As I write, my yearly “emptying out” week on the beach in Florida is drawing to a close. Coming here has been an annual May pilgrimage for more than 20 years – a time for rest, rejuvenation, and “getting empty” so that new inspiration and creativity can flow.
For many years, I shared this time with my parents. We loved being here on this beautiful island, just as we loved traveling together. Being together away from our respective homes meant that no one was the “host.” No one had the responsibility of taking care of everyone else. We were just together, each of us pretty much doing our own thing, yet quietly appreciating the deep love that was our bond. When my partner Johnathon joined our family in 2000, he also quickly grew to love this annual pilgrimage.
Since my father died in 2010 and my mother is no longer able to join us here, Johnathon and I carry on the beach tradition on our own. As May approaches each year, we can’t wait to get here. The timing always seems to be perfect – it’s just after Johnathon finishes his school year (he’s the Director of Opera Studies at the Boston Conservatory), and just as my very full travel and workshop season is winding down.
Yet when we arrived at the beach this year, something felt different. It was still beautiful and restful and all the things we love about it. However, as we slowed down to long-walks-on-the-beach-and-napping pace, the events of the last months caught up with us in a way that we hadn’t expected.
Johnathon and I have both experienced enormous transitions in our family systems during the last six months. Death claimed two close family members at way too young an age. In the same time period, both of our surviving parents experienced significant health challenges, and it became clear that they could no longer live alone. Therefore, in these last few months, along with our siblings, we have also emptied out and closed our respective family homes, and moved our parents into their own apartments in assisted living facilities – my mother in Kentucky and Johnathon’s father in Illinois.
Layered on top of that, we’ve both been deeply troubled by the political and social unrest in our own country and around the world.
Slowing down from our fast-paced working lives into the gentle pace of long, solitary early morning and evening beach walks has been a blessing, to be sure. Yet slowing down has also allowed us to breathe into places inside of us that we hadn’t had the chance to touch in the last few months. As we talked about the grieving that had taken us by surprise, we recognized that we were both mourning the passing of an era – the physical passing of people and family homes and childhood connections – and we were standing in the new reality that these things now live only in our memories.
It’s been an incredibly healing week – perhaps, in part, because we weren’t expecting the need for healing to show up. Such is the nature of the grieving process. Grief has a way of catching us by surprise. When it does, there is no avoiding it. And that’s a good thing. The timing is not always convenient, yet if we will just ride the wave and stay with our hearts, we will find our way through.
On our second morning, I walked two miles down the beach and sat in the edge of the surf for meditation. This has been my daily sunrise practice here for years. I hadn’t slept very well the night before – way too many dreams and colliding thoughts – and I was feeling very unsettled. However, I’ve learned not to fight against my unrest; rather, just to be with it – to rest in it – and to let the process unfold as it needs to.
So I sat in the edge of the surf, asking the waves to wash over and through me – literally and metaphorically – and to bring me peace. In that hour, something shifted, and the day was easier.
Later that night as I settled into bed, I asked that healing balm to keep washing over and through me as I slept, just as the waves in the sea had done in the early morning. With hope, I thanked the Great Mystery ahead of time for a night of deep rest. Indeed, I was blessed with a quiet night, and in the early dawn, I awakened refreshed. Silently, I slipped out of the condo and onto the beach to be with the sunrise and the surf once again.
This morning was different. My situations hadn’t changed, of course – my parents were still not here, the family home was still gone, and if anything, the challenges in the world had intensified in the previous 48 hours. Yet, for the moment, I was at peace. My mind was quiet. My emotions were still. And my heart was serene. And best of all, I remembered how I had gotten to this quieter place. I was aware that grief might very well come again, yet I knew I could find my way through it.
Life never stands still – it’s always changing. Sometimes those changes are small and insignificant. At other times, as in the last few months in our families, they mark the end of an era. And you realize that life will never be the same again.
Through it all, we find our way. We don’t always get to consciously choose the circumstances of the transition. Some transitions are easier; some are harder. However, we can choose to slow down, to get quiet, and to give our heart the time and space it needs for its own healing process.
When the big stuff of life asks you for time, stop and take the time. When grief catches you by surprise, pause and sense what it needs. Give it the time and space it asks for. Your heart may be hurting a lot, yet you will make it through. You will be OK. Your heart is actually incredibly strong and resilient if you will just listen to what it needs and give it time.
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