“The purpose of human life is to serve, and to show compassion and the will to help others.” ~ Albert Schweitzer
“There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside of you…” ~ Maya Angelou
“Up from a past that’s rooted in pain,
I rise.” ~ Maya Angelou
A few months after my Mom died, I attended a six-week grief support group offered by a local hospice organization. The group was a safe and helpful way to explore my feelings of loss in the company of others who received and respected my process. One woman in the group said that on her husband’s birthday she and her children took helium balloons to the cemetery and released them as they sang happy birthday. What an outstanding idea!
I began this ritual immediately.
On Mother’s Day, on Mom’s birthday, on the anniversary of the day she died, I buy a single balloon displaying an appropriate message for the occasion and attach a small card with my thoughts about this day and my wishes for Mom on her journey.
I take the balloon and card to the cemetery, release the balloon, and watch it rise and float on the air. The balloon always floats South, it seems, down the Mississippi River; and I solemnly watch until it’s gone from my sight. I’m careful not to blink or to glance away at anything else even for a moment, so as to prolong my sensory connection to the balloon and its message for Mom.
I imagine it will reach her.
“We seekers are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty.” ~ unknown author
"To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” ~ Mary Oliver
Once my dependence on substances to mask my painful reality began to loosen its grip on my soul, then the dreams began. Intrusive thoughts and long repressed memories of childhood sexual abuse by my father flooded my being. I collapsed under the heaviness. This was the truth my addictions were protecting me from knowing. My addictive behaviors were not actually what needed healing. In many ways, they had served me well. They protected me until I had developed the inner strength and established the external support system I needed to embark on the journey of healing my true wound.
By stepping onto this part of the path of self-discovery, by accepting my memories of the past, I made the conscious choice to leave behind a kind of hellish existence where I was frozen in a miserable existence. As hard as it was, as painful as it was, I chose to begin climbing a mountain that would eventually lead me to freedom.
“Knowing yourself is the beginning of all wisdom.” ~ Aristotle
“For all that has been, thank you. For all that is to come,“Yes.” ~ Dag Hammarskjold
The challenges that emerged in my young adult life—failed relationships, substance abuse, eating disorders, dissatisfaction with my body, low self-esteem—had accompanied me through my moves from Iowa to Arkansas to California. When I moved to Boston in 1978, they joined me there as well. The title of a book by Jon Kabat-Zinn—Wherever You Go, There You Are—perfectly described my life.
Traveling and moving had not helped me to outrun my troubles, and so I made a decision to embrace them and explore them—which meant embracing and exploring myself as well. This exploration had a mystical beginning that I remember vividly. It was 1979; I was alone in the living-room of the house I shared with four roommates, lamenting the loneliness and dissatisfactions that plagued my soul. I heard a “voice,” the kind that theologian Martin Buber describes as there and not there, but everywhere. It’s not an audible voice, but an intuition, a knowing. I realized that I had not gotten “all mixed up” on my own, and I couldn’t get un-mixed up on my own either. After this experience, I began, without hesitation, looking for a therapist to guide me on this path. It was an act of pure rebellion since my family, my mother in particular, had rejected mental health care after psychiatry had failed to cure my father.
Taking that first step required great courage, but after putting my foot onto the path, I have never once been tempted to turn back.
Once upon a time, I made plans to get together with my friend, Ted, whom I had not seen for many years. He had been an important and healing influence in my life, and this opportunity to see him again was quite special. But a lost email, a missed text, and five phone messages left on the wrong voicemail system foiled our plans. A couple days later, we finally connected and he agreed to pick me up at the home of our mutual friend, Bonnie. They had worked closely together for 15 years, and also had not seen each other for over a decade. Our reunion was marvelous. As Ted and I were leaving Bonnie’s house, I remarked that I felt badly about missing him earlier in the week. "But," I added, "it seems as if things worked out even better than we had planned." He quietly replied, “Don’t they always?”
This was not a pollyannaish reply from Ted. He has been through exceedingly trying times, and knows through personal experience that our lowest points of failure and loss can lead us to better worlds - ones we never dreamed possible. My worst of times in Maine led me to knowing this, as well.
I have always believed that a wave of Destiny carried me away from Dubuque and washed me up onto foreign shores that I could explore. At 22, I was on my own for the first time, and forced to discover mysteries about life and myself. After a broken engagement, I moved from Iowa to begin a job as an admissions counselor for a small college in Arkansas. My family didn’t travel much when I was a child, so I never actually encountered diversity—racial, economic, religious, or cultural. Arkansas, and the places I visited for my job—like Missouri and Louisiana and Texas—were really diverse and seemed truly foreign. For example, the Cajun English spoken in Louisiana was impossible for me to understand.
In these places, where I felt like a stranger in a strange land, I had defining experiences that even now, forty years later, I vividly remember. Stunned by the realities of violence and economic disparities that existed in the United States—far beyond anything I had been exposed to through experience or education—both my mind and my heart expanded. These experiences became seeds of compassion that would grow and bloom throughout my life.
A yoga class at the YM/YWCA in Dubuque, Iowa in 1973, offered me my first opportunity to consciously “choose life.” My college friends and I enrolled in the class, and although this tangled practice from India seemed strange and exotic to me, I was enthralled. Toward the end of the class, the teacher introduced the idea of vegetarianism. At that time in my life, I was not socially conscious, so any reference to reducing meat consumption because it would benefit the environment, reduce world hunger, or lessen the mistreatment of animals did not influence me. However, when the teacher mentioned that not eating meat would be “good” for my health, my ears perked up. This invitation sparked a “yes” deep inside me.
I traveled a lot as a young adult. I saw Disneyland and the memorial in Dallas where President Kennedy was shot. I went to Hawaii, to Scotland, to Mardi Gras, to the Grand Canyon. It was exciting, it was interesting, it was awe-inspiring. Actually being at these places I had only heard about, read about, or seen on television, made them seem more real.
Then I made a decision to make myself more real; and I became an internal traveler, exploring the inner world...the inner world of me. On this inward journey, I have discovered that the search for reality – for the real me – and the search for God are the same.
An important stop on my inward journey was Harvard Divinity School. I was one of the surprised ones to find myself there. Raised in a sheltered Roman Catholic environment, the idea of a woman becoming an ordained religious leader required thinking outside of my lifelong box. And this was not my forte. But I consider that shift in thinking as part of my call – part of what makes my work ministry. I pray for guidance; I listen; I follow. Sometimes I follow even when I don’t want to; even when I can’t see, and don’t know where I’m going. I follow because I have a deep internal desire to fulfill God’s purpose for me.
“There came a time when the risk to remain tight in the bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” ~ Anaïs Nin
“This fire that we call Loving is too strong for human minds. But just right for human souls."
“I hardly move, though I am traveling a terrific distance. Stillness: One of the doors to the temple.” ~ Mary Oliver
“I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life...” ~ Deuteronomy 30:20
"The winds of grace are always blowing. It is for us to raise our sails.” ~ Ramakrishna
Decades after I became sober from using alcohol and drugs to mask the pain of my life, I volunteered at the Mercy Hospital Recovery Center in Westbrook, Maine. My “job” was to lead a group focusing on the Promises of 12-Step recovery for drug addicts and alcoholics fresh out of detox, some by only a few hours, some by several weeks. All of the volunteer group leaders were recovering alcoholics and addicts, and we were instructed to briefly “tell our story” of addiction and recovery at the onset of the groups in hope of inspiring those brave souls now embarking on the journey. Because of the nature of the outpatient treatment program, the membership of the group changed each week, and so each week, I introduced myself anew, usually telling the same story. But one week, someone asked me a question I had not before contemplated. “How is it that you have managed to stay clean and sober for 20 years without a single slip?” I had just done it - knowing why - but never really thinking about how. And so, I answered the question with the why: “Somewhere along my life journey – I’m not sure exactly where – I came to believe that I am a precious child of God, and deserve to be taken care of and treated with love and care. I realized it was up to me to do this for myself.” This answer was accepted by the questioning addict at the time, but years later when I relayed this story to a close friend with an active and inquiring mind, he replied, “It had to be more than just believing you were a precious child of God, Jade. It had to be more than that.”
“In your light I learn how to love; In your beauty how to make poems. You dance inside my chest where no one sees you; but sometimes I do, and that sight becomes this art.” ~ Rumi
In a Boston, Massachusetts doctor’s office in January of 1982, I read a flyer about a workshop called “Opening the Heart.” I chose to attend this workshop, and in the company of strangers, took the risk to fully participate. I shared my conscious memories of growing up with an alcoholic mother, my life’s failures, and my painful feelings about both. Having my reality received and embraced with compassion was an amazing experience for me, and it seemed life-changing at the time. But upon reflection, the truly unique and life changing experience I took home with me from this workshop was the discussion about Eastern religions, and in particular, meditation. It was there I first heard that meditation would be “good” for me.
In my early 30s, as I was consciously considering my current and future career choices, I left a workshop I had attended with the awareness that one of my purposes for being on earth was to “observe and report.” I didn’t realize until much later that this process and purpose would be manifested by writing.
The first time someone commented on my writing I was nine. My fourth-grade teacher had given an assignment to write a story about something important in our lives. I chose wild horses.
To make my story more effective, I cut out a picture of wild horses running from a comic book—clouds of dust surrounding their hooves—and pasted it on the top of the page. My handwriting was clear, done in 1960s, Catholic-school cursive. Although my handwriting was good, I was not considered as smart as my older sister, and I didn’t receive much praise for my school work. That’s why the teacher’s comment on top of my Wild Horses story made an indelible impression. I received an “E” grade (for Excellent) and she wrote: “You should write!”
My favorite television program is Dancing with the Stars. I love the music, the amazing skill of the professional dancers, and the courage of the stars who take on something new and hard, and learn and grow from the experience. But mostly I love the joy I feel while watching. During each season, there is one very special week when the stars tell stories of their most memorable years; and then their pro partners choreograph a routine to express the stars’ emotions through dance. Through a number of seasons of watching, I wondered what moment, experience, year I would choose as my most memorable. What story would I tell? As I sorted through my six decades of life, recognizing numerous memorable challenges and accomplishments, I finally knew the year that I will remember forever. It was the year that helped me to know who I am and to know deep in my soul the experience of unconditional love.
It was the summer of 2007. My mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s six years earlier, and in 2006 she had moved into a nursing home in our hometown of Dubuque, Iowa. I was living in Boston at the time, in the early years of studying for my doctorate. When I got the news that the last of our family members had left Dubuque and Mom was alone in a nursing home with Alzheimer’s, I knew that I would somehow be with her. There was not a thought process involved; it was a knowing.
“Keep knocking. And the joy inside will eventually open a window and look out to see who’s there.” ~ Rumi
"To be old is a glorious thing when one has not unlearned what it means to begin” ~ Martin Buber
At the core of my being is a Seeker.
Throughout my life, my most consistent – and most important – endeavor has been to seek…to wonder about and explore issues that touch my own life, always searching for truth and meaning, and ways to integrate all that I’m discovering into my heart, mind, and soul as I continue on the journey.