“Being a blessing can be seen when we mow our neighbors yard, when we volunteer at the soup kitchen, when we scrub graffiti off the local shops walls, when we care for single moms, etc. But being a blessing is not actually about activity – it is all about responsiveness. It is about responding to those around you, which requires listening, which requires showing hospitality, which requires creating space in your life, which requires a posture of openness to others. We can fill our schedule with doing nice things, with volunteerism (which is a good thing), with activity. But this doesn’t mean that we’re truly being a blessing. Responsiveness is all about the other person whereas activity can often become about me. The opportunity to respond rarely happens when we want it to, it happens in the middle of life, in the middle of chaos. Activity happens on my own terms, within my planned schedule, and in a context that I’ve chosen. Responsiveness demands that we’re willing to stop what we’re doing to be present for someone or something else. Being responsive kind of sucks. It’s hard. It requires much.” – Blog post from “Musings from the Ground Up,” by Ryan Woods – posted on 4/29/2012

Throughout my life, I hated that the one word that often described my life was “busy.” Busy planning activities for the family, planning activities for the church and youth group, planning meals for the Home Communities, organizing events, scheduling, helping, doing, running . . . and as I reflect, I have to confess that being busy doing good things was my way of being in control.  Sure, there are worse choices – but since I was not connected to me, my feelings, my story, the present moment or, unfortunately, to you – I had to keep the pace fast to stay ahead of my ginormous feelings and story that really wanted to be seen and heard. And as author, Richard Rohr, says “how you treat yourself is how you treat others – how you love anything is how you love everything. How we operate inside ourselves is how we operate outside ourselves. Love is of one piece.” Observe yourself and you will see that this is absolutely true.

So, as I have been on my journey towards surrender, presence, and more authentic connection with my world, Ryan’s words were powerful for me as he spoke of living in a place of responsiveness. But I’m pretty sure to live in a “responsive” place requires that I’m not in charge. That I don’t schedule the heck out of every day – that I allow for margins (those chunks of time on either side of appointments and commitments) so there is time – time to listen, time to be available, time for spontaneous hospitality, time for us.

The neighbor knocked on the door. We share a fence but are on different blocks. We talk over the fence in the summer but during the winter (as it was then) we don’t have contact (unfortunately). But he came and knocked. He wanted us to know that his wife had cancer and was just placed on hospice. He was timid and spoke softly, but he told us that their freezer was full at the moment but there would be needs as time progressed. And there he stood, being vulnerable, asking if we would be responsive. I had to fight off all the guilt because I didn’t already know that she had cancer. What kind of neighbor am I? Here they were suffering, and I didn’t know. I think guilt murders “responsiveness”. And I was determined to not allow guilt to win. My husband went over later that day to get contact information and check on needs for this moment. When he returned home, he told me that the other piece of their story is that their daughter had just died two months ago and then they discovered his wife had cancer. My gut ached. Guilt started hitting me – “they lost a daughter! And I didn’t know!” Man, someone else’s pain can so quickly take a turn and become about me. Shame ran into the picture with a club, not just beating up my choices, but attacking my identity. “I am so self-centered and uncaring. They have been hurting all this time. Their child died too – our son, their daughter. And now he is saying goodbye to his wife with the devastation of his daughter’s departure just moments before.” Let me make something real clear: shame is of the darkness. Shame is evil and wants to destroy us.   Guilt is about what we have done but shame attacks who we are. It must be cast out every time! And so as I cast out shame and extended compassion to myself – because we are all flawed and distracted . . . then – surprise – gratitude had space to peek into the story. He came and he knocked and invited us into their story. Their freezer was full he said, so others have been caring for them. But for a moment, it was our turn.

So, I went over the next day with some dinner. Her hospital bed was in the living room. And I sat and listened to them share about their adult daughter that had died. I had to choose several times to consciously not go back to a shame place but to actually be in the room and allow this to not be about me. She was dying. Be here Bren. And then she asked me to brush her hair. “Would you fix my hair?” She had long gray hair that was in a tangled ponytail. And as I began trying to untangle and brush, I realized that because of the chemo, her hair was falling out and I was holding a portion of her hair loose in my hands. So, I suggested a braid and she was delighted. I think her delight, though, really was about being seen, being touched, about connection. I wasn’t there long, but long enough. She died 2 days later.

Responsiveness. As, I read the excerpt from Ryan’s blog, one morning recently, I was reminded again to be available in a posture of openness as I go through my day. I then headed to work. At one point in my work morning I had to get something out of my car, and I noticed a young man standing in the middle of the parking lot between my car and me. I was on a mission (evidentially, responsiveness was not the mission) to get my project out of my car and get back to work. So, I again walked around him (seriously, Bren?) – but as I got close to the building, his posture sunk in. I looked back at him, observing how he slowly, painfully, was walking through the parking lot. He had a brace on one leg (one just like Ryan wore when his leg was paralyzed) and he was laboring to walk. I thought, “Bren, why did you walk right by him?! This is crazy!   I just read about having a posture of openness. What were Ryan’s words? ‘Responsiveness demands that we’re willing to stop what we’re doing to be present for someone or something else.’ I should go say hi to him. I mean, he was right in my path and was just standing there saying in essence ‘I’m here, I’m open to connecting with another human being,’” and as I am talking to myself, I am watching him laboriously hobble over the pavement, getting further and further away. I went into the building thinking I missed my chance to be “responsive.” No, I say to myself! I can reclaim this responsive moment! I turned around and went back outside and the young man was down the street by now. Did that dissuade me? No! (okay, now I’ve crossed over from being “responsive” to being a little bit of an obsessive creepster)I pretended to be taking a walk down the street, literally almost stalking him at this point, and finally caught up with him and as I awkwardly walked by him, I tried to engage him in conversation. I made a pathetic attempt to validate his hard work in walking and asked if he had been sick. He said it was from an accident … and our deep moment of bonding ended. Yeah, that was completely awkward and disturbing and definitely had the creepy vibe. Okay, so perhaps this “encounter” was really about me – again. I’m pretty sure that responsiveness is not about chasing a guy down the street. It might be about a bigger story being told. A story where, fellow human beings pause in the middle of the chaos of life and become available to one another. Where beauty happens in a moment because I choose to let go of controlling my world and I notice and value you.

“Jesus referred to this kind of stuff as the kingdom of God breaking into the world. Some just say we are learning to be nice. Whatever verbiage you use, the idea is that these kind of moments remind us of how we are intended to live, of who we are intended to be, of what life together is supposed to be like.”  Ryan’s blog 4/29/12


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Sacred Space


“Our big emotions are the path to being awake. . . . awareness is the key.” Pema Chodron

My grateful/thankful emotions feel so big! It’s so weird how you can have huge feelings of thanksgiving and be devastated – all at the same time.

I have grown to love mornings. I didn’t always love mornings. I never could figure out if I was a morning person or a night person. I settled on that I was just a day person. But somehow loss and tragedy transformed me to love mornings. And parts of my mornings are spent in a coffee shop: one of my sacred spaces.

I feel very thankful for this sacred space. What makes a space sacred? What makes it Holy Ground? Perhaps, not what I imagined. As I sit here in mine, it’s not quiet. There is music, some gentlemen talking over coffee and a bagel, cars rushing by and a gentle morning breeze (today it is a sunny morning so I am sitting outside). I love to sit outside because there seems to be more life out here. I feel a deeper connection to the whole world outside. There is a homeless man sleeping at the bus stop and he was just joined by a couple friends who brought a pizza to share for breakfast. And when I’m sitting inside the café, I smell coffee (that waft of coffee steam as I pour my first cup smells like vacation), fresh yeasty bread and bacon. Sometimes my senses are surprised by the lunch prep beginning and onions invade my space. But there is also a deep sense of community here. Tom always sits in the front booth. I call him Elder Tom because he listens and is attentive to everyone’s stories. Five years ago when my son, Ryan, got sick, Tom would check in with me and listen. At one point, when Ryan was on hospice, Tom quietly sang a hymn over me as we stood among the coffee pots. As he sang, I wept as I experienced deep grief and a warmth that flowed through my heart because my pain was seen. What an amazing gift to give – to really “see” someone.

But it’s here that I breathe – deep breaths. I rest my mind, relax my shoulders, and listen. There are no dishes to do, no clothes to fold, the weeds in the garden can wait. Because here, at my coffee shop, there is space. There is room for stillness, reflection, for God, for me and for the other.

Anne Lamott says, “Earth is forgiveness school.”   We need space to forgive . . . to slow down and be still enough to see . . . to recognize the hard places in our hearts. For years and years I ran. Running to keep ahead of the pain – to stay asleep – to stay numb.

There is a soft spot in us that wants to be held and heard. But it is a fragile shy place that responds only to compassion and loving-kindness. We need a gentle space that provides a safe path for all the wounds that are being held. It can feel counterintuitive to extend, as Gerald May put it “excessive compassion to ourselves.”   And it is in this place of abundant compassion that truth tiptoes in. Wounds and hardened places begin to be revealed. It’s in my sacred space that I begin to see my truth – and here is an invitation for courage. The glorious thing is that each compassionate choice begets another. Every moment of courage gives grace for more courage. Providing a safe place for a moment of truth sends mercy throughout our bodies, with an invitation for more truth to peak out into freedom.

My son died when he was 30 years old. Ryan’s grave is sacred space. I like to sit and read to him, eat my lunch, clean up his grave stone, freshen up the flowers and rearrange the sacred heart rocks and Disney pennies that have been carefully laid as messages of love.   My goal has been to visit his grave each week – doesn’t always happen but when I do get to stop by, I began a practice. I can’t help but notice that there are so many grave stones that are overgrown with grass creeping around closer and closer until you can hardly see the name of who lies to rest there. Life has taken their families’ hostage and they haven’t been by in a long time. Life gets so easily crowded. So, I decided each visit I would clean up one grave.

Today is Billie. She was only 49 years old when she died. The epitaph on it says “Outstanding wrestling mom.” Only 49 … it’s been 16 years . . . the grass has enveloped the message. The kids must be all grown by now. Perhaps they have children of their own. Remember me, says the grave. Billie, I’m sorry you had to leave your family so young. Today I see you.

As I packed up my tools, chair, lunch bag and books – an older woman and her fluffy sheep dog walked by. She spoke to me. I’ve noticed that etiquette at the cemetery is that generally you don’t speak to one another. Each one is there with a heavy heart – carrying sorrow, guilt, loneliness, anger, bitterness, love . . . pain. But Kay spoke to me. She said, “Last summer I tried to take care of your tomato plant you placed on his grave. I carry water for my dog on our walks and so I watered your plant every time we walked by.” The beautiful thing is that this day I had just delivered Ryan’s tomato plant for this summer. I had wondered how his tomato plant had survived all summer through our unusual heat last year.  Ryan & I loved to garden. When he was in middle school, he grew pumpkins and researched how to grow a giant one. So, he carefully chose one pumpkin and watered it with milk and tended it daily. I wept as I thanked my new friend, Kay, for caring for “Ryan’s garden.” I never dreamed that a cemetery would be a sacred space for me.


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To Be With

I am sad this morning on so many levels. A friend is very sick in the hospital. Another friend is grieving the death of a precious young friend who died from cancer this very morning.  Then there was the  tragic needless loss of life in Texas yesterday, and today was our last full day with Ryan on this earth 5 years ago. I’m not sure that my goal of writing/posting something each day this week was such a good idea. I spoke yesterday of the gift of presence and as the day progressed, I began to realize the challenge of being present with my story – especially this week – if I am trying to communicate publicly. So, I have given myself permission to post or not to post (I know its only me that is keeping track).

Here is a thought from Henri Nouwen in his book “Bread for the Journey”.

“Consolation is a beautiful word. It means “to be” (con-) “with the lonely one” (solus). To offer consolation is one of the most important ways to care. Life is so full of pain, sadness, and loneliness that we often wonder what we can do to alleviate the immense suffering we see.   We can and must offer consolation. We can and must console the mother who lost her child, the young person with AIDS, the family whose house burned down, the soldier who was wounded, the teenager who contemplates suicide, the old man who wonders why he should stay alive.

To console does not mean to take away the pain but rather to be there and say, “You are not alone, I am with you. Together we can carry the burden. Don’t be afraid. I am here.” . . . We can simply say, “I am your friend, I am happy to be with you.” We can say that in words or with touch or with loving silence. Sometimes it is good to say, “You don’t have to talk. Just close your eyes. I am here with you, thinking of you, praying for you, loving you.”

That is consolation. We all need to give it as well as receive it. “


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The Real Gift

Through the last week I have been reading our son, Ryan’s, last few months of blog entries he posted before he died. He blessed us with his openness and his honesty but, wow – it is hard. The brutal and the beautiful – hand-in-hand. And I continue to learn from him. So much I couldn’t absorb while we were walking through it. I tried to be present – I so wanted to “be there” for Ryan and for Jessica. As I read his blog now, I hear things about his journey through; things I just didn’t have enough space to hold then. I am thankful for his writings on so many levels. But a big reason is that as time passes I get to hear his voice, I can absorb more of what he was sharing, and I can allow it to change me.   The challenge is also to extend grace and compassion to me when I find myself (like this morning) judging myself on what I wish I would have done differently: listened more, asked more questions, read every blog and responded … And so I receive the compassion and mercy – which enables me to extend compassion and mercy to you. Richard Rohr reminds me that how we love and treat ourselves is how we will love and respond to others.

There is much loss and suffering around us.   And although I don’t intent for this blog site to always be about suffering – I want to embrace the fact that I am walking through the last week of Ryan’s life this week – five years later. And I know that many of you are either carrying loss yourself or are walking through suffering with a loved one or friend. Many have shared with me that they just don’t know what to do or say to help those hurting. What so often happens is that we respond out of our fears and our discomfort and it usually doesn’t work out so well. After walking through the loss of my child, I thought, now I know what to say and definitely what not to say.  What kind of help is needed and what may be invasive.  What food is helpful to the family and what food is not? And then I heard myself say “How are you doing?” (how do I think they are doing! They just lost their husband!) or realized that I just brought bread and salad to a family who just lost their mother. (Everyone always bring bread and salad – and sure enough her fridge/ freezer was full of salad and bread!) Now, be gentle with yourself – we have all said those things and brought bread and salad. What I realized is that when I said and did things that I thought I would never say or do again –it was because I was not present. Presence is key. It is tricky I know, because being with those hurting hurts. And it brings up uncomfortable feelings in us or triggers our own past experiences or we can feel ourselves shut down and have no idea what to say or do. You are not alone. It will always be challenging to be present with those suffering. But if I can connect and be present with my own sufferings – I can connect with yours too. Presence. That is the real gift we give to each other – especially when there is pain.  So, I decided to spend the next week or so posting different quotes, excerpts, and other blog postings that might be helpful as you try to be present and gracious to yourself and to others in grief and loss.

An excerpt from Ryan’s blog 7/2/2012

“… In the end Jessica and I are realizing more and more that all we’ve ever been given is today. It’s cheesy to say. It is so incredibly painful to practice in real life. And it definitely has the potential to be one of the most trite things an individual who is not connected to a person’s story can say to someone suffering or grieving – but in this life today truly is all that we have been given. Nothing more, nothing less. I want more. I need more. I have not been promised more. . . not in this life.

Thank you Jesus for the hope in the resurrection.”

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I love coming across truth in books, in nature, in scripture and in the people I meet. You know, if something is true, it is true anywhere and everywhere you find it. It doesn’t matter who says it or where you run across it. Truth is truth. I love that. I am amazed when I come upon truth as I walk in the woods (Richard Rohr calls nature, the first Bible), as I sit in my coffee shop reading a favorite author, as I listen to my grandchildren process their experiences, or as I listen to a friend as she grieves the loss of her loved one. But the hardest truth to hear is when it is spoken by someone who has hurt me or someone who is harsh or offensive in some way. And sometimes – and this actually amazes me every time – I’ll hear that difficult person speak a word of wisdom or insight. And then I remember that God is not bound by my judgments or perceptions. God is everywhere and in everything. And I love seeing Him in surprising places as I go through my day. But I would like to share with you some truths that a favorite author has shared. Ann Lamott, last year on her 61st birthday, wanted to write down and “share everything she knows, as of today.” Thanks Ann. Here are a few:

“Radical self care is quantum, and radiates out into the atmosphere, like a little fresh air. It is a huge gift to the world.”

“Families are hard, hard, hard. . . Earth is forgiveness school.”

“Grace: spiritual WD-40. . . . the movement of Grace is what changes us, heals us, and our world. “

“Laughter really is carbonated holiness.”

“You will worship and serve something – you gotta choose! . . . Emerson said that the happiest people on the earth are the ones who learn from nature the lessons of worship. So, go outside a lot and look up.”

“Exercise: if you want to have a good life (as you grow older) – you must walk almost every day. There is no way around this.”

“Death – wow – so f-ing hard to bear, when the few people you cannot live without die. You will never get over these losses and are not supposed to. . . . Their absence will also be a lifelong nightmare of homesickness for you.”

“All truth is a paradox. Grief, friends, time and tears will heal you. Tears will bathe, baptize and hydrate you and the ground on which you walk.”

And “If you walk away from the microwave while you are softening butter – you will forget and have a puddle of liquid and a big mess.” (ok, that one is mine).


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Traveling through the dark

This blog has been forming in me for the last 4 years – well, perhaps the last 14 years – no, for 59 years. Yes, 59 years, because all the hard, all the wonderful, all the pain, all the joy IS our story.

For most of my life I did not view myself as a writer but I have always been a collector. My English classes were boring, I have never been able to spell, I didn’t grow up reading and most of my college research papers were plagiarized works of art where I basically creatively connected all my notecards of information together into a lovely “research quilt” with almost none of my own thoughts included. Through the years, I struggled to find words to express what is deep inside me, but I’ve always been aware of the voices of others whose words resonated and challenged me, and I treasure those who can articulate thoughts I didn’t know I had and put words to truths that I longed to hear.

The last twelve years have been a season of waking up for me – a time of walking through the darkness of my soul. A time to find my own truth; a season of waiting and transformation not unlike what a caterpillar experiences as she is undone in her chrysalis, that may feel more like a tomb, but in reality is hope for new life. A caterpillar actually becomes liquid within the cocoon; completely undone. But even in that amorphous mess, there are “seeds” of the beauty it will become, placed there in the beginning of its creation as an egg. In my dark cocoon, I connected with my past by sitting in that darkness, listening and watching stories being told – painful, awful stories – but truths that I hold and that have formed me. I realized that hiding, ignoring and burying my truth did not protect me from it. It only gave all that was in the dark, power to control me and to keep me living out of fear, guilt, and shame.

And so I submitted to staying in my cocoon of transformation – for twelve years – being undone (It seems that something can only be remade if it is dismantled first – I hate that). Larva, cocoon, and butterfly . . . . “Separation, transformation and emergence. Life is full of cocoons. We ‘die to ourselves’ and are reborn again and again. By repeatedly entering the spiral of separation, transformation and emergence, we’re brought closer each time to wholeness. . . . “ (When the Heart Waits, pg. 78) We see this repeated everywhere: seed, buried in the ground, and a sprout of new life; a fertilized egg, the womb, and new birth; Egypt, the wilderness and Promised Land.

Life in the cocoon has given me many treasures. Well, not so much possessions, but I have learned what to pursue; what the real treasures are. Before this season of darkness, I was so stuck in a life filled with anxiety, fear, guilt, and shame. I was holding on so tight and being truly present was a foreign concept to me. I was trying so hard to survive that I was missing really living. But the message I kept hearing was let go. “Let go, Bren. It’s okay, just relax, breathe, be here and let go.” That is the primary message of the cocoon for me. For the caterpillar, in the chrysalis, she ceases to be who she once was. She is completely changed. She “lets go” and then one day, she flies!

“The chrysalis had opened! . . . A butterfly! . . . She made no attempt to fly; she just sat on the potting soil, pumping her wings. She seemed to be readying herself for her new life. . . . As I watched her black wings dip and flutter though the morning, a verse moved silently in my thoughts. “Behold, I am making all things new” (Rev. 21:5). When the time is right, the cocooned soul begins to emerge. Waiting turns golden. Newness unfurls. It’s a time of pure, unmitigated wonder. Yet as we enter the passage of emergence, we need to remember that new life comes slowly, awkwardly, on wobbly wings.” (When the Heart Waits, pg. 176).

So, I am in pursuit of the treasures of this life: presence, joy, wonder, peace, laughter, silence, solitude, compassion, prayer, creativity, simplicity, mingling with creation, mercy and grace shared between human hearts in community, the Bible, journaling, and the Mystery of Love with the One who created me and knows me.

Please know that every word spoken here is in process. I struggle to see myself as a writer – but more of a traveler. And I am desperately committed to the journey, to discovery, to truth and to grace. Journaling has been a part of my process for 30 years as it gives me a place to reflect, rant, sort through, discover, and express gratitude. I love it when I run across writers that are able to express the words that I can’t find. So, I will be sharing quotes from others, my questions about the chaos of this life, some of the occasional glimpses of what I believe God may be up to in me or in the world around me. My hope is that my wanderings and wrestling’s might resonate in both our stories.



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