think it's simple because there are fewer notes? No. It's much more difficult. Every note counts. Every voice counts." Even then, as a youngster entering college, I was being taught the importance of simplicity.

I return to the sentence in the book that resonated to me like a single note on  piano .. a note that took on a life of its own through tone and some unspoken interpretation by the artist ... "Simplicity is living close to the marrow of life."

There's a poem by Mary Oliver I love - it reminds me of simplicity and of returning to my essence.

How Would You Live Then?

What if a hundred rose-breasted grosbeaks
blew in circles around your head?  What if
the mockingbird came into the house with you and
became your advisor?  What if
the bees filled your walls with honey and all
you needed to do was ask them and they would fill
the bowl?  What if the brook slid downhill just
past your bedroom window so you could listen
to its slow prayers as you fell asleep?  What if
the stars began to shout their names, or to run
this way and that way above the clouds?  What if
you painted a picture of a tree, and the leaves
began to rustle, and a bird cheerful sang
from its painted branches?  What if you suddenly saw
that the silver of water was brighter than the silver
of money?  What if you finally saw
that the sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day
and every day -- who knows  how, but they do it -- were
more precious, more meaningful than gold?

I encourage you to read Mary Oliver's poem several times ... slowly. As you do, the words will come to life and they will seep into your pores. 

So, what would we do if we finally saw that sunflowers, turning toward the sun all day and every day --- who knows how, but they do it -- were more precious, more meaningful than gold?
p.s. Check out a great article by Ruth Slenczynska here.  She ends with "Advice to fill a musical lifetime ... 'a song is not a song until YOU sing it' [from Rodgers and Hammerstein]. Sing your heart into your music. You loved this composition a lot to give it life; now it is your's to love always, to share, to enjoy ...."

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Is there such a thing as too many choices?

I was inspired by a Speaking of Faith blog posting today on Finding Freedom within Chosen Constraints. The beautiful painting on the left is by artist Ivette Guzman-Zavala who was inspired by a Sylvia Plath novel, The Bell Jar, which was published in the early 1960s. From the Speaking of Faith blog:

... the book's bright college-aged protagonist envisions her future life choices - motherhood, career, travel - as plump figs on a tree. She can't choose among these inviting figs and so she's paralyzed:

"I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."

I have been a vegetarian now for over two decades. My reasons for being a vegetarian stemmed from health reasons ... they have since grown beyond that to a multitude of reasons of which a driving force is to live my life in harmony with my values and beliefs. I smiled as I read the Speaking of Faith blog ... I can't count the number of times I have sat in restaurants with friends or colleagues. They are presented with a plethora of menu options and choices. The struggle to choose ONE item from so many options. I've had friends asked, "do you know what you're getting? I can't decide!" My answer is often "yes." I smile. "It's a lot easier for me to decide as I only have a couple options to choose from." Then when it comes to drinks, I also don't have any choices. As a recovering alcoholic I no longer drink beer or wine or kahlua (which used to be my favorite!). I also gave up coffee, soda/pop and all sweet drinks. I have come to enjoy plain, simple, refreshing room temperature water.

We all want to have the freedom to make our own choice. We walk into a grocery story and the shelves are stacked with so many choices, brands, flavors .... how many sizes, flavors, options can we have? Sweetened, unsweetened, low-fat, high grain, low sodium, lactose free ... or when you stop at a Starbucks ... I remember the days when I would frequent a Starbucks every day ... "i'd like a grande vanilla soy steamer, no foam, extra hot." Some days i'd add "sugar-free".

For health and for personal reasons I have "given up a lot" ... or that's the perception of some friends and colleagues. I have a very restricted diet - vegetarian, no dairy, no refined sugars, coffee, alcohol. I don't smoke, I don't take any drugs (even aspirins or tylenol) ... the only medicine I take is my pancreatic enzymes (and my doctor tells me those aren't drugs!! :) I stay away from processed foods as much as possible and no fried foods.

Strangely, I feel like my life is more fulfilling than I could ever imagine. I like the simplicity of my life and that I don't need much or I don't want much. I love that I can walk into a grocery story and be out of there in 10 minutes and not be tempted by all the marketing gimmicks; I love that I have only a few choices from menus at restaurants; I guess I have created my life so that my choices are limited. I think there is still more I can do to bring my life to even more simplicity and to the bare essentials.

For now .. I guess i'm grateful for limited choices.  I close, again, with the line from Sylvia Plath's book that inspired the paintings by Ivette Guzman-Zavala.

"I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet."

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Buddha and God

This photo and painting was shared by artist Gregg Chadwick. I was fortunate enough to learn about this photo because I recently joined the Buddha fan page on facebook. I joined their fan page after I learned of the PBS special that will air tomorrow night, Wednesday, April 7th - The Buddha: A Film by David Grubin. The documentary will be narrated by Richard Gere and will tell the life of Buddha. Insights will be shared by the Dalai Lama. And there will be conversation on meditation, the history of Buddhism, and how to incorporate the Buddhist's teaching of compassion and mindfulness into daily life.

You can learn more about it by visiting the PBS website.

Something about this photo captured me. Not only is the oil painting in the background absolutely mesmerizing ... something about the peaceful face of Buddha, the little girl in front of the painting ... my roots, my past, my innocence. I guess the little girl reminds me of me. It reminds me of a photo i cherish ... it's a photo of me when I was 3 years old, when my Papa was still alive and healthy, and when he held me in his arms. The little girl in me wants to believe what my mom has told me after he died when I was four: "Your Papa is up in heaven and he's on the right hand side of God." As an adult, I guess it doesn't matter to me whether he's on the right hand side or the left hand side ... just that he's with God and that he's up there, somewhere, in the heavens watching over me. It's interesting how my spirit yearns for both the teachings of Christianity and the teachings of Buddhism. Maybe christianity stretches my spirit up to the heavens, and Buddhism grounds me.

Buddha means "awakened".

God is defined by Merriam Webster as "the supreme or ultimate reality ... the Being perfect in power, wisdom, and goodness who is worshipped as creator and ruler of the universe."

My mind craves scientific data and facts. My spirit soars in mystery, faith and questions.

The age old question of Does God exist will continue ... I ask myself, "How can you believe in something you can't touch or feel?" My answer: "I don't know. I guess it's all I had as a child when darkness surrounded me. It was my mind, my imagination and my belief in something bigger that kept me alive."

I guess i'm grateful I don't have to see something to believe in something. I remind myself every morning when I meditate and focus on my breathing ... I can't see or even touch air ... yet, I know that it's there because I can breathe.

I would notice the absence of air. In the same way, I would notice the absence of God, and I would notice the absence of Buddha.

Namaste.... hope you'll join me tomorrow night in watching The Buddha on PBS.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


Today, many are celebrating Easter. For Christians, it's the celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ 3 days after his death. I was raised in a Buddhist country, Thailand, by a very devout Catholic mother. I remember going to church, religiously, every Sunday - Holy Redeemer Church in Bangkok, Thailand. I remember Easter week ... I remember having to go to church on Thursday, and Friday, and Saturday and then again on Sunday. As a kid, I don't think I really understood what all this was about or why we had to go to church so much. I remember Palm Sunday, the easter eggs, having to get dressed up (and how I hated that!), the chocolate -- yes, even in Thailand on the other side of our globe, we too celebrated with chocolate! So much of my going to church was because I was supposed to. So much of my adult life has been trying to make sense of who I am, what I believe, and how faith, spirituality and even organized religion fit, or don't fit, in my life. At the young age of 9 I was sexually molested by a deacon of the Catholic church and a close family friend. With all the news surrounding the sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic church, I understand the pain of carrying a secret. It took me almost 36 years to finally, completely free myself of that secret, that cross. Yet, i still found comfort, silently, in my belief that there is a God. I also believed (and still do) in Jesus Christ. I also believe in Buddha. I also believe that God takes many forms. I now also have learned to separate the human flaws of priests and deacons who wear the robe and in particular the one deacon who ripped me of my innocence while at the same time taught me how to pray the rosary. How do I as an adult come to terms with such conflicting messages, with God, with Jesus, with a Higher Power/Being, with pain and secrets ...  so much of what I was taught as a child is that I can only have this sacred relationship if I go to church, and if I believe in the scriptures or the bible ... I can't say I've ever read the bible. I can't say I believe in all that is written in the verses. But I do believe in God. I do believe God is within each and every one of us. Call me crazy, but yes, I do believe in miracles.

I don't celebrate Easter anymore, at least not the way many do. Not because I don't believe in the resurrection of Christ. Truth is, I went through the motions of "celebrating" Easter for many, many years as a child. It didn't carry as much meaning as it does for me this Easter morning - this morning I reflect on what Christ/God means to me .... silently, quietly at our dining room table. I pray every morning. I meditate every morning. I write every morning. And every morning, and every night, I thank God for the gift of another day.

The heaviest cross I have had to carry is the secret of my sexual abuse. I have set myself free from that secret. This is my first Easter where I no longer carry that secret in my heart. Resurrection means "to rise from the dead". In many ways, I feel like I am being re-born. This is a new year. And as the sun emerges over the horizon, I welcome with open arms all that is yet to be.

Easter for me is about being born again. It's about new beginnings. No easter eggs or chocolate bunnies for me this year. Instead, my life. As my dog Ahnung would say to me "mom ... that's a pretty good trade..... now where's my treat??"

Friday, April 2, 2010

Faith, the moon, mandalas and more ...

The other night over a thin crust veggie pizza at Rafferty's in Nisswa, Minnesota my partner began sharing facts about loons. I was fascinated by all she shared. Earlier that day she had immersed herself in a book on loons she had purchased at the local bookstore. And the day before, she found a new love ... mandalas. What emerged from that dinner conversation was a project, a game, a way to connect, a way to make sense of the incredible world around us - both complex and simple - and way to find meaning of our emotions, our life and our universe. What emerged was a joint new adVenture ... a commitment by both of us to write in a new blog: Kaleidoscope Spirits: Two spirits living life like a kaleidoscope. Light, pebbles, reflection. Making sense of arbitrary life patterns.

My partner has also begun  her own project: A mandala a day. Her excitement for mandalas has triggered a curiosity in me to learn more as well. I stumbled across an incredible artist Sally Horne and her website Moonstone Mandala. I found the image above from her website. She shares more about it on her website and says her artwork was inspired by a David Whyte poem: 


I want to write about faith
about the way the moon rises
over cold snow, night after night,

faithful even as it fades from fullness,
slowly becoming that last and impossible
slither of light before the final darkness.

But I have no faith myself
I refuse it the smallest entry.

Let this then, my small poem,
like a new moon, slender and barely open,
be the first prayer that opens me to faith.

This past week I witnessed the most beautiful full moon, and the very next morning the most breathtaking sunrise. I often wonder why I find myself so intrigued by so many things ... a natural curiosity to want to know more. I look up into the skies ... mind boggling to know that a star I am looking at may no longer even exist, because of the distance it has traveled for light and its image to reach my eyes. I look down on the ground and look at a seed ... mind boggling to know that a tiny seed will grow into a majestic tree or a flower ... and then I think about our bodies, our human bodies ... amazing isn't it to know that our bodies know how to heal themselves, how to fight off disease and foreign substances, how scabs form when we cut ourselves.  And tonight i listened to the podcast of Asteroids, Stars and the Love of God on Speaking of Faith. I ponder faith, my relationship to God, the intersection, if any, between science and religion/faith. 

and then I look around me ... 3 beautiful big black dogs and a tuxedo kitty, fast asleep. Ahnung snoring, Mister twitching in his sleep (he must be chasing bunnies!), Missy curled up as close to me as possible, and Henry burrowed in a blanket on the leather chair. Life really is simple. We often try to complicate matters ... maybe even think too much. My partner is using the mandala making process as a way to put the chaos of her mind and/or her life into order, symmetry. For me, I am reminded to how to simply be by our dogs ... and calm and peace come to me in my early mornings with meditation and writing. 

Faith, the moon, mandalas, dogs, cats, trees, God ..... there's a thread that binds us all together, in this life time and in whatever comes after this.