Category Archives: Cynthia Greb

The Spiritual Lessons of Politics

I seldom talk about politics publicly.  I’m uncomfortable with how antagonistic and “us vs. them” we tend to get.  Political sparring, which can get quite vile, doesn’t fit in with my vision of the peaceful world I want us to co-create.  And while I very much want “good” people in public office who will be kind, smart, and wise (oh how idealistic I am!), I don’t enjoy fueling the fires of hatred and fear as the subject of politics is wont to do.

A week or so ago a friend voiced an opinion on Facebook about a candidate whom she favored. One of her friends commented on her opinion in a way that I didn’t perceive as particularly nasty, and my friend (for whom I had previously had a lot of respect), rapidly spiraled down into some incredibly nasty name-calling.  And they were both in the same political party!  If there is going to be such odious behavior even within parties, then how can we ever hope to achieve a modicum of civility between parties?!

How can we learn to be more respectful to those with differing opinions?  I wish we could remember that we are all human beings who basically want the same things; we just have very, very different ideas of how to get there.  I think people react with such extreme emotions because they are, beneath it all, quite simply, afraid.  They are afraid that such and such a candidate will ruin their chances of stability or financial comfort or peace or whatever.

I confess that my default setting is not political, but spiritual.  And so I tend to think in terms of spiritual growth and evolution.  In that vein, my fellow citizens, here is our growing edge.  Can we learn to be more civil with one another?  Can we learn that the venom with which we treat one another ripples out into the world in ways we cannot begin to imagine?  If we all want, deep down, to live in a more peaceful world (and I believe we all do — except possibly the arms dealers), then we need to learn to model more peaceful behavior.  We cannot hope to ever see a more harmonious world if we cannot learn to control our hostility within our own interpersonal interactions. And that includes our posts on Facebook and other social media.

Among my peers, there is one candidate whose words and actions many of us find abhorrent.  Truth to tell, it is very tempting at times to ridicule him; and many, many of my friends fall prey to that temptation.   Well, here is another HUGE spiritual lesson.  It’s a really, really, really hard one, but once achieved, it is absolutely transformational.  Can we learn to (bear with me) … hate the sin and love the sinner?

I know, I know.  The very thought of loving someone who is so unlovable is hard to swallow.  It’s like asking you to love Hitler or Stalin.  And yet, even the most vile and evil among us were once children.  Something happened to them somewhere along the way and they… swerved.  My guess is these villains act in such extreme ways because, deep down, they are afraid.  They cover up that fear with megalomania and narcissism and acts of inhumanity and horror.  But that doesn’t mean we should be as vile as they.  It does, of COURSE, mean we shouldn’t vote for them.  And we can do whatever is necessary to prevent them from getting into political office.  I’m just saying, can we do it in a more civilized manner without sinking to their own abhorrent behavior?

There is one candidate who tries really hard to not resort to name-calling and mud-slinging.  I respect him enormously for that.  What a role model.  Can we learn to espouse our views passionately without being vicious and obnoxious?

I, for one, would like us to try.



The Labor of Death

Unless there’s a sudden trauma,

dying is labor.  It’s clearly labor.

The breathing becomes more rapid,

almost a panting.

However, instead of laboring to enter this world

from the comfortable confines of the womb,

there is the labor to exit this world.

There is a struggle as the self gradually allows the soul to separate

from the familiar womb of the body.

Except the body is not a womb,

it is more like a cage

or a very heavy coat

encasing a soul whose nature it is to fly.

But we forget that.

We cling to the body because it’s all we know.

It’s all we’ve known our whole life long.

We forget.

We forget what it was like before we slipped into the womb

to begin this life.

If only we could remember.

If only we could remember

how very different dying would be.


~ Cynthia Greb, 2016

Beauty and Loss All Commingled

Today I spent two hours with my ailing mother instead of the usual four to six.  And as I indulged in the sacredness of time alone, I discovered myself sinking deeper into my “feeling body.”  Once again, I discovered that being too busy is anathema to the soulful existential questions and emotions I need to let bubble to the surface once in a while.

Mom’s health is declining.  It hasn’t been that stellar for quite a few years, but now her body is starting to fail in ways that are no longer remediable.   I found myself wondering how conscious she is of her decline and when is the right time to discuss it all.

My mother has suffered from mood swings and a fair amount of depression these last several years.  Even when she was living in her own home, surrounded by her loving (albeit increasingly demented) husband, excellent and compassionate caregivers, and a regular rotation of visiting children and grandchildren, she frequently found reasons (not always easily discerned by us) to dissolve into tears.  Being in a nursing home the last year and a half has not resolved her feelings of depression.

Fortunately, when I inquired recently of the RN on duty about the possibility of an anti-depressant, it was subsequently approved by the facility physician.  I am not someone who ordinarily believes in indiscriminate pharmaceutical solutions, but her crying jags were disconcerting and I simply wanted her to feel better.  (And Mom was, in no way, open to therapy.)

So the question of the hour is:  do I open the can of worms that end-of-life discussions precipitate?  Or shall I let her “feel good” for a little bit longer?

Unlike Dad, who embraced the idea of heaven and, though he loved life, looked forward to “going home,” Mom has only ever talked about death when she was unhappy with her life.  I find myself hesitating to talk about something that will likely send her back into a downward spiral.

On the other hand, as someone who worked for two different hospices, I know how vitally important it is to have the opportunity to talk about these matters and to work through all the myriad emotions which certainly arise.

And so, I pray for guidance to know when the time is right.

Meanwhile, after leaving the nursing home earlier today and finishing a couple errands, I arrived home and dressed for a walk in the cool October air.   As I ambled down the road, I was struck over and over again by sights so achingly beautiful, I found myself invoking God’s name in whispered awe.

The trees are aflame with color this year—golden yellows, vibrant oranges, corals, and scarlets.  Breathtaking and heart-opening beauty is everywhere.  Even the skeletal remains of Queen Anne’s lace and the dark petal-less heads of black-eyed Susans are beautiful.

In addition to the splendors of autumn, there are lingering roses, hibiscus blooms, and purple clovers—splashes of summer in the midst of dying grasses and fallen leaves.  Life and death are all mixed together in this seasonal transition.

As I walked I found myself feeling the grief of Dad’s absence in my life.  Like me, he loved nature.  We would have had some fine walks together this year had he still been alive.  But I know we are both immersed in beauty and love—he where he is and I where I am.  And Mom, too, though she is not as skilled at recognizing it or appreciating it.  Then again, her childhood was not as special as that of Dad or me and my siblings.  When she was little she was abandoned by those who brought her into the world, and so abandonment is often her default emotional setting (even now, over seventy-five years later.)

Beauty and Pain.  Life and Death.  Love and Loss.  It’s all here.  We are surrounded by it all.

As my wise friend Kristy recently said, “Some things in life cannot be fixed. They can only be carried.”*

May I carry it all with grace.


The Next Season

This is day #6 of being with parent #2 as she makes her slow exit from this life.

It’s been an important and exhausting time.  I am so grateful to be here with her, the woman who gave me birth.   And, as anyone who has maintained a long vigil with someone who is very ill knows, it’s a challenging road.

Today I was feeling very low energy.  I was tired, sad, overwhelmed.  Are these the correct words?  I don’t even know that I can accurately categorize how I was feeling.  I only know that I was depleted.

Fortunately other family members were going to be spending time with my mother this morning, so it gave me the opportunity to indulge in some alone time.  I am one of those people who needs a lot of time by myself, and I hadn’t had much solitude this week.

I walked to the side of my brother’s property and down the long leaf-strewn path toward the edge of a beautiful stream.  I found a rock in a pocket of sun and sat myself down upon it.  And that’s all I did.

I didn’t have the energy for anything else.  I didn’t pray; I didn’t prod myself to change or shift or buck up; I didn’t try to figure anything out.  I just sat.

I felt weighted.  I felt listless.  My spark was gone.

I just sat.

Gradually, eventually, the world began to work its magic on me.   After maybe ten or twenty minutes, I had the energy to lift my head.  I noticed more trees had changed color since the last time I’d walked to this particular spot.  There was one tree with beautiful bright coral-colored leaves.  And the sky was a beautiful cloudless blue.

I began to notice leaves dancing through the air, letting go of the trees onto which they had held themselves for many months, and spiraling toward the creek which gently carried them downstream.

I became somewhat conscious of the beautiful metaphor unfolding around me, but mostly I became aware that my energy was ever so slightly beginning to rise.

The world is a beautiful place.   When I’m sad or tired, it’s harder to focus on the beauty.  But it’s there, just waiting to uplift me whenever I take the time to immerse myself in it.

Can I help my mother release her grasp on this beautiful life so she can embrace the next even more beautiful one?  I don’t know.  That is my prayer.  My prayer is that she be at peace with the change of the seasons.  Not just spring and summer, but fall and winter, too.

We cannot stop the wheel from turning.

And there is no end in a wheel.  There is only the next season.

October 2013 583

The Art of Doing Nothing

I am self-employed.  Like many self-employed people, I have a couple part-time jobs to keep things flowing when I’m not writing or painting.  Today is one of those wonderful days when no other jobs or responsibilities are pulling at me.  My schedule is blessedly free.

I have been looking forward to a day like this so that I can get caught up—on revising my book, painting a new painting, making some necessary phone calls, etc.  There’s quite a list.  And yet I find myself completely uninspired.

I finally took myself outside to the deck for a couple minutes.  I journaled about how I was feeling.  Do I analyze my resistance?  Push through it?  Or do I honor it?

My energy was so low that I decided to simply honor this resistance and not do anything at all.

What a concept!  How often do we, in this often very frenzied culture, allow ourselves to do nothing?

I sat in a deck chair, resting my feet on a rail, one foot propped on another.  And I didn’t do anything.

I did casually notice the lovely trees surrounding me.  I noticed the blue sky and the warm sun.  I was aware of the sound of the stream softly flowing about a hundred yards away.  But other than that, I did nothing.  I was in a total yin place.  My yang had gone on vacation.

It was blissful.

I used to live about an hour and a half away from the shore.  Like many of my friends and neighbors, I would visit the shore a couple times a year.  There is absolutely nothing so relaxing as lying on a large towel on the beach, the sun shining down upon you, and the sounds of the surf rocking you to sleep.

Well, now I live a little over a thousand miles away from the nearest shore.  It’s not quite so easy to just jump in a car and get to the nearest sea.  But I discovered today that sitting out on the deck is actually pretty darn nice.

I can wear whatever I want (or don’t want, as the case may be), have a glass of whatever I want by my side,  and let the rays of the sun caress my body. Then, if I get too hot, I can simply move into the shade.

Suffice it to say, “doing nothing” necessitates me leaving the cell phone inside.  Far away.

This is what our dogs and cats do all the time.  Not to mention lizards, snakes, lions, and other animals.  Why do we humans feel we don’t deserve the same consideration?  Why do we only let ourselves do this relaxing thing if we’re on vacation or retired or at the end of a very busy day?  (And many of us have trouble doing it even then!)

I suspect I sat outside for only about half an hour.  But it restored and revived me.  (Look!  I found the inspiration to write!)

One night, about fifteen years ago, I had an incredible dream.  In this dream my body was guided to wherever it needed to go and whatever it needed to do.  I didn’t have to consciously make decisions, I had only to wait until the guidance kicked in.

It was an exquisite dream.  When I was coming to wakefulness I found myself worrying that I’d never be able to sustain that sweet feeling.  But it turned out, for at least that one morning, I could.  I simply allowed myself to do or not do whatever my body did or did not want to do.  And it was a delicious feeling.

Of course I know that many of us do not have this luxury much of the time.  But the truth is we could allow ourselves the luxury of doing nothing more often if we chose.  We don’t have to make ourselves a slave to “getting things done” all the time, every hour of the day.  We could allow ourselves more time on the deck, the sofa, a hammock, or the bed if we chose.

And if our current lifestyle and schedule do not allow for this kind of relaxation, might it not be time for a little restructuring?

Blessed be, everyone.  Enjoy some totally non-productive time  today “just being.”  You are enough.

“Deathiversaries” and Post-Death Birthdays

Mom n Dad laughing

What do you call a birthday when that person is no longer on this earth?  I guess it’s still the anniversary of his birth, although we are no longer counting the years he has lived.

Dad’s birthday is April 30th.  I wrote the first draft of this piece back in February on the first anniversary of his death.  But then I set it aside to read it and revise it later.  And “later” turned into another month.  And now I’m dusting it off one more time.

It’s not easy to remember death.

There are so many wonderful, wonderful things to remember about Dad: his teasing and horsing around; his affection for his wife, kids, and especially his grandchildren; all his years of hard work supporting his family and never complaining; his love of naps; the way he always had time for his family; his dedication to the churches he attended and served; all the little vacations we took together; his love of food; his gregarious personality; his gratitude; his love of nature.  I could go on and on.  But sadly, I seem to be stuck in an endless review of his last few months.

If he had started to drastically decline and then simply continued that decline, I think I could have accepted that.  After all, death comes to each one of us, and after several years suffering the indignities of Alzheimer’s, I’m sure, at some level, he was more than ready to let go of this life.  As a matter of fact, for several months, while he was still living in his home, he would repeatedly tell us, “I’m ready to go home.  Please take me home. Please take me home.”

We had thought he was confused and couldn’t remember that this was his own home.  We tried in vain to convince him that this was the home he’d built with his own two hands when the rancher had become too small for his burgeoning family.  We pointed to all the pictures of the family on the mantle.  We said, “See?  There we all are!  This is your home.”  But it made no difference.  He was caught in a sad loop, not realizing he was in his own home.

At least that’s what we thought at the time.

It was heartbreaking for us as well as frustrating.  We had worked really hard to make sure he stayed home as long as possible.  So over and over we tried to convince him that he was home.  Only a week ago did I realize we were absolutely doing the wrong thing.

I had been a spiritual counselor for two different hospices, so I should have known better.  Unfortunately, I had never read the book Final Gifts during my time at those hospices.  If I had read it then, I would have understood that often dying people speak in metaphors.  Instead of dismissing Dad’s comments as the mark of a very confused man, instead of trying to re-orient him to this earthly consensual reality, we could have been brave enough to say, “Dad, are you talking about your heavenly home?”

I cry to think how much peace we could have given him if we had opened the door to this conversation.

When he was admitted to the nursing home in November of 2013, he had definitely declined further, but he was still walking, talking, and eating.  Then he fell and suddenly he couldn’t walk or eat on his own any more.  Suddenly he also began to exhibit very bad tremoring, shaking and sudden jerking which the doctor believed was an indication of more advanced Parkinson’s.

The jerking was heartbreaking to see because it had come on so suddenly and it completely interrupted his ability to rest.  Rest had always been very important to Dad, but even more so as his Alzheimer’s escalated.  It was as if he just needed to escape from the world for a while because it had become way too confusing for him.  For a while, he was sleeping, off and on, about fifteen hours a day.

Because of those horrible jerks, we started Dad on this medication that relaxed his body so the jerks would cease.  But unfortunately it also meant he was rather “out of it” a large portion of the day.  The nurses hated giving him that medication because just as he was coming back to himself, talking and joking around, it was time for the next dose.  We didn’t know what to do.  But it seemed he was safer and calmer, as well as more rested, so we opted to keep him on it.

Then something happened that took the matter out of our hands.  He fell into a bad fever.  He got so weak he could no longer safely eat anything.  Even drinking became hazardous.  And so they had to discontinue the med.  There was no way to safely give him anything.

And then, miracle of miracles, he got better!  His eyes were open, he was talking again!  We were so relieved.  And the Parkinson’s symptoms never came back!

By this time, we had put Dad on hospice care.  And because of the lingering effects from the fall, his prolonged fever and his lack of food, he had become very, very weak.  Once in a while they tried to walk him down the hall, an aide on each side and one behind him with the wheelchair in case he needed it.  But generally he was in a geri-chair (a kind of cushioned chair/lounge chair, like a recliner on wheels) or in bed.  And he began to get a bedsore, which often happens when people are lying down most of the time and not getting enough nutrition or circulation.

During this time I continued to agonize.  Should we take him off hospice so he could get some physical therapy?  Did he have a chance at recovering if we pushed him a bit?  Would he be able to walk again?  Should we try to take him out to breakfast? (This was one of his favorite things in the world, although it was increasingly less pleasant for the rest of us because he would become agitated when the food didn’t arrive right away or if the waitress wasn’t prompt enough bringing refills on his coffee.)

Dad kept going up and down, up and down.  I could never figure out exactly if he was dying or just going through a momentary dip in his health.  I kept on second-guessing our choices.

Then one day he came down with another fever.  This time he didn’t recover;  he was gone by the next morning.

Ironically, only two days earlier, I had called the hospice social worker so I could talk over whether or not we should take him off hospice so we could get him into physical therapy again.

I had assumed this fever would be similar to the last one – unpleasant, but temporary.  Instead it was one of several signs of his approaching death.  I wish the hospice staff or one of the nurses would have recognized the signs and given us a heads-up so we could have been around him while he was still conscious that last day.  I wish I had recognized the signs.

I had been with Dad until about 2:00 pm.  I left when he appeared to be more at ease.  I wish I had stayed.

I’m sure a lot of us do this when our loved ones pass.  We wonder what we could have done differently.  We wish we had been there more, shared our love, withheld our anger.  Fortunately, I know Dad knew how much I loved him.  And I’m also grateful we only had one episode of anger toward one another in my whole life.  I realize that this is a tremendous gift.  But I have been having trouble letting go of those last three months of his life.  I can’t seem to let myself be at peace about it all.

Perhaps writing this right now will help to shift that.

Sending you love, Dad.  Maybe we can start counting the anniversaries of when you went Home.  Congratulations on so successfully completing your life here on Earth.  And congratulations on completing your journey Home.

You are not forgotten.  We love you still.  And always will.

Eulogy for the Land

February 2011 028   I grew up in the southeastern corner of Pennsylvania one hour north of Philadelphia.  I was close enough to the city to be able to regularly go to great museums or concerts or the zoo.  But I seldom did.  I was a country girl through and through.  This is not to say I was a hick.  No, I was a nature lover.  Probably from the day I was born — on a warm April day with cherry trees in full blossom.

I am home right now visiting the land of my birth.  I am visiting my family and friends and I am reacquainting myself with the land.  Fortunately, there are still pockets of land — large fields (mostly cultivated,) patches of woods, ponds and streams, and some old farmhouses hundreds of years old.

I am feeling appreciative of those farms today.  It is largely due to these farms that there is any land left to enjoy at all.  So much has been gobbled up in the name of development.

Blech.  I hate that word.  Thanks to “development,” hundreds of family farms have bitten the dust.  Cookie cutter McMansions costing hundreds of thousands of dollars each spread like a cancer across this land I have loved.  If people built their own homes on an as-needed basis, or hired a contractor to build them, this land I love would not be too different from that of my childhood.  But no, instead wealthy companies offer farmers millions of dollars to build hundreds of homes which then attract new residents eager to live in such a lovely pastoral place.  Only of course it becomes less and less lovely the more people who arrive.

I am so grateful for the farms that hold out.  How much courage it must take to say no to an offer of a million or more dollars!  How tempting it must be to give up the hard backbreaking days that begin every day at dawn and continue on till dusk, day after day with never a vacation day in sight.  For who can find someone who even knows how to milk cows, let alone someone who is dependable and willing to get up in the wee hours of a cold morning to begin the job and then repeat it all again twelve hours later?

Sadly, most farmers can no longer afford to pay the taxes on the land they own.  Or their children are no longer interested in living such a challenging and unappreciated lifestyle once their parents are ready to retire.  When I was growing up here, many of my friends and even my own cousins were farmers.  But now this area is largely Yuppy Heaven.  This area yells wealth.  People with simple lifestyles and un-fancy clothes and cars  are a definite minority here.  Or at least they are certainly more hidden than they once were.

So I am grateful for the farmers who find a way to eke out a living.  I am grateful for the food they grow.   I’m grateful for those who sell it to us at local markets.  I love buying food from real people instead of these huge agribusiness corporations who are all in bed with Monsanto, spraying horrible poisons on our land and then planting seeds genetically modified to grow in that poisoned land.

I am even grateful for the “gentleman farmers” — those New Yorkers who come down to Bucks County on weekends to live in their beautifully restored historic farmhouses with their beautiful woods, beautiful deer, beautiful ponds.  If it weren’t for these New Yorkers, there would probably be little land or pastoral places of beauty left.

I used to live in one of those beautiful old farmhouses.  It had been owned by the Clothiers — the Clothiers of Strawbridges and Clothier, the once famous Philadelphia department store.  It was a grand old house with huge original wooden plank floorboards, thick stone walls with 12″ deep windowsills, beautiful old carved moldings around the doorways.  There was a large pony barn, an original springhouse, and a wonderful wraparound porch complete with porch swing and the rocking chair I’d hinted at wanting for my birthday.

There were beautifully manicured flower gardens along lovely low stone walls, there were tall stately tulip poplar trees, one of which bore the quintessential tire swing.  There was a lovely spreading copper beech tree, a sloping lawn, a creek complete with lots of frogs which squealed and jumped no matter how quietly you tried to sneak up on them.  Perhaps best of all, there was a 55-year-old Olympic sized swimming pool.

We — my not-yet husband, his sweet young son, and the three housemates we had so that we could (barely) afford this beautiful estate — used to throw the most amazing parties in the summer.  They were multi-generational parties.  The kids would usually play in the barn or swim, the elders would play cards near the cool stream, and everyone in between would swim or play volleyball, frisbee, or guitar while drinking beer or rootbeer from kegs.  Two or three times a summer, more than a hundred people would revel in the bounty of food and friends, music and nature, warm sun and fresh air.

I used to love watching the fireflies come out in the evening, listening to the bullfrogs and the owls, and watching the clouds float by while lazing on a raft or inner tube in that pool.  In many ways, it was an idyllic time in my life.  Sadly, life’s simple pleasures were interspersed with many discouraging township meetings where I and a few of my neighbors valiantly fought the development that was supposed to be built around us and the neighboring reservoir.

I miss the land of my youth.  I miss the acres of corn I used to walk through on  balmy summer nights with my boyfriend.  All that land is now filled with four-bedroom homes.  The wetlands I used to walk through as a young married woman is now also developed.  I used to love to straggle through the overgrown fields, gazing at the butterflies, listening to the cry of the hawks, looking for the heron nest high in the trees at the edge of the water, hoping to catch a glimpse of the babies.

Sometimes I imagine what this land must have looked like hundreds of years ago, before the arrival of the Europeans and their conquering of both the land and the people who had once lived in such close harmony with it.  It must have been magnificent, filled with thousands and thousands of square miles of woodlands and streams.

My great grandmother was Helen Keen Jamison.  I’m guessing        way, way back I had some keeners among my ancestors — those women who learned the fine art of mourning the dead.  Many times I have wished to hold a memorial service for the land which is buried beneath the houses, the roads, and the stores.  I have longed to cry and keen the loss of all that wild and wonderful beauty.

Meanwhile, whenever I am privileged to see some of that beauty, I give thanks.  I think the land hears me deep inside its silent heart.

December 2013 165