Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Abundant Connections

I work as a hospice chaplain at Aseracare Hospice. I go into the homes of people whose diagnosis has a declining trajectory. Treatments, medicines and care are directed toward comfort rather than cure. Our hope, as hospice care providers, is that the patient and their families will find meaning in the experiences involved with dying and death. Our work aims to make connections that will increase the chance that our patients will discover new meaning in their lives even in its last few weeks.

I tell the patients when I meet them that I do not have pain medicine to offer. I am not the nurse. I do not know community resources and systems like the social worker does. I don’t come with the skills that our nursing assistant does to give a bed bath, shampoo hair and trim nails. I come with an open mind and a warm heart. I can stay for a short or a long time-- depending on the patient’s desires and needs.

We might assume that people who are dying have little or nothing to give. They are often weak and struggling with pain or nausea. Yet in so many cases I have watched while the dying person offers strength, comfort and peace to the family and friends—showing them that each day is a gift and each moment is an opportunity to connect and be blessed by the simple joy of being together.

It is surprising to find abundance where we thought there would be only scarcity. It’s humbling to discover serenity where we expected anxiety and fear. It’s startling to feel strength where we see a weakened body. The power of our human Spirit, the presence of love among us and within us, feeds us and leaves us with baskets of leftovers to share. It seems to be a matter of trust and acceptance.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Prison Stories

Twice a week I meet with twelve women inside the county jail. We sit in a circle and share stories. For four months the class participants read, reflect, write and share what they have written. I develop a script from the written work and shared stories. Then local professional actors stage a performance for staff, family members and all the other women in the facility. It’s an ongoing project I call “Prison Stories.”

The women write stories about being teen mothers, violence in their homes and on the streets, addictions of their own and those of close family members, encounters with police, racism as a steady drumbeat, belonging to one group while, at the same time, being left out of another group. They write and talk about their journeys into criminal charges. They enjoy telling stories about their mothers and favorite foods. We laugh together as class members share stories about learning to drive, first kisses, bosses and crazy things they have done with friends. We cry together as class members tell about the deaths of mothers, sisters, brothers and children. Every person has a story, a sacred story, to share. Each class member learns to improve her listening skills. Empathy is available in abundance as a steady reward for the story sharing process.

It is an ongoing class with ongoing benefits. The women learn to trust that the story circle can and will hold with compassion the truth and power of each story. Each participant begins to realize that she has the capacity to create new things. Each story that is shared contributes to the one final performance and reflects a larger hope that lives in all our hearts. We all hope that we have something significant to say, something of value to contribute to the world around us. Sharing stories in a circle of respect can set us free from the small cage that insists: Nobody cares to hear about you.

All life stories are sacred and circular. We come from The Source and we return to The Source. Between our coming and going we cling to the compassion of our family, neighbors, co-workers and friends. And we receive with respect the stories that are told to us, stories of truth and power. Healthy communities are made of people who long to believe that our stories, even our stories, contribute to the sacredness of all creation. It is through our respectful listening that we provide rest for the soul and hope for those who are weary. We have the power and opportunity to make the world a safer place for all our children and our neighbors' children. We can work together to make our generation a story sharing generation where all people recognize the value of their own story and listen with respect to the stories of others.