Category Archives: spirituality

Finishing Well

I was asked to contribute a lesson for the book “50 Lessons for Women Lawyers-From Women Lawyers,” by Nora Riva Bergman, which is available soon on Amazon.  Here is my contribution:

In a few  months I’ll be 62 years old. Actress Jane Fonda recently announced she is in her “last act” and although I hopefully have many more years of life, the finish line in my life as a lawyer is more clearly in view.

I want to chart an intentional path for my last act, living mindfully and finishing strong. As I begin the process, I’m struck with paralysis. Where do I want to go? A good starting point might be to reflect on where I’ve been.

I was the youngest in my law school class of 1981, graduating at age 23 and entering full time law practice at age 24.  I’ve had many legal jobs: in-house counsel, associate at firms of varying sizes, solo practitioner and even senior partner at small law firms I’ve formed.  I’d gone to law school to “help people.”  I was a kind and compassionate problem solver, a good listener, and a lover of people from the time I was a little girl.

I launched from law school in one of the early waves of females deployed into the profession. Our role was clear; act like a man.  After all we’d been told that we were taking a spot rightfully belonging to a man with a family to support.

“Mr. Durant died right here at his desk,” I was told by an associate at my first law firm job as he pointed to an office with an empty desk. It was as though Mr. Durant was a warrior who died in battle saving the world.  I got the message.

I dove in as the only female in the firm’s litigation section, charting my course as a workaholic, billing hours like a trooper. I silenced my inner voice and went full speed ahead, learning to be tough. Law school and the lawyers mentoring me convinced me that compassion was a weakness and aggression was a strength.

In my private life I paired with a man also constrained by his job, traveling for business  five days a week. We married and had three children. What was wrong with me? I loved my babies but I was obsessed with being a lawyer.  I heard a new term called “work-life balance” so  I joined the part time work committee of the local bar association. The all -female committee soon disbanded with the summary finding that for women lawyers,”part time” meant shoving all your full -time work into fewer hours and getting paid less.

I navigated as best I could with no women mentors to guide me.  I’d race to little league baseball games, editing documents in the stands while waiting for my son to bat so I could wave and give a thumb’s up, and then race back to the office. I tried to be nurturing but I never took off my lawyer hat, often telling my children to “toughen up” instead of acquiescing to the sorrow of childhood bumps and bruises.   Nannies were enlisted to help assuage working mother guilt. I’d try to mother my children when I came home exhausted from the office.

My marriage began to deteriorate so I stopped practicing law and tried staying home. I was an outcast among the other mothers.  Their conversations were boring and their obsession with their children seemed unhealthy to me. I prepared spreadsheets for class cupcake volunteers and felt incompetent in my new role. I became depressed and like an addict who needed a fix, I yearned for the office.

At the same time, my lawyer father became ill at age 65 and came into my home for hospice care as he was dying. Towards the end he would hallucinate often saying he saw dead lawyer colleagues in the room.  I wondered why the lawyers would show up to him instead of cosmic visits from loving relatives or his golfing buddies.

My father died and I was divorced. Even though I wasn’t working I was “imputed” with the income of a lawyer in the divorce. After all wasn’t that who I was? I had to recreate myself and start making money quickly and the most logical step was to reclaim my lawyer-self.  When I went back to inhabit her skin, I noticed she was different. She was weary, having sustained a whirlwind of life, tragedy, and brokenness.

I set up a law practice focusing on family law and mediation. I’d experienced devastation similar to what my clients were facing. I encouraged clients to find healing, forgiveness and compassion and decided to claim those things for myself.  I still fought for client’s rights and equity, but I did it with dignity, calmness and compassion for all.

I felt more authentic as a person and a lawyer. I began to write. I transported my brother diagnosed at that time with cancer to his chemotherapy appointments. I watched the IV drip, drip, drip of the drug infusing him with life. The writing did the same for me. Each moment in the chair typing was life-giving, healing, rebuilding, and renewing myself.

I wrote and self-published “The Compassionate Lawyer” in 2014 and started speaking to lawyers about compassion in the practice. I mentored several lawyers and helped three women lawyers start their own firms.  I encouraged lawyers to be compassionate problem solvers and for women lawyers to realize we should celebrate our unique gifts and skills as women.

I continue to practice, write and teach about what I’ve discovered.  Earlier this week I saw a woman lawyer in her first few months of practice aggressively tell off a male lawyer on the phone and then hang up only to burst into tears. ”I’m such a wimp for crying!” she declared.

I told her that being tough and aggressive is uncomfortable for many women. We can do it, probably even more biting than men, but is it really who we are? The crying was undoubtedly from the adrenaline but it was also a warning sign of living outside her authenticity. It hurt to watch her minimize her body’s warning and I tried to tell her so, encouraging her to use compassion and dignity instead.   I’m guessing it fell on deaf ears as it would have to me at her age when I ‘d set out to “make my mark” as a lawyer. But at least she is getting a message I was never told.

In my last act, I see a woman enjoying life, available to her three children for long talks instead of saying “I’ll call you after this meeting.”  She is a compassionate, kind person to all she encounters. She practices law in an authentic way that is uniquely hers, until she decides it’s time to stop. That woman will die as far away from her desk as she can get.

From the moment she walked into the doors of law school her identity as “woman” and “lawyer” were permanently fused together. She’s learned many lessons as a woman lawyer. She will claim her journey without regret but with gratitude for the wisdom she’s gained.  And most importantly, she’ll  live out her last act with compassion for herself.

 

 

 

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For Such a Time as This

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For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.”- Jeremiah 29:11

 My daughter Danielle is a middle school teacher at a school in California where her students are largely refugees, and the student body speaks many languages and dialects. Danielle is so smack dab in the bullseye of her life purpose that I am grateful every day that she has the gift of doing what she is meant to do and that she figured it out at such a young age.
 As a baby, Danielle had a horrible case of colic that caused many sleepless nights for her father and me.
The only thing that helped when Danielle was sobbing with colic was when we took her favorite doll, a plush African American doll with colorful ribbons in her hair, and held the doll in front of her face. Danielle would stare at the doll and quiet down almost immediately. We called the doll “Melanie.”
Today she texted me photos from her classroom. She had taken a life long collection of toys (including an elaborate set of beanie babies with the TY tags on them) to her kids, and distributed them to the students, giving them extras to take home to their siblings. In one of the pictures my heart skipped a beat. There was a young girl holding Melanie and smiling brightly.
My first instinct was- how could she have given away one of her most precious dolls, one that she’s had for thirty years? I wanted to be supportive but with a tinge of sadness texted back “Is that Melanie?”
“Yes” she texted back, “and the young girl holding her and smiling is from Haiti where her home was destroyed and her mother died. She fell in love with Melanie and said she has never in her life owned a doll who looked like her.”
What I’ve come to realize is my daughter is my teacher too. Despite my having raised her in Scottsdale in a world of excess, she let go of attachments to “things” and gave away the toys and dolls she had saved “for such at time as this.”
I, on the other hand, still hold on to things that need to be given away or released, material and otherwise.
I am telling myself a story now about Danielle and Melanie thirty years ago. When she was a baby and unable to talk, Danielle looked mesmerized at Melanie and quieted because God was talking to her in secret places. He was telling her “I know the plans I have for you” and showing her a glimpse of her future, and her purpose.
I love you Danielle. And to Melanie I say goodbye, and Godspeed.  I’m praying for blessings for the new little girl who met you today, and who loves you. I hope that you are an instrument of  God’s special messages to her as well.
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O Death Where Is Thy Sting?

HybridGuardianAngel2” Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”-     2 Corinthians 4:16-18

Today will be difficult  so I am writing. It’s my drug of choice in times of strong emotion and particularly soothing right now with a cup of hot green tea at hand, in the quiet of the earliest morning before sunrise.

Later today we will bury Harrison. His obituary says: “He passed peacefully in the arms of his family after a beautiful and unforgettable hour. His life was a brief gift to all that loved him and he will never be forgotten.” Harrison was the newborn son of my nephew Patrick and his partner Diana.

When Patrick was born 28 years ago, my brother (his father) and sister-in-law let me come into the delivery room with them. Patrick came forth after the normal struggle of childbirth and we laughed that he was a “conehead” because his pointy head had been squished in the birth canal during his entrance.

Patrick grew up to be a fine man. I served as Patrick’s godmother as he entered the Greek Orthodox faith through baptism and chrismation.  He became a church altar boy and made the family proud with his sweet and gentle demeanor.  I still see the faces of Patrick and my son Clint in altar boy robes as they flanked the casket of my father at his memorial service,  tears streaming down their young boy faces in the light of the candles they held.

Patrick and Diana made a family with Diana’s young daughter Mya, and their son Lincoln who will be 2 this year. They were delighted to learn Diana was pregnant again but their joy soon turned to shock and sorrow when they learned their infant had Trisomy 18, a life threatening genetic disorder that causes devastating medical issues and often death.  Undeterred, they named their in utero baby boy and we all became acquainted with Harrison.

From the moment they named him,  Harrison became a person.  A person who was a member of our family, and for whom we began to pray and worry.  Patrick and Diana started a gofundme account to help with the inevitable medical expenses and the cost of  sole provider Patrick’s projected absence from his job as a chef near their home in Northern Iowa. Their page kept us all posted on Harrison’s developments.

From the beginning the young parents were committed to seeing Harrison all the way through his birth. Abortion was mentioned by well meaning relatives, but they were champions of life from the get go. After all, this was not just a fetus; it was Harrison. As a pro choice individual I have to admit, Harrison brought me to a new understanding of life and I am more conflicted than before about this delicate issue.

Harrison’s parents sought the best medical treatment for his imminent arrival. They were connected to a hospital well versed in Trisomy 18 and the doctors were strong partners in their quest to spare no effort in helping Harrison. The ultrasound confirmed abnormalities would be life threatening once he breathed his first breath. They were encouraged with small bits of hopefulness such as the determination that despite other challenges, his heart was strong and mighty.

Spiritual support came forth. A Greek Orthodox monk friend saw Patrick’s Facebook post  and rallied the monks at his monastery. “We are praying for Patrick, Diana, Mya, Lincoln and Harrison each specifically and by name,” he reported.  Graciously they also volunteered a burial plot at the monastery for Harrison should it be needed.  Being covered in prayer, the family felt supported in ways beyond the reach of a gofundme page.

At 33 weeks, “Harrison took things into his own hands,” stated Patrick’s Facebook post and Diana went into labor.  An unusually fierce snowstorm had struck and they were unable to make it to the hospital that was awaiting Harrison’s arrival. Instead a nearby hospital would have to do, and Diana gracefully demanded a C-Section when the staff who were not as familiar with Harrison’s medical condition tried to get her to have a vaginal birth.  Harrison’s siblings Maya and Lincoln were along too since the grandmothers could not make it through the storm in time to babysit while mom and dad went to the hospital.

The obituary had it right.Harrison lived an hour.  He was surrounded by his family. His medical conditions were too substantial to sustain life.  Even the more elaborate hospital couldn’t have helped.  A professional photographer came in to take his baby pictures. He was wrapped in a blanket and stocking cap, showing only his perfectly formed, beautiful angelic face.  When Patrick sent me the picture all I could say was “There’s Harrison!” as though I had known him my whole life.

“I don’t want to say goodbye to him,” Patrick texted yesterday when he and Diana were on their way to the mortuary to see their son for the last time. Harrison is coming home to be buried in the same cemetery as my father.  To conserve funds, Patrick will drive his son in his tiny casket from the mortuary three hours to the grave site in West Des Moines. “I’m leaving soon to get my boy,” he texted me moments ago.  He is bringing his son home.  Harrison will be buried in the “Garden of the Innocent” not far from the mausoleum where my dad rests, and amidst other babies who have died.

Later today, our immediate family will gather at the gravesite, along with our monk friend and our Greek Orthodox priest. On St. Patrick’s Day we will bury Patrick’s son, our beloved Harrison. He is every bit as cherished a member of our family as the old grandparents we have buried before him. It’s hard to explain how one can feel so connected to a spirit who only passed through so briefly. It’s something I have never experienced before in my life, and has been quite unexpected. I like to envision my father holding his great grandson Harrison in his arms with a big smile, like I saw him hold my three adult children when they were infants.

Harrison’s  innocence, his courage, his radiance, the devotion of his parents, his reminder to all of us that life is fragile and every moment matters, and his valiant struggle to breathe in this beautiful gift of life for even only an hour has profoundly changed us.  Godspeed my great nephew.

We love you Harrison.

O Lord Who watches over children in the present life and in the world to come because of their simplicity and innocence of mind, abundantly satisfying them with a place in Abraham’s bosom, bringing them to live in radiantly shining places where the spirits of the righteous dwell: receive in peace the soul of Your little servant Harrison, for You Yourself have said, “Let the little children come to Me, for of such is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Amen.

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Dark Night of the Soul

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Why are you cast down O my soul? And why are you disquieted within me?”-Psalm 42:5  

Several months ago I went through a rough time and I didn’t know if it qualified as depression. I’d suffered from a massive depression 35 years prior in law school that left me catatonic and treating with a psychiatrist. There had been hard days when the kids were little, a sad time after my divorce, and “the blues” triggered by menopause hormones but nothing that didn’t ultimately pass through. This time seemed different.

My  brother had been diagnosed with cancer and it was a dark and lonely trek walking alongside him. My “rock” bolted in the middle of it, unable to handle my constant sadness and emotional exhaustion. Incidents with a few close friends made me realize that I’d misjudged the depth of our friendship. I felt alone and  my usual comfort from my relationship with God wasn’t coming through.

I started to see a compassionate therapist and brought him up to speed on my circumstances.   He pronounced my “downer” the result of grief and loss of epic proportions. It was helpful talking to him and we agreed to meet once a month to touch in. I’d find myself driving to his office wondering what in the world I would talk about for an hour and then getting there talking so fast I couldn’t stop even as time ran out. Yet therapy still didn’t satisfy my aching heart and soul which only seemed to get worse.

One of my stalwart girlfriends is a spiritual warrior. “Dark night of the soul,” she pronounced, and I wondered if there was such a thing, and how it differed from depression. I took to reading about the subject and hearing from people who had endured one.

Named after the poem by Roman Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross, a “dark night of the soul” is a period in which you feel overwhelming despair, and during which God is purportedly taking you deeper into new realms of spiritual experience even though it seems like he has disappeared. A big part of the experience is to let go of ego, surrender to the situation, and recognize that through courage and perseverance you are being groomed for greater love and awareness.

I don’t know about you, but my idea of a deepening spiritual experience would be an outstanding dream during which answers automatically fall out of a cloud like mystical raindrops quenching the dryness of a stagnant, sad period of life. Or maybe a walk in nature during which an incredible download of clarity drops on your head and you have a new wealth of inspiration and zest for life. Sitting in an empty abyss of nothingness didn’t exactly seem like fertile ground for getting jazzed with God and his grace. And did I forget to mention that during the dark night there is an increased temptation to engage in destructive behavior?

The Dark Night isn’t a purely spiritual crisis and it’s not a purely psychological one. It’s the best of both meaning it can’t be “therapized” away and can’t be prayed away either.  I had the psychological angle covered with the therapist but I couldn’t find spiritual comfort with God. He’d gone silent.  King David spoke of this in Psalm 13:1,”How long Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”

Waiting out the dark night is often all that can be done, but during the process it is helpful to pray for revelation of what God is trying to “burn off” from you. Often it’s a need to let go of control, recognize the impermanence of much of life, and surrender to trust and acceptance of things that cause you fear. The ego loves control and fearfulness; the dark night is in battle with the ego. It’s like there is a spiritual wrestling match between ego and surrender and the dark night had to come to provide a venue for the show down.

The more you resist the process, the longer it lasts and the more likely you are to have to go through it more than once. If the process is fully embraced there are things that “die” (usually things of the flesh, control and the comfortable life) leaving behind a path of love, compassion, understanding and spiritual awakening of the essence of the most important things in life.

Unlike depression which can leave you unable to function, those in a dark night are often able to continue with their work and acts of compassion. The spirit stays strong and belief strengthens even though it seems like there is good reason to abandon faith. Thoughts of self loathing or self harm present in depression don’t appear in the dark night.

Even Mother Theresa suffered from a dark night of the soul as evidenced by the writings she left behind. “I am told God lives in me, and yet the reality of darkness and coldness and emptiness is so great that nothing touches my soul,” she wrote in 1957. Many were astonished that she would have had these thoughts, but those who know about the dark night aren’t surprised.

I know that all suffering  transforms us. Having moved through my “dark night” I have more clarity and passion for my purpose, a new appreciation for the strong relationships in my life (including a beautiful new one), and a renewed spiritual strength.

 

 

 

Choosing Prayer as a Spiritual Practice

images-2Everywhere I turn I’m hearing about meditation. There are meditation retreats, podcasts, books and people pitching its benefits. I’m noticing a divide beginning: either you meditate or you don’t. Some with other traditional spiritual practices incorrectly dismiss meditation as being affiliated with a specific religion, usually Buddhism.

I studied Transcendental Meditation in the 1970’s with meditators who set up shop in a big musty house near the Drake University campus. I was in high school and my ultra hip boyfriend at the time convinced me to take the training. We were each assigned a mantra, and we started a mediation practice that didn’t endure. I’m not convinced I really understood the premise as a teenager, pursuing the practice mostly to prove to my boyfriend that I was “avant garde.”

I have had a beautiful spiritual practice that has endured for me, and it’s PRAYER, based on my Christian faith.

I learned to pray as a child in the Methodist church Sunday school classroom, praying simple table grace and prayers before bed. At age 12, my family returned to the Greek Orthodox Church and I was exposed to long, poetic prayers in both Greek and English. The prayers of the church were drafted for us by saints and holy people, and we were taught it was safest to pray those specific prayers so that you were sure to approach God with reverence.

For years I’ve loved Orthodox prayer especially because it requires my full attention and the prayers are all encompassing. As a young wife and mother I set up a home altar facing east with incense, a candle (representing the light of Christ) religious icons and my prayer book and would pray as the sun came up knowing that the sunrise offers promise and is a masterpiece of God. Praying first thing in the morning grounds me, keeps my mind clear, makes me have a better day. I’ve even traveled to local monasteries to be among the prayer warriors.

The Greek Orthodox use prostrations during prayer. We may simply bend down and sweep the back of our hand to the floor before doing the sign of the cross across our bodies. During the spiritual boot camp of Lent, we get on the floor on all fours and bend our bodies down, praying a special prayer  asking God to help us make powerful transformative changes in our lives. We are encouraged to pray at sunrise, sunset and “the hours” marking times of events such as the hour the Holy Spirit descended at Pentecost and the hour Christ was nailed to the cross.

I’ve recently broadened my prayer life with influence from Protestant literature. I read  “Let Prayer Change Your Life,” a book that encourages journaling your prayers; nirvana for someone who loves to write. Once I began the journaling practice my heart opened up immeasurably and my prayers became more personal. In times of distress my prayers seem as powerful as those of the psalmists. I now use my Orthodox prayers along with prayers that I journal.

I love reading in the Bible about  Jesus’ prayer life: “Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed.”– Luke 5:16

In the New Testament the action would be heating up and the disciples would basically say, “Hey where did Jesus go?” Low and behold they would figure out he was off praying somewhere. He wasn’t a fan of theatrical public prayer even calling out the “holy people” as hypocrites in Matthew 6:5 because they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others.”

Instead, Jesus instructed us But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” – Matthew 6:6

Prayer is very personal. I choose to believe that God is just grateful that we are trying to make a divine connection, in any way that is authentic to us. Author Anne Lamott defines prayer as “anything you say to God from your heart.” She wrote a book distilling most prayer to the words “Help, Thanks, Wow.”

As a lawyer and mediator (careful, meditate and mediate can get confusing!) I enjoy praying for clients. On rare occasions I do this with them, but most often it is done silently after they leave my office or before we enter into court or mediation. In Praying for Strangers” the author decided to find a person in her path every day and to offer to pray for them. She chronicles the stories of the people she touched through this practice and the conclusion is an obvious one: we can all use prayer.

Prayer and meditation aren’t mutually exclusive. If there were a “mantra”  from the Bible it would come from Philippians 4:8:  “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about (or in some translations, MEDITATE ON) such things.”  For me that means watching the news less, and meditating on these things more.

The Bible also gives us meditation direction in Joshua 1:8 “Keep this Book of the Law always on your lips; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful.”  Just as many meditators focus on the breath, those who use the Bible focus on specific verses sometimes reading them over a few times, slowly emphasizing different words. Through prayer we add the next step, asking God “What does this say to me?” “How do I apply this to my life?” “What are you equipping me to do through this passage?”

Like meditation, prayer doesn’t come easily and to receive the full benefit it must be a consistent practice. Praying to God in the car or  when you think of it is great but that type of “prayer on the run” might be similar to meditation on on the run. When my prayer life is disciplined and rich I have much more clarity, serenity and focus.

I’m convinced meditation and prayer can live in tandem in my spiritual life and I’m choosing not to get bogged down in semantics. Recently I gathered  a group of lawyer colleagues to meet weekly and study  “The Anxious Lawyer” ,  a book for lawyers that provides instruction on how to meditate.

A solid spiritual practice can bring richness to our lives. Whether it is solitude, nature, prayer, meditation, creativity or something else, we can each choose a method that resonates with us.

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