How it took visiting a dementia unit to really discover grace

grace on the mat and beyond

I’m working to embody grace both on and off the mat

I’m reading two books right now: the first a trio of short novels by French writer Patrick Modiano characterizing life during the German Occupation, the second a satirical memoir detailing TV broadcaster Dan Harris’ somewhat involuntary but ultimately enlightening march toward mindfulness. Vastly different genres, yet (in my opinion anyway) well-written and peppered with words and phrases I’m constantly tempted to shade in neon highlighter:


“military service did not suit my delicate constitution…”

“meditation was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm…”

Words and phrases fascinate me, sometimes to a fault. My highlighter can be a distraction if I let it, obliterating the greater context or message from the pages in front of me as I distill everything down to the most granular level. This has been on my mind lately as I considered the word grace. For as long as I can recall, I’ve loved this word. Just the sound of it, and the effort involved in producing it through my own voice captivates me: the initial constriction at the back of my throat to form the ‘gr’, through to the softness of the ‘ess’ that glides off the tip of my tongue.

Until a series of recent events, the images or meaning I associated with grace were pretty surface level. A flashback to the “in the name of the father…” routine before my siblings and I were allowed to pick up a fork. Or in physical form, I pictured the neck of a swan, and the lovely ripples it creates by gliding across a pond. Or the articulation of a ballerina’s extended fingers; the aerial of a basketball athlete soaring toward the net; a motivational speaker commanding the attention of a large audience. Smooth. Fluid. Languid. Poised.

But a new definition of grace took shape this past weekend as my husband and I spent the day visiting his mother in an assisted living facility in rural Pennsylvania. She’s recently been transferred to the dementia unit. And the last place I would have expected to encounter much grace…

No one glides. They shuffle slowly, either leaning on a walker or grasping a rail on the wall to remain upright.

No one beams. They wince a little, eliciting only the faintest smile if God has chosen to give them a fleeting moment of lucidity.

No one commands attention. Not the good kind anyway, as most prefer to turn away and pretend they didn’t see what they just saw.

But dare to see, to move in a little closer, and an extraordinary sphere of grace grabs hold…

My husband’s mother can still recognize us, and even though words elude her, her eyes communicate, acknowledging our presence with gratitude. Her ‘ahhhhs’ as I stroke the nape of her neck and brush her hair shoot vibrations of love right into our hearts. Her delicate kisses portray the most profound version of grace I’ve ever been in the presence of. She is suffering, yet in the time she spends with us, grace takes over.

I see it also in the angels serving those suffering. Whatever frustration, impatience, helplessness or why doesn’t anyone thank me feelings that any human strong enough to take on the role of an angel serving those suffering experiences never shows. Only smiles, hugs, enthusiasm and non-stop encouragement toward their patients and family members like us who come to visit.

I’m working to live the rest of my days gracefully. And that requires so very much more than stretching a limb or gliding anywhere.


Lessons from a failed pet adoption

What was supposed to be a glorious start to 2016 has quickly spiraled into an bitter gumbo of painful emotions ranging from guilt to fear to compassion to regret to sorrow and round and round the coil of pain turns. All over a dog.

IMG_0040Yes a dog. Not just any dog, but a sweet, equal parts energetic and happy-to-chill at your feet rescue dog. Her Facebook photos, a short video clip, and one or two phone conversations with her handlers convinced me she would fit beautifully into our home.

She didn’t. And through no fault of her own.

My heart got ahead of my head.”

In most cases – and I truly believe this – it’s better to put your heart ahead of your head. But in this case the consequences proved disastrous. By not considering all the potential (ok, probable) variables of bringing a dog into our home I broke a few hearts. Starting with mine:

  • Will she peacefully cohabitate with my cat?
  • Will I have the time and resources to train her?
  • Do I know enough about her background?
  • Is our urban environment the best fit for this dog?

If I’d listened to my head, the answer would have been a resounding NO on all counts. Alas, my heart got ahead of me, and we drove three hours to retrieve her. The immersion process did not go well, and it is largely because I did not consider the above. After tearful discussion over what was best for this dog, my husband and I chose to surrender her back to the rescue.

Now Shannon. What have we learned?”

About this time last year, I lost my stepfather, who raised me and helped instill a core value of taking accountability for all my mistakes. “Don’t let yourself off the hook until you’ve learned and grown from this, Shannon,” he used to say.  Since his passing, he frequently appears in my consciousness as a loving compass directing me back toward the right path forward through life. His spirit was there at the ready as my tears refused to dry and the path forward filled with a dense fog of sadness. To be honest, I don’t know what the lessons here are yet, other than I f***ed up on this decision, and there’s pain to go around that extends beyond me…to the dog, her rescuers, to those I shared this happy story with, to my husband who despite all efforts can’t console me right now.

Much as I did not want to share this story of woe, perhaps it can serve as a lesson for others.