Tonight’s Spiritual Writing class began with a meditation of the 23rd Psalm. Each of us read a verse of the Psalm and then reflected for about 10 seconds before the next person read. At the end of the Psalm, we were given 5 minutes to select and then write about the verse, or part of the verse, that spoke to us the most and why.
Long before Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens in Spartanburg, SC graced the covers of magazines and became the subject of several videos and feature newspaper articles, Tim and I were there. Before Paul Roberts Abernathy retired after decades as an Episcopal Priest in Washington, DC, his wife Pontheolla Mack Abernathy had dreams of opening a Bed and Breakfast in SC where she was born and raised. Tim and I met Paul and Pontheolla in 2006 at the church where Paul was serving as Rector and before long we had become family or “frienalies”, the term Paul gives to friends who become family. Pontheolla and I took road trips in 2012 to search for the perfect B&B and after Paul and Tim joined the trips to see the finalists, Clevedale was the eventual winner. Pontheolla’s dream had become a gorgeous reality. Three years ago this week, Tim and I made our final trip to Clevedale, and that trip in 2016 has been on my mind for weeks.
In last week’s Spiritual Writing class, my classmates and I were given an assignment to write throughout the week about the places that were important in our lives, and last night’s assignment for this week is to focus on the important people in our lives. I tried writing about Clevedale last week, and though I started, the words didn’t come easily. So instead, I decided to write a combined piece about both Clevedale the place, and Paul and Pontheolla, the people. Both have been extraordinarily important in my life and have helped to make me the person I am today.
Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens was one of Tim’s favorite places on earth. As we drove up the long driveway to Clevedale, Tim would say that peace and calm would wash over him. The first thing he’d do when he got out of our SUV was to throw up his hands and declare “I’m home”. And who wouldn’t want Clevedale to be their home? It isn’t just a majestic Inn with tall pillars, beautiful layout and extraordinary furniture and decor, there are also lush gardens and fountains and many places that provide solitude and erase all your worries and troubles.
The trips we made down to Spartanburg before Clevedale officially opened were some of the most fun we had as frienalies. There was moving heavy furniture under the watchful eye of Pontheolla, laughing hysterically at Tim’s crazy jokes, trying out new restaurants, fun family vacations, yelling and screaming over our endless Scrabble games and there was wine… lots and lots of wine. Tim loved being Pontheolla’s taste tester, and she got him to try foods he’d never try for anyone else. Paul would say every now and then that Tim was his brother, but I don’t think I really understood the magnitude of that relationship until later.
Once Clevedale opened and Paul and Pontheolla became official B&B owners, we would visit as often as we could, claiming the room painted in Tim’s favorite color orange as “our room”. Whenever we arrived, Paul and Pontheolla would rush outside to receive Tim’s coveted “bear hugs”! Paul would quickly gather up our luggage and head inside, followed closely by Pontheolla who would rush back to the kitchen to finish up whatever treat or new dish she was making for Tim. Sometimes Tim would hang outside for a few minutes to just take in all of the green grass and trees, the colorful flowers and bushes, and just the stillness that is a huge part of the acres of the property. On that last trip in 2016, Tim seemed more quiet than usual, taking it all in as if he was savoring every moment. I can’t even put into words how grateful I am that the four of us had that weekend together.
When someone gets sick, the worst thing you have to do is notify others. My call from NY where we were vacationing to Paul and Pontheolla was difficult. It began on day one with me informing them of Tim’s stroke, then the next day of another stroke, and another. Then the news on day four that the strokes were caused by a cancer. That news was the first sign of stress in Pontheolla’s voice, and I remember her yelling “this is SERIOUS!!” It sure was. Two days later as Tim had his final stroke right before my eyes I called Clevedale once again, this time screaming and yelling that Tim was dying. Paul was calm, continuously calling my name in attempt to calm me down. Pontheolla was on her cell phone calling our daughter to come back to the hospital to be with me. The day that they told me that Tim wasn’t going to wake up, Paul and Pontheolla each spoke to him as I held the phone up to his ear. I pray that he heard their voices.
When Tim died, Paul and Pontheolla closed Clevedale for a week and drove to Maryland to be with me. During the funeral, Paul gave a stirring tribute to Tim and Pontheolla sang her heart out. Thinking back on it, I would have given anything that week to run to Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens to sit calmly in the gardens and feel close to Tim in a place where he always felt welcomed and free to be himself. The first time I went to visit Clevedale after Tim’s death, it was the most difficult thing ever and I could hardly breathe as I drove up the driveway. Thankfully they gave me a different room to sleep in from the one that had been “ours”. Just like I still can at home, wherever I am in Clevedale, I can hear and feel Tim. I sat where he sat, I walked in his favorite part of the garden, and I stood in the place where he had a scary fall while helping Paul move some equipment.
It’s been a year since I’ve been there, but I know I’ll eventually go back. Clevedale Historic Inn and Gardens is a place where we made some memories I’ll never forget and learned some incredible life lessons. I learned that you do anything for family, that relationships aren’t always easy but the great ones are worth the effort, and that dreams really can come true. From Paul and Pontheolla I’ve learned that you’ve got to be tough to run a successful business, that you never give up on your dreams, and that hard work brings fabulous results.
I talk a lot about memories and writing about some of our most memorable times in such a memorable place has brought me a lot of peace. In a Facebook memory today our visit to Clevedale was posted. Paul commented that he’s often qwondered that if we had realized then how sick Tim was if we could have saved him. I’ve thought about that too, but believe that God knew Tim wasn’t suited to long illnesses and would likely not done well with chemo, so I am grateful that he died believing that we were still camping and that he was well. I’m grateful that he had all of those great memories of Clevedale too. As you’re reading this I hope you have a special place in your life like Clevedale Historic Inn and Garderns where you can find your peace, but if not, Spartanburg, SC isn’t that far away and I’m sure Paul and Pontheolla would welcome you with open arms. Tell them I sent you!
It’s been five full years since Mom has known my name. But I’ve always said, she doesn’t have to know my name for me to feel her love. Even after she forgot who I was, Mom always remembered her best friend Vivian Adams someone she’s known for my entire life.
Last year, Mom started to forget her dearest friend but I had warned Mrs. Adams in advance and she was just fine with it. Mrs. Adams continued to share their old stories and memories and Mom laughed and giggled with her friend though I’m sure she didn’t understand all that was going on. But none of that seemed to matter.
Last August, Mrs. Adams was the victim of a domestic violence incident with her son which caused social services to remove her from her home and place her in protective custody in a senior residence. I was able to track her down and saw her on her birthday on August 31. She smiled brightly when I walked into her room that day but it was clear she didn’t know my name but she still had a sense of who I was. I was told she had suffered a traumatic brain injury and that it was unlikely that she’d regain much of her memory.
For most of my life we’d spend Mom’s birthday on February 18th with Mrs. Adams and we’d all celebrate Mrs. Adams birthday in August together. So today, I was determined to get the two ladies together for Mom’s 90th!! I knew it was unlikely that they’d know each other but I still wanted them to be together.
So I placed Mom’s 90th birthday tiara on her head and we headed to see Mrs. Adams! When the two ladies saw each other you couldn’t have scripted it any better!! They smiled the biggest smiles you’ve ever seen and both said “HI” in their most joyful voices!! They didn’t really have a conversation exactly…. just “how are you?” and the other would answer “fine and you!!” and that went on for quite a few minutes. But it was when they weren’t sharing their few words that you could see and feel their love for each other.
They would smile and nod over and over and a few times they held hands and stared straight ahead. I sat and watched them for about 15 minutes and I felt so full I thought I would burst. A traumatic brain injury and Alzheimer’s disease may have prevented them from continuing their old relationship full of more than 80 years of memories, YET neither brain disorder was any match for the love that the two friends share. I learned so much from watching the two of them this morning… the primary lesson being that sometimes words really are overrated, and as the old saying goes, all you really need is love! As we got ready to leave, tears streamed down Mrs. Adams’ face and she said “I’m so happy”…. I couldn’t have said it any better! God knows I was happy too… we all waved and Mom yelled to Mrs. Adams “see you next time!” And Mrs. Adams said “can’t wait”. I hope I don’t forget our visit this morning any time soon because it was one of the most meaningful things I’ve done in a long time!
Love you Mom! Love you Mrs. Adams! Thanks for reminding me that love really can conquer all!!
I’ve been taking a Spiritual Writing class at Virginia Theological Seminary since January 29th. The first class was cancelled due to an ice storm, but our instructor sent us an assignment to make up for the missed class. The assignment was to begin writing three pages (called Morning Pages) every morning for the six weeks of the class that captured any and all thoughts that came to our minds. We were also supposed to go on a weekly Artist Date alone where we experienced some sort of art and reflected on the spiritual nature of the art form.
Then this week, the assignment changed. We were to continue writing our three Morning Pages but to now focus on the spirituality of some of the mundane things around us. Our instructor asked us to write about places that helped to form us, to describe in detail the places where we actually wrote our three pages (and asked us to change the location of where we wrote several times this week) and to describe in detail some of the things that were in the vicinity of where we wrote. We were to describe something that specifically stood out to us.
For the first two weeks, I wrote my Morning Pages only in my kitchen, the place were I spend about 70% of the time when I’m at home. There are some really mundane things in my kitchen – typical appliances, a tv, food and drink and Plants which line my window sill. The most interesting of those things, and what I chose to write about first were my plants. I was never a plant person, EVER. That was Tim’s job because I killed everything that arrived in our kitchen alive. Then when Tim died in July 2016, I received five plants as gifts. I was determined NOT to kill these plants.
On the first anniversary of Tim’s death, those plants were STILL alive! I was proud! They were STILL alive at the end of year two as well!!! Now as we go into the third year, almost all of the plants are now in larger planters, having outgrown their original homes. So this week I wrote about one of those plants in my Morning Pages. I’m ashamed to admit that in examining the plant closely, I discovered something I hadn’t noticed before. The plant I chose to write about isn’t the tallest plant in my window, BUT it is the BRIGHTEST of all the plants. It is the GREENEST of the color green. It’s the one that catches your attention as soon as you come into the kitchen. I believe it is the plant that represents my life and the one that God intends for me to focus on for strength to get through this life. This plant has the largest leaves, the brightest roots and has vines that has grown down to the floor.
As I focused on my writing assignment, I began trying to describe the plant in great detail. I realized that the vines of the plant were tangled together. When I untangled the vines, there were not just one, but three very distinct vines. As I examined the vines it struck me that they represent my life almost perfectly. The vines are thick, and tough and go in all sorts of directions. I believe the longest one represents my 60 years of life. It has about 20 very beautiful leaves on it, that just seem to scream LIFE!! There is a vine right next to one that represents my life, and I didn’t realize it was a separate vine until I started to untangle it. Turns out it wraps around the first vine, and has about 15 leaves some of which shine brightly even in minimal light. That vine for me represents God in my life. That vine has been holding up the vine that represents my life, wrapped around me the entire time… but in the background, unseen until I began to look closely. Isn’t that where God is in all of our lives? In the background until we need him, but holding us up whether we are paying attention or not.
The last major vine on my BRIGHTEST plant is one that has three bright sets of leaves that are growing in different directions.. For me that vine is the work that God has given me to do. The first set represents my chosen vocation that I’ve been involved in for more than 30 years. The second set, which has small leaves that grow each day represents my Alzheimer’s work. Those leaves are just starting to stand out, making their own path along the floor of my kitchen.. much like the path I’m making throughout the US as I travel to speak. The last section I believe represents my growth since Tim’s death. The leaves are small but strong, and have splotches of yellow on them interrupting the bright green… for me those yellow splotches represent my grief… still there, but no longer overwhelming me as it had when Tim first died.
This Writing as a Spiritual Practice class has focused my attention on all things that surround me, and has allowed me to see God in all things – and all people. I’m so proud of myself not only for signing up for this class, but also for stepping outside of my comfort zone to learn a new way to approach writing. If someone had told me before this class started that I’d be writing about the spirituality of a plant I wouldn’t have believed it. Yet here we are, and I’m thrilled that I am allowing myself see and experience the awe in any and everything that God created. So Amen to that.
While all of today’s performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater was stunning, it was the dance known around the world simply as “Revelations” that broke open my soul. If you’ve never seen it live or snippets of it on YouTube, stop right here and Google it before reading further.
The Alvin Ailey Dance theater has been part of my life for almost my entire life. I first came to see it when I was about 11 years old and I came with Mom and my aunt and sister (and other relatives who joined over the years) until I was 50 years old and Mom’s dementia got to the point that she could no longer enjoy the performance. I was heartbroken when we had to stop.
So after 10 years, I came today as part of the “Artists Date” assignment for my Writing as a Spiritual Practice class. It truly was a Spiritual experience and spurred me to write right away. I’m soooo glad that I decide to come today though I missed having Mom with me more than I can say.
On the Alvin Ailey website Revelations is described as “Using African-American spirituals, song-sermons, gospel songs and holy blues, Alvin Ailey’s Revelations fervently explores the places of deepest grief and holiest joy in the soul.”
Today’s performance of Revelations tore through me and reminded me of so many things. The dance starts with “I’ve been buked, I’ve been scorned”… which so eloquently depicts the lowest pains of life. It’s stunning in its simplicity but captures true pain.
One my other favorite pieces is “Fix Me Jesus”, because don’t all of us want to be fixed?? It absolutely struck me today given the current divisiveness in our country. What will it take to fix us????? When we came to the performance of Revelations in 2007, Mom was in the first 6 months of her dementia diagnosis. As soon as the segment “Fix Me Jesus” started, tears began pouring from her eyes because she wanted her dementia fixed! And today, recalling that moment during today’s performance tears poured from my eyes too. I sure do wish Jesus would fix all those with dementia.
The “Wade in the Water” portion of Revelations is the highest of the high of the performance. The audience is clapping and swaying and it is always so uplifting! I think about all of the times Mom played Wade in the Water by my bedside when I was sick and we would hum along. That song got me through so many tough situations.
Today I think the piece that spoke to me the most was “I Wanna Be Ready” which is about being ready to die and going to heaven wearing a white robe. Is anybody ever really ready to die?? I cried through that portion too because I couldn’t stop thinking about Tim. He was one man who wasn’t ready to die and he said as much during the last few days of his life when it was becoming more evident that he wasn’t going to survive. Didn’t think that song would impact me so deeply.
Mom’s favorite part of Revelations is “Rocka My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham”. By the time this last piece of the dance is performed the entire audience is on its feet!! Today that song brought me so much joy and comfort!! It a rollicking foot stomping and hand clapping song!! It also brought me so much peace. Because I know I’m safe and secure in the arms of God. It also reminded me of my work with Alzheimer’s where I’ve learned to comfort my Mom by hugging and rocking her when she’s scared. She then looks relieved and I feel great!! Though I don’t hug the people in the audiences I speak to, I know I bring them comfort and peace and maybe even some joy with the strategies, solutions and examples I use to conquer the challenges of dementia. I’m doing the work God intended for me to do.
As the Dance Theater members took their final bows at the end of Rocka My Soul I wasn’t the only one with tears running down my face. I was sorry the show was over and also sorry I hadn’t seen it for ten years. I hope that next year I can get a small group together to come with me so I can start a new tradition even if it’s not with my actual family members.
I don’t think I was required to write for class after my “Artists Date” but I was compelled to write the moment it ended. Now I get to enjoy more live art as some of the Alvin Ailey dancers are going to give a free demonstration of Revelation’s choreography. I didn’t think today could get any better, but it just might!
I hope today that something wonderful has been revealed in your life! If you want to share, I am happy to read about it!! I’m thrilled with all of my REVELATIONS on this day and look forward to many more in 2019!!
June 5th was a day of beautiful connections! It started with the long awaited placement of my three dental implants!! I was thrilled to be almost done with the expensive but very gratifying process and only two more placements to go!
I next went to visit Mom to deliver her coloring book! She was very alert and grabbed onto the book and smiled and laughed!! It was so cool to watch her!! She read the title and my name over and over. Then she pointed to my name on the cover of the book and asked “is this you?” I said it was and she stated emphatically “you have a really long name!” We both laughed! It wasn’t important to say that she’d given me most of my name, because we were so connected at that moment that nothing else mattered. I love it when she’s so alert as they are some of our best memories!
But it was my last connection of the day that I hope will stay with me forever. Having signed up for a Writing as a Spiritual Practice class, I arrived at Virginia Theological Seminary about 45 minutes before class time and headed to the campus coffeehouse (the former site of their bookstore). A few minutes after I sat down with my coffee a young woman wandered in and asked if I knew where the Spiritual Writing class was being held. I told her that I too was in that class and pointed her towards where I believed it was being held. She had such a warm smile and headed to the classroom. She yelled out to me “if I’m not in the class come looking for me” and I promised I would.
When I came into the classroom right before it started I saw my friend I’d met a few minutes before on the other side of the classroom. I headed over and sat down next to her. There were 8 of us total not counting the instructor. After a brief introduction by the instructor and a guide to how the 6 week course would unfold we were given our first assignment.
We were partner with the person sitting next to us, interview them on their background, why they were taking the course and their experience with writing…as my new friend and partner began conducting our “interviews” of each other, I realized we had the most unusual connection, which was stunning because she was only 45 years old. Both of us are widows, and her husband of 19 years succumbed to cancer after a seven year battle in Nov 2017… AND both of us have adopted this goal of pressing on by trying new things!! When I told her of my 60 new things for 60 years she was stunned and thrilled!! One of the most amazing things that my partner shared with me was that she had gone to Costa Rica on the first anniversary of her husband’s death to learn how to surf. And yesterday before our class started she had her first date in 20 years. I told her I was proud of her, that she had ventured out to meet a new person. Even though they didn’t have a connection she is now empowered to go out on a date again. At the end of our interviewing and sharing I knew I had a made a friend for life.
What was sooo amazing about the four pairs of partners in our class, is that each of us had fairly significant similarities with the classmate we were paired with. There were partners with the same interests, lived in the same town, same vocation, etc. It was amazing!!
Everyone was saying how they had not only found a great class (which it is) but a great friend too. We are learning how to write prayers to God, and I believe that God put all of us not only in that classroom together, but it the pairs we were in too! After the awesome class ended and my partner and I walked to the parking lot, we shared that though I’m 15 years older we were destined to meet and be friends. We will be doing a lot of writing in this class, but I believe that God wrote us all a note and gathered us all in that room for this class. I look forward to reading and writing all the assignments for the next 6 weeks! We will be writing Morning Pages every day which is three pages of writing each morning before we do anything else. It also involves a weekly artist date of spending at least two hours in a setting where you can feel closer to God. I am already enjoying this class and am looking forward to everything I’m going to learn! I feel much closer to God already!