Last Friday was a stressful day. I found myself thinking about how I cannot control what happens, but I can control my reaction to what happens. But having that knowledge and putting it into practice are two separate things.
When I awakened Saturday morning I was determined to have a better day than I’d had the day before. I absolutely did not want to dwell on family drama. Not only because of my hefty to-do list, or because I was hosting a literary salon at my house on Sunday, but because I genuinely wanted to rid myself of inner turbulence and create some peace. A little joy would be nice too, I thought.
So instead of diving into my to-do list first thing, I decided to try a bath ceremony I’d read about in Tony Burroughs’ book, Get What You Want: The Art of Making and Manifesting Your Intentions. The ceremony was inspired by a traditional Native American medicine wheel ceremony. I drew myself a warm bath. When the tub was full, I knelt down beside it and swirled the water five times with my hand, blessing each swirl. The first blessing was for the Holy Father; the second was for our Divine Mother; the third for Holy Angels, helpers, and guides; the fourth for All Beings everywhere (including people I was having a hard time loving at that moment); and the fifth was for myself. Then I added five pinches of bath salts, and repeated the blessings with each one.
I expected to have a good, long, cozy soak. But that’s not what happened. First, the stopper wouldn’t stay in place and I had to plug the drain with a washcloth. Then the bath mat wouldn’t stay down and flapped against my thighs and butt. I kneeled to push it down, spreading the front corners with my hands, and then I paused and realized I was on my hands and knees, my face inches from the water. I let out a big sigh. I was so close to the water I could smell my foul morning breath. I want to let go of everything in me that’s foul, I thought. What am I ready to let go of? I took a deep breath, and as I exhaled loud and hard into the water—as if I were blowing my words into the water— I said, “I let go of all my resentment and bitterness.” What else do I want to let go of? I took another breath, and again exhaled hard into the water. I did this for at least five minutes, listening for words, then saying and releasing them into the water with strong breaths. A litany of negative emotions poured out. I surrendered hatreds, fears, petty jealousies, and more.
This was not how the ceremony was supposed to go. I was supposed to soak in sheer and utter bliss. But I didn’t want to stay in that water. I soaped down, splashed myself, and thought: I am cleansing myself. When I pulled the washcloth out of the drain, I returned to Tony’s ceremony and recited his words: “I ask that anything unlike Love, anything unlike God, leaves my body now and goes into this water, and that it goes down the drain and into the earth to be purified and transmuted into its highest and best use.”
I was only in the tub about ten minutes, but when I got out, I felt lighter than I’d felt in a long time. It’s been raining recently in Los Angeles, and I hadn’t been spending time outside. I spent most of last month in the hospital with my mother. The weather on Saturday morning was wet, but mild. I walked outside. The air smelled like damp earth. The grapefruit tree was heavy with fruit. Both camellia bushes were in bloom—red blossoms on one, pink on the other. I hadn’t noticed.
I couldn’t resist setting up a yoga mat outside and meditating under the overcast, drizzly sky. It was cloudy, but the air was cool and fresh. I felt nothing but gratitude and love. Instead of racing around, being a slave to my to-do list, I chose to sit and write about my morning. I wanted to share it with you. I wanted to remind you of what I so often forget—that we can stop life’s rollercoaster rides anytime we want to. We can choose to love the people we want to hate. We can turn away from our family dramas. We can choose to see life’s beauty and experience joy. Peace is here for us all right now. And things don’t have to be so hard.
Later that day, preparations for the salon felt effortless. Everything fell easily into place and the work I feared would take all day took two hours.
Every year, around Thanksgiving, I wish I could hit a fast forward button, skip the month of December, and resume my life on New Year’s Day. It’s not that I don’t like the holidays, but it sometimes makes me feel like a headless chicken—a headless shopping chicken, running amok at the mall. I lose sight of the true meaning of Christmas. I know it’s supposed to be about giving, but searching for gifts in stores or online leaves me cold. It all seems so pointless.
This year my mother had a heart attack on Thanksgiving. When I heard she needed heart surgery, I got on a plane to be by her side. On December 5th she had a quadruple bypass. After the surgery, she spent two weeks in the hospital. My sisters and I stayed with her day and night. It was a stressful, difficult, and challenging time.
And yet, it was also beautiful, filled with unexpected gifts, such as compassion, nurturing, and faith. But the greatest gift was—and is—love. Our love expressed itself in many ways. It infused everything we said and did. We lived those weeks in a state of reverence for life and for each other. It was the most sacred, meaningful holiday season of my life. I never could have imagined the gifts one might find in a hospital room. There was the gift of holding my mother’s hand, stroking her brow, feeding her, singing to her, and reading her stories. There was the gift of her smile, and the gift of recognition in her eyes when, soon after the surgery, I asked, “Mom, do you know who I am?”
“Of course, I do,” she said.
“What’s my name?” I asked. “I want to hear you say it.”
“Bella,” she said.
During her days in intensive care, I prayed, meditated, and chanted in her room. In order to hit the high notes I had to release the tension constricting my chest. I sang an improvised chorus of “Alleluias” and “Amazing Grace.” Soothing my mother soothed me. I understood viscerally how giving really is receiving. Those weren’t just words or an abstract idea—it was a real-life experience.
My sisters and I celebrated when Mom got out of intensive care. But it was nearly impossible for her to walk. While she struggled to put one foot in front of the other, the therapist said, “Inch-by-inch is a cinch; yard-by-yard is really hard.” Words to live by. But it was all too difficult. At 83, her major organs began shutting down.
Later, when she took a turn for the worse and was on a respirator and on dialysis, I told her there were as many people who loved her on the other side as there were here so there was nothing to fear. “Either way,” I said, “whether you chose to live or die, you are surrounded by love. There is nothing but love. It’s everywhere.” These words helped us let go. Surrender is also a gift.
My mother died peacefully, fifteen days after her surgery. The holiday season came and went. There was no family Christmas photo, no holiday parties, no tree-trimming, and precious little shopping, but I exchanged the most valuable gifts of my life this holiday season. My sisters and I had the incredible honor of stepping away from our day-to-day lives to spend holy holiday weeks helping our mother pass from this life into the next. What a journey! What a gift!