All posts by Anne Simmonds

Prayer for Tree and Me

I’m having a bad day. While eating breakfast we hear voices coming from our back deck, which no-one can access except through the house. On investigating, we find a gentleman at the top of a ladder against our back wall. He is talking to someone about what large branches he is going to cut from a tree that gives us a generous amount of shade on our back patio.

“What! You can’t cut that tree. It’s a city tree.” My blood pressure has already gone up. I love trees; know we need more, not fewer, to help us save our planet. We definitely need them in the centre of a hot city, especially for shade on this deck.

The neighbour who lives behind is quickly on the spot. Because I’m already upset, my affect is confrontational. To his credit, (maybe), he tries to tone it down while telling us the city does not own the tree. He has permission to cut as much as he wants for more sunlight on his small back garden.

Not only did I loose the “fight,” but I add to the day’s upset by being upset at how quickly I got upset in the first place. Watching the first large branch come down doesn’t help.

When I finally get to my ‘prayer journal and meditation time’, there is much to record and reflect upon. Not the least of it is that I have lost valuable working time I had set aside to consider material for a conversation I will be having soon with someone making a podcast on the topic of prayer.

My journal gets my side of the story; what has and is still happening. I hear the saw as I write. I’m trying to calm down. I ask/pray for “help.” The situation “pushed my buttons” – those labelled “not being taken seriously” by some (self-appointed, male) authority; my concerns not being heard or considered — we need more trees, not less, especially in downtown Toronto; we need shade on our deck. I continue, “How am I an expert on prayer when I so easily fly off the handle. It just shows how much help I need to be my best self. Maybe a simple definition of prayer is a practice that helps me be my best self in the world.”

I recall the text: My grace is sufficient for you; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9) Does this mean that my “weaknesses” – over-reaction when my childhood wounds have been poked or someone challenges something I feel passionate about — is a way in which I am reminded that maybe I’m not in control, and when I turn for “help” to the one I sometimes call God; the Grace I receive is the gift. Almost 50 years ago I was involved with a charismatic Christian group who believed “speaking in tongues” was the ultimate God-given gift. Being “filled with the spirit”, I believed my life would finally be perfect, happy, whatever! The group prayed over me; nothing happened; At home, on my knees, I prayed for the “gift of tongues” through the night; nothing happened. I abandoned the group. I wanted a quick fix for the normal struggles of life.

Now I know there is no short-cut to a “spirit-filled” life – whatever that is! In our culture we seem to want easy answers. We want God, or someone, to fix what hurts or is broken. It didn’t happen for Jesus and it doesn’t happen for us. We have to descend into whatever is our personal hell (self-generated or otherwise) for re-birth or resurrection. Even this little tree incident which took me “down” had to be processed before I returned to an even keel. “Today’s trouble is enough for today.” (Matthew 6:34). I guess this is why we need “daily” prayer practice – and it is just that, a practice. But that it worked for me today, has before, and will again — that is Grace.

Epiphany of Despair

In January 2011, I posted my first blog, which I titled “Epiphany of Despair”. Upon a re-reading, I realize it represented a significant shift at the time in both my thinking and my experience. I had (reluctantly) embraced technology in a new way. Now eleven year later, I am using the same title in the way writer Jan Hatanaka originally wrote about it – as an experience that results from moving faithfully through the process of grief.

When I was in my late 50’s, early 60’s, I thought one would get to an age and stage where life had mostly sorted itself out; the challenges would diminish and it might be smoother sailing. The last year and a half have shown me anything but. Between Covid and the sudden death of my 5-year-old granddaughter in June 2020 (which I wrote about last year), and the subsequent fallout in my family, I have been forced to embrace my grief, deep feelings of loss, sadness, and anger, yet again. The good news, if there can be any, is that ‘Grief Work’, an area in which I have taught for many years, when engaged in, does indeed work to help heal and move us to a different place. This begins to feel at times like having more energy, peace, even moments of joy. It’s not a fixed process and such moments can be quickly overshadowed by the heaviness of grief. Maybe short periods (hours even) of what I referred to as “smooth sailing” are not only the most we can hope for, but must be gratefully savoured when they occur.

When I wrote in that blog eleven years ago of my then epiphany of despair, I said “it was not my first; it is not my worst, and no doubt will not be my last.” How true. I do hope however, that the future does not hold such losses as have the last two years, yet I know life offers no guarantees. I wrote then and it holds true now: “It was a reminder for me, yet again, of what is at the heart of what I believe about life. The only way through the dark times is through them. There are no short-cuts to healing and transformation. We have to be willing to feel the full range of painful feelings in whatever situation we find ourselves in order to receive the learning and ultimate blessings that are there for us.” In the words of an art teacher who was talking about painting, but where I have discovered lurk many important lessons in life: “Don’t be afraid of the dark!” The art piece above was not finished until I went back and made the dark bits even darker. The teacher of grief has herself been re-taught.

“To take me through the uncertain day”

This past year was arguable the worst of my life. While Covid and accompanying restrictions have been unpleasant at best, what unfolded for my family was/is far harder. I’ve had two family tragedies, one in my extended family that is not mine to share; the other, sadly, is. On June 26, 2020, my five-year-old granddaughter, Lillian Grace, had a tragic accident near Parry Sound that resulted in her death. She was my son’s only child. This has been devastating for him and his wife, and riveting for our family. My daughter’s daughter who is 4 months older, was her best friend.

Partly as a result of this life-altering event, but also for the following reasons, I have not been afraid of Covid. I feel that for many, the fear generated by government and voices from health care have probably made things worse than was necessary. How so? Even before my granddaughter’s death, my pandemic response was “I’m old enough to die!” I say this for its shock value. However, it is true.

Having spent much of my career in the area of death and dying, I am aware of how death is seen by many in the health care system, as failure. Before the ‘first wave’, we knew of the decades-old problems in our long-term care settings. We have not had the political will to improve what has long been a deplorable situation: not enough staff, staff undertrained and underpaid, staff with no paid sick time, staff with no benefits, staff without full-time jobs. Worse yet, the families of residents, who until now have been important adjuncts to their loved-one’s physical care – including the profound human need for human touch and contact, are mostly banned from visiting.

Like most of us early in the pandemic, I followed guidelines not to see or hug my family. That fell apart on Mother’s Day when my daughter arrived at the door to drop off flowers. I read her card, began to cry, and spontaneously gave her a big hug. From there is a short distance to hug her daughter and husband.

Two weeks before Lilly died, we had a properly-social-distanced backyard birthday party after months of separation. I hugged her for the first time in over three months. When she died two weeks later, those of us who gathered at the hospital and in the days following, hugged with abandon. When there are no words to express the deepest of feeling, there are only hugs.

I also acknowledge that I do not live in one of the Covid “hot-spots” of transmission, areas that include ‘essential services’ such as the large Amazon distribution center in Peel, where workers, precariously employed, perhaps part-time, often of racial and ethnic minorities, are afraid to take time off work when sick, and are living in multi-generational residences. How is it that one of the “biggest national Amazon warehouses” in Peel can be considered an “essential service?” How does the Ford government expect us to respect and take seriously the current lockdown when such facilities not only stay open, but are clearly “super-spreaders” of Covid?

Sick pay and benefits are the very things enjoyed by those fortunate enough to be working from home, able to enjoy the “luxury of amazon delivery” in order to “stay safe”. While I have never and will never order through Amazon, I am in the privileged position that I could should I want to.

So, what has/is getting me through my multi-faceted grief? For years in my teaching of spiritual practices, I have said that whatever they are for each of us, these practices need to become part of our life so that when we really need them they are in place. More than ever before mine are sustaining me. My motivation in writing this is to suggest that whatever spiritual practices you can muster to care for yourself, commit to them. There is an energy, call it ‘spirit’, call it ‘love’ (or Buddha, Jesus…). It asks only that I show up, acknowledge its presence, and ‘bask’ in it, asking only for more of it to fill me – and when I pray for others, to fill them also. Did I also say my spiritual practices include regular exercise and hugs?

I love this prayer/poem and encourage you to re-write it for yourself:

I wear prayers like shoes
Pull them on quiet each morning
To take me through the uncertain day
Don’t know what might knock me off course
Sit up in bed, pull on the right, then the left
Before shower before teeth
They were my mama’s gift to walk me through this life.

She wore strong ones
The kind steady your ankles,
I know cause when her man left,
Her children gone
Her eldest son without goodbye
They the only ones keep her standing
I saw her still standing

Mama passed on some things to me
My smile, sense of discipline, my subtle behind
But best she passed on
“Girl you go to God and get you some good shoes,
cause this life ain’t steady ground.”

Now I don’t wear hers
You take them with you, you know
But I suspect they made by the same company
Pull them on each morning
First the right, then the left
Best piece of dress I got.

By Ruth Forman
From Prayers Like Shoes (Whit Press, © 2009 Ruth Forman)