Blog Post: Still Points and Watersheds

There are these curious moments in our lives. Moments when we know we are poised on the edge of something that will forever change us. Sacred moments.

In literature we calls these Watershed scenes. A watershed scene is a high point, a dividing line, a place of pause and vision, where you can look back and see the place from where you came. And also look forward at what lies ahead. It’s that place where you take a great big breath, honor and bless the past, and get ready for the great adventure waiting.

In body work, there is something called the Still Point, a moment where traumatic memory ceases and quiet enters. In this moment, the body reorganizes. Integration happens so the past can be released and new life can begin.

In both situations, nothing going forward will ever be the same.

We’ve all had defining moments such as these. The one that always makes me smile began in 1997, when I was writing my first (and so far my only) novel. A lot of things were happening in my life back then. A year earlier, I had lost a childhood friend at the age of thirty. I knew nothing going forward would be the same. Almost a year to the date of my friend Eddie’s passing, I lost my grandmother and was present at her death. Just days later, I was in a car accident caused by a drunk driver and had a near death experience. Nothing going forward could ever look the same.

During my recovery from the accident, I decided to write the novel I had wanted to write. Writing kept me sane. It kept me busy. It gave me a feeling of purpose. And it gave me a creative outlet. These things were good for me in my healing. I was dealing with some pretty serious pain at the time. I was dealing with PTSD (at that point undiagnosed) from the accident and near death. And I was feeling deeply alone, separated from my spirituality, and misunderstood. There were very few people I’d allow near me. Creativity saved me.

It took me two years to write that novel and fifteen years before I would see it published. It sold a few copies. Feedback was positive. I had given people a chance to think about some things that were important to me. And all that made me happy enough. It was that thing I had always wanted to do that I finally did. I could check something off the bucket list.

I thought that was the end of it.

A year after publication, I had moved to Colorado from Arizona (coincidentally, my protagonist had done the same thing). I was opening a new acupuncture practice. A friend back in Phoenix insisted I needed to open a Twitter account to promote my business.

I hate Twitter. I told her no.

She persisted. And persisted.

A few weeks later, I acquiesced.

I had no idea what I was doing, but I figured it was sensible to follow some gurus in the healing world. So I followed Deepak Chopra and Caroline Myss. A few  other suggestions came my way. I followed those too.

Then I got a suggestion to follow this mystical poet named Carl Barbarotto.

My grandmother’s sister, who had long passed, was married to a man with the same last name. I thought that was interesting. I checked out this guy’s poetry. I liked it. A lot. And so I followed him.

A few days later, I was chatting with my mother and I mentioned the interesting coincidence of this guy named Carl Barbarotto who wrote this incredible poetry.

My mother’s face drained. “He’s your cousin,” she said.

I laughed at her. Because I knew I didn’t have a cousin named Carl. And this guy lived in Washington DC and we didn’t have any family in DC.

She insisted. I showed her his picture. She screamed. “That’s Carl!”

I waited for her to let me in on just how I had this cousin  I had never heard of. It seemed when my grandmother’s sister passed away, we fell out of touch with that side of the family. Carl and I were too young to know about each other.

My mother still had Carl’s mother’s phone number and she dialed it. Miraculously, the woman still had the same number. And it turned out it was in fact the same Carl.

The next thing I knew, my phone rang. It was a male voice. “This is Carl. I understand we are cousins,” he said.

Carl and I spent nearly two hours on the phone, sharing (and marveling) at the coincidences in our lives.

But there was a watershed/still point moment beyond this.

I learned Carl had been in seminary and he left shortly before ordination.

This gave me pause.

My novel had a character named Carl who dropped out of seminary.

My character’s last name was Bonadonna — similar musicality to Barbarotto.

My character left the Roman Church and became a Buddhist.

My cousin left the Roman Church and embraced Unitive Consciousness, or what he calls the Zen Mind.

We talked more. A lot more. About spiritual beliefs, about our journeys. And then we came back to talking about my character Carl. I explained that I named him after Carl Jung.

That’s when my cousin Carl had his still point and watershed moment in the conversation.

My cousin Carl left seminary after an assignment in a class on Carl Jung, which led him to have a dream that gave him clear guidance that he needed to leave seminary. Jung remains one of his greatest inspirations.

My life was truly not the same after that Twitter encounter. That day on the phone Carl asked me if I was still Catholic. I said I was not and I didn’t quite know what I was. That put me on a quest to find out. I ended up at a contemplative service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Lakewood, Colorado. The service is called Nishma, Aramaic for “Vital Breath of God.”

In all honesty, I only planned to attend twice. One time to experience it. A second time to reassess and make sure I didn’t belong there. Because me and church never worked out.

Not only did I return a third time, but I became an Episcopalian eighteen months later. And I went on to help create the contemplative prayer stations at Nishma for quite some time. Some months after that, a church friend asked me to consider becoming a Spiritual Director, which I resisted with all my being. I was flattered, but my friend had the wrong woman. Six months later? I found myself submitting my application for the Benedictine Spiritual Formation Program at the monastery in Colorado Springs. I am five months away from graduating as a Spiritual Director and beginning a new ministry of service. I have loved every minute of it.

We all have watershed moments and still points like this. Sometimes they find us. Sometimes we seek them. However it turns out, they are moments which change us. Moments which define us. Moments where the Divine joyfully meets us.

What has been important in the unfolding of my nearly two decade long still point and watershed moment is understanding what was at work in those years when I felt lost and alone. The years while I was writing, while my body and spirit were hurting, and I felt abandoned by my Creator. When I felt overwhelmed and alone, when I found myself about to graduate from massage school while going through a divorce I never saw coming. Then the years that led me to Arizona, finding myself in acupuncture school, running a full time practice, exhausted and stressed out of my mind. Then two years later, taking boards while packing up my house and moving out of state again. So many times when I wondered when I could stop climbing stairs and finally get “there.” Where was God in those long scary weeks, months, and years when I was asking for guidance, feeling beaten and broken?

Where was God? God was clearly weaving a story. Weaving my path. Maybe not the path I was on in that moment, but surely the greater path…. the path I’m on now. God was silently at work. In the words of Carl Jung, “Bidden or not bidden, God is present.”

My pastor says when we feel most alone God is never more present. He might be silent because the Great Creator is at work, doing what needs to be done so that when we reach our Watershed Scenes and Still Points, we can recognize them, embrace them, and celebrate them as the divine gift they are.

Blessings and peace,
Maria Mandarino

For information about my novel: Neat Little Packages Maria Troia (Mandarino)

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Meeting God in the Patterns

090Last night someone at church had mentioned she made a church decision based on logic. Turned out logic was not the right choice.

I joked with her that logic is way overrated anyway.

It turned out the decision should have been made based on tradition. And tradition typically involves following a certain order and a patterned way of doing things, which isn’t often linear or logical.

Years ago, when I was a student observer in the acupuncture clinic, our supervisor, Dan Bedgood, had mentioned to a senior intern that a student had complained to the dean about his teaching style. The complaint? He did not teach in a linear fashion.

I could not help myself.  I blurted out, “But this isn’t a linear medicine.”

Student observers are meant to do just that: observe. They are not expected to speak. And if they are foolish enough to do so, it is assumed they do not have much to share worth listening to.

Dan’s head went up and he stared at me from across the table. It was probably the first time he heard my voice and possibly the first time he even noticed me. And I think we were very close to pointing a finger at each other as if we suddenly recognized something in the other,  about to say, “Atlantis, right?”

The truth is Chinese Medicine is not at all linear. It is based on patterns. Patterns that need to be observed, respected, and honored.  It works like this: if this happens, then that happens. BUT if THAT happens, then THIS happens. Or… if the wind is blowing, then THAT happens. But if it’s damp and cold, well then THIS happens. And if it’s dry and hot, well, look at what happens then! And let’s not even talk about whether you are standing on the sunny or shady side of the mountain, because that can uncover a whole other set of patterns.

It’s a story of patterns of potential. Not of a narrow and limited road.

Chinese Medicine is a medicine that always made more sense to me than Western Medicine for this reason. Seek the pattern and you are led to the answer. Pull the piece of yarn and watch the pattern unravel; each time you tug, a new skein of possibilities.

As a writer and a poet (and as someone who crafts with yarn), I have always interpreted life through metaphor. So of course I grasped the language of this ancient medicine easily. Once you figure out the patterns in Chinese Medicine, you have the key to everything: physical pain, emotional pain, organ disease. Find the pattern, find the key. Find the pattern, find the language of the Divine.

Think about it. God is not linear. How dull would that be? This has to happen before that can happen in order for this to happen. Wait and get on line and until you reach the destination point, it’s pretty much a process of drudgery. Kind of like the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Look at the universe and tell me it’s linear. You can’t. God is a creative God. And She speaks in patterns. In the patterns and cycles of life, in the patterns of our experience, in the patterns of the people we meet, in the many synchronous gifts and mysteries that come into our lives. Linear thought says you have to go through 24 other letters to get from A to Z. With God, it’s possible to get there in a heartbeat. There’s no logic in that.

What are you on line waiting for? What are you expecting might take ten years and not ten days? What do you think needs to happen before the next thing can occur? Does God need that thing to happen, or do you need the logic of that thing happening first? How might life look if you shifted that view and let go of your brain’s need for reason? And control?

How might life look if you decided to not limit God to a linear process, and instead opened yourself up to the infinite patterns of Divine Mystery?

Blessings and peace on your journey,

Maria Mandarino

 

Blog Post: By Faith

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee,

preserve thy body and soul under everlasting life. Take and eat

this in remembrance that Christ died for thee, and feed on

him in thy heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

       –Book of Common Prayer, Holy Eucharist, Rite I

 

I have heard these words nearly every Thursday morning at the Rite I service I attend at my church. But last Thursday, time felt as though it were suspended, as my pastor firmly placed the communion bread into my palm as I knelt at the altar rail in our small chapel.

My pastor begins this prayer as he serves communion to the first person kneeling. And as he moves to the next person, he continues with the next line of the prayer. As he reached me, he was up to the words, “by faith.”

And faith was exactly what I had lost, only about a half hour earlier.

Four days prior, my dearest and oldest friend on this planet, Jim, a friend whom I consider an anam cara (soul friend in Gaelic) had suffered a massive heart attack. He is only 51 and in good health. He had been revived by medics. We were told he was without oxygen for ten minutes. He was in a medically induced coma. I was on the other side of the country and relying upon friends at a distance to get my updates. It looked grim for four days. No response. My friends, my family, and my entire church were all praying for Jim’s recovery. I could not imagine walking this earth without my soul friend at my side. I was distraught and steeped in grief for four solid days.

On Thursday morning there had been no change in Jim’s status. Before leaving for church, I sat on the floor of my bedroom and I spoke to him. Jim and I have certainly had “conversations” without benefit of a telephone connection before. I knew with Jim in a coma, his heart would feel my words now.

Gentle tears ran down my cheeks as I said, “Jim, I love you. And I will miss you. But if you need to go — if you need to be free — it’s okay to leave.” I sat there for some time, just being with the sound of those words and all they meant. Jim and I had talked plenty about death and dying and nearly 20 years ago we dealt with the tragic passing of a friend who was barely 30. We had had many “big conversations.”  I was sad, but I knew being kept alive on machines was not consistent with Jim’s idea of life.

I looked at the clock then and realized I’d be ten minutes late for church. And I thought perhaps God would understand if I skipped this week. And then I heard Jim’s voice inside my head. “Maria Grace,” (he only used my middle name when he was exasperated with me). “Get your ass to church.”

I froze in my tracks. It was so completely something Jim would have said. I paused in disbelief. Then, I heard, “And put on your goddamned green!”

It was Saint Patrick’s Day. I looked down at my sweater. It was mauve.

I glanced back at the clock. Changing clothes would mean I’d be an additional five minutes late.

I went back into my closet and pulled out a change of clothes.

I got to church just in time for the last part of the first reading.  During the sermon, our pastor was talking about how there can be no Easter without a Good Friday. I’m at the end of my first year of training to be a spiritual director. Throughout much of Lent we have been talking about the Pascal Mystery and the many transitions of life into death we experience on this earth. I peacefully sat with the pastor’s words, accepting that Jim’s time of transition was likely nearing and this was God’s way of preparing me. I was sad, but I was at peace with what seemed (at least clinically speaking) to be the obvious.

I had my phone set to vibrate in my pocket, something I would typically never do while in church. But this day I was so sure that within the hour I’d be receiving sad news, I could not bring myself to silence my phone. As the pastor was speaking about the Pascal Mystery, the phone vibrated. I silenced it immediately and I took a peek at the message.

It simply read: “He wiggled his toes on command.” It was beyond anything any one of us could have expected. He was in there. Tears of joy ran down my face. There was voluntary movement, he could hear, he could process information. I knew Jim. I knew the rest would come.

All clinical evidence and all physical world knowledge spoke against this moment.

And yet more the next day. Jim moved his knees. We had bilateral movement and recruitment of large muscle groups, which suggested that with therapy Jim would walk again.

Two days later, we  received confirmation that Jim’s personality was still in there. He had undergone a tracheotomy, but was communicating with his eyes. When he was asked what he had perceived as a stupid question, he rolled his eyes as if to say, “Duh.”

Small things become monumental gifts in times such as these. And these were gifts that were precious to us all.  They embodied hope.

Jim is still very much on a healing journey and likely will be for a while. I post this blog on Holy Saturday, a holy day of waiting. And appropriately, here we are, patiently waiting for more news about Jim’s continued healing.

Easter has always been an odd time of transition for me. It seems to come a bit too quickly after the darkness of Good Friday and the stripping of the altar. One day of waiting for the stone to be rolled away doesn’t seem to be quite enough time for me. The new-found brightness and the shift into celebration feels a bit shocking. I don’t feel prepared for such radical change. And I can only imagine the shock of Mary as she arrived at the tomb, finding the stone moved, as she made the transition from grief into joy. Such a large shift for a human heart to make.

Wishing you God’s blessings and the peace and joy of the Resurrection this Easter and always.

May we all walk by faith.

Peace,

Maria Grace Mandarino

©Maria Grace Mandarino  2016

Poetry: Labyrinth Walk

I wrote this poem over ten years ago, after attending a moonlit labyrinth walk at a convent on the East End of Long Island. Recently, while talking with a friend about my plans to begin training in Spiritual Direction next year, the topic of that labyrinth walk came up, inspiring me to dig up this poem. It seemed appropriate to share here, especially since we have just seen a full moon this past week and we are deep into autumn.  I hope you enjoy it.

Blessings,

Maria

Labyrinth Walk

The nun, who was no Ingrid Bergman,

warned us:

“Our labyrinth walk is not perfect.

The gravel path has weeds

and goose poop.  But then,

so does the journey

of life.”

She winked and waved us on.

We followed, lemmings

into the cold November night,

flashlights in hand, coat collars turned up,

socks double thickness,

as the full moon rose

over Hampton Bay.

Forming a circle first and setting

our intentions as the nun instructed,

we called upon the ancients

who roamed the land (they were never more

than a foot and a half away from us,

she promised).

We walked in silence

and finally reached the aluminum wash tub

in the center, filled with a network of dried twigs.

The nun bent to light them.

Flames caught slowly at first,

then rose high,

thin ribbons cutting the night;

eager spirits spiraling

toward Heaven.

–Maria Grace Mandarino

   November 2003

Blog Post: Holding The Sacred Space

The phrase “holding the space” has been gently following me for years now. And until very recently, I thought I had understood what it meant.

The first person to ever use the phrase “hold the space” with me was a friend and colleague with whom I taught in New York. He would talk about how the best massage therapists were the ones who could hold the space. Massage strokes, he said, were merely technique and could always be learned, but presence and connection were things that came from elsewhere.

Over time and somewhere between my journey from New York to Arizona, someone inserted the word “sacred” into this phrase and while I didn’t ponder it further, the phrase “Hold the Space as Sacred” just resonated for me. I liked it, and when I’ve taught massage therapy and Reiki classes, I’ve often used the phrase with my students. The space we create for others to heal is sacred.

But on December 28th, 2013, a few things changed to deepen my understanding. An old friend and former teacher was in town and we had the chance to visit.  We caught up on eight years and many miles and it was good to see him.  And while he seemed infinitely happy with life, something lingered — a hint of frustration and disappointment — and finally he asked if I had talked to his best friend recently. I said no. Not for any reason, but he had simply transformed into someone I didn’t quite recognize anymore. Life just does that sometimes. But I did believe the person I had once known was still in there.

Their friendship had been extraordinary. Tighter than some brothers are. They could bear witness to each other’s lives and support each other’s processes like no two men I knew.  These were good guys, both classroom teachers of mine, as well as soul teachers. The kind of guys who are not afraid to open a vein and share what they had learned about walking the Path. And the sincerity in their friendship inspired the heck out of me.

So when Brian had shared that it was some time since he had last heard from his friend, I was deeply saddened.  I had nothing to offer.  Except for that familiar phrase I had shared with a friend just days before. This woman also had been frustrated with a friend who had checked out emotionally. I had told her, “Just hold the space.”

And so I repeated this to Brian.  “Just hold the space, Brian.  He’s in there. And I believe in time he will come back.” He nodded and maybe even seemed a little bit brighter.

What Brian didn’t know though was that in that moment, I had made a silent decision to also hold the space for their friendship to heal. In fact, later that day, I wrote a poem entitled “Holding the Space,” a poem inspired by our conversation, which appears at the end of this blog post.

Curiously, on the evening of that same day, I had attended my first service at a new church. A beautiful, meaningful and symbolic service that moved me deeply. Particularly unique to this service are stations set up for individual worship. These stations are, quite curiously, called “Sacred Spaces.”  And don’t think that didn’t get my attention this night of all nights.

A few days ago, something prompted me to connect with Brian and ask him if he’s heard from his old friend. It turned out that the friend had reached out, quite unexpectedly and with no prompting. And their friendship is back on track, just as it used to be.

I was so joyful for both of them. And I couldn’t help but wonder about this idea of holding the space.  What IS it that we actually hold?  What IS the space?  It obviously is not something one can measure out in square footage. It is not a place where one can hang drapes and set furniture or have tea. This space, this sacred space, is an intangible thing, a thing we carry. I thought perhaps we carry it within our hearts.

But in realizing two people holding the space could cause a person to shift and return to their inner Light, well, I had to think space must be way more than a thing we carry in our hearts.

After hearing from Brian, I wondered if holding the space was actually a form of prayer. The past few months, I’ve been on a personal journey of sorts where I have come to understand that intention equals the frequency of prayer. Thus, it did not seem like a huge stretch to think that holding the space (a form of intention) was another way to pray and it was likely that this space was not just any space, but indeed a sacred space.

Just last week, I met with my pastor to discuss some concepts that were plaguing me.  And in that talk, I mentioned the notion of Holding the Space, how when I work with people, this is my approach to everything:  presence, connection, having clear intent, and extending compassion.

And, in a roundabout way, out of that discussion, came the second poem posted below, “Corridors.”

My first reaction in writing “Corridors” was that I was being redundant given the first poem. Often I write a poem, only to find in a few months I write another that is rather similar to the first, but the first was really just a test run for the real poem that was slowly gestating. This wasn’t like that though. Both poems, I felt, had merit on their own. One did not replace the other. But still, the former English teacher in me didn’t like that I had recycled a phrase. It almost seemed too easy. Yet, this phrase has been following me for so long, it has come up in so many conversations, in such different settings, that I kind of knew that wasn’t it at all. There was something more to be excavated here.  Spirit was knocking at the gate.

This morning, I sat meditation a little longer than usual. I have been needing to deepen my practice and I’ve been more than a little resistant about this, which is usually an indicator that I need to become more disciplined. And this morning, practice came particularly hard. A lot of monkey mind — things I needed to remember to do, things about which I was anxious and worried, people for whom I was concerned. Sitting this morning involved quite a bit of me needing to ask my thoughts to please step aside and wait (yes, I always say please). And finally, maybe in the last 15 minutes of sitting, the thoughts quieted and I entered the blissful stillness that is Zen.

And then,  just before the last chime rang on my Insight Timer app, I heard these words clearly:

You ARE the space.

I could feel my heart expand. I immediately wrote the words down. Because I knew more words would be coming.

A while later, I messaged a friend who just gets me, and who often holds the space for me. (Interestingly, she is a counselor who specializes in a form of creative therapy called sand tray therapy. And the basis for this therapy, as taught to her by Catholic nuns, is to “hold the space”).

I asked her, “If holding the space is actually a form of prayer, and we ARE the space, then does this mean we ARE the prayer?” She thought it might.

I went on, “So if we ARE the space, if we ARE the prayer and we are not merely saying a prayer, then we are also the living manifestation of Divine Love? Prayer in action? And that’s why holding the space can be so powerful?”

She thought I might be onto something.

My mind is still, quite frankly, a bit blown by this. And that’s not only fine. It’s perfect. It’s always best when my mind gets out of the way. My heart resonates with this. And that’s even more perfect.  That’s how I know we’re going somewhere really good.

And so , I leave this possibility with you.  Sit in stillness, breathe deeply, and hold these words in your heart:

We ARE the space.

We ARE the prayer.

We ARE the Manifestation of Divine Love.

Try them on.  See how they fit.  And if these words resonate with you too, see how you might offer something more to this world and those in it by not just holding the space, but by being the space.

Healing light,

Maria

 

 

 

© MG Mandarino 2013

 

Holding The Space

At the crossroads

of fear and desire

is great suffering.

 

Luminescence fades

as legions of angels

watch in silence

and are forced

to wait —

 

and hold the space

as sacred

 

until the light

of consciousness

returns.

 

Maria Grace Mandarino

12-28-13

 

 

 

 

 

©MG Mandarino 2014

 

Corridors

In the dark and narrow hallway

of oblivion

we forget sometimes

there are rooms too,

with doors,

which, when opened,

reveal

tall windows

of great light.

And something ancient and knowing

whispers

that it’s safe

and okay to enter

this place, this still

and sacred space

where the soul can breathe

and heal.

 

Maria Grace Mandarino

4-11-14

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