Anne Zubrick, West Australia Regional Meeting
Each major religious tradition has “journey” stories. Themes include strong personal commitment, fears, loss, regrets, heartbreaks, – and unexpected gifts. As a child I heard many stories of youths (or a girl in the Wizard of Oz) setting off to find a special something or someone, only to come full circle. Had the central character only paid attention, what was sought was available, right there, all along.
The year I turned 45 I had a journey dream which affected me profoundly, and remains with me.
I am in a small car travelling by myself through the most beautiful countryside. The day is perfect and the driving is easy – except for one thing. I am in Korea (career) and I know in myself that I have to find my way to Seoul (soul) but I don’t know the way or the language or what to expect when I arrive there. How will I find my way to and around this unknown place?
I come to sign after sign along the road and slow each time to examine the written patterns hoping to discern similarities and meanings among them hoping to find a direction and the distance to my destination.
I come to a very simple building and stop there to take stock of where I am hoping to find out in which direction to travel next. The people I meet welcome me, bring me food and drink, sit and share it with me. It is truly a time of “communion”. We say nothing to one another for I do not share their language. However, I feel we share an understanding and I leave feeling deeply refreshed. I continue the journey confident that I will be able to find my way.
Jungians would describe my dream as typical of mid-life – a wake-up call to change direction for the second half of life – time to focus on the inner life of the Spirit. Recognising the value and importance of this dream, I began to explore and to more consciously live what it might mean for me.
Attending to and staying in the present moment is a challenge for me. My natural inclination is to anticipate the future and look to others as I seek answers and directions. The dream calls me to trust my own inner guide – to pay attention to the signs and patterns of Godde in everyday life and relationships. The dream opened a call deep inside me – a direction yet to be found – the way not yet evident.
At that time I was living and working in Hong Kong and had only recently started to attend Hong Kong Meeting. This began my connection with Quakers.
I had started to learn Chinese. I was especially fascinated by the processes needed to learn to read and write characters. It took practice and discipline to recognise a host of character “radicals” – recurring patterns and their symbolic meaning with no clue to their pronunciation. However, once I could recognise a set of frequently used characters, I became increasingly able to discern overall meaning.
The dream images suggested to me that my spiritual learning might be somewhat akin to learning to read Chinese. Pay attention to recurring signs and patterns and deeper meaning may emerge.
As I approached my sixtieth birthday I began to consider deeply where my education and life experience might lead and endeavours to further my personal and spiritual growth. My discernment led me into the my current deeply enriching work in the spiritual accompaniment and care for older persons, especially those living with dementia and mental illness.
Over the past decade, I’ve been especially drawn to writing and reflections about late life, by men and women in late life. Biblical Judeo-Christian writers celebrate long lives as time that both brings out and bestows character. Old age (should we privileged to experience it) is a time to gradually uncover the essence of ourselves. Here we finally make sense of the tangled web of our lives, extract perhaps the single strong thread of who we really are and who we have become. Extended lives provide opportunities to review and refine meaning in life, to seek forgiveness and/or make amends, to transform memories into stories, to mentor younger people, to strongly speak out against injustice, and to heal the planet. Rather than giving back, we might increasingly give forward in later life.
I am drawn to Quaker Faith and Practice 21.45, Getting Older, and Evelyn Sturge’s words:
We must be confident that there is still more “life” to be “lived” and yet more heights to be scaled. The tragedy of middle age is that, so often, men and women cease to press towards the goal of their high calling. They cease learning, cease growing, they give up and resign from life. As wisdom dawns with age, we begin to measure our experiences not by what life gives to us, nor by the things withheld from us, but by their power to help us grow in spiritual wisdom.
Much of my own approach and understanding about late life comes from the experience of watching each of my parents face the experience of ageing, illness and death. Each of them had a remarkable openness and ability to share their lives as well as a deep serenity as they approached death. Neither of them wished to be younger than they were. Both continued to offer their time and skills, as energy allowed, until just days before they died. They enjoyed the simple comfort of home, solitude, reflection and company they chose.
My father had cancer and a major heart condition which he knew could well result in sudden death. About two weeks before he died he rang ring to say “something fundamentally different is occurring inside me”. He could not be more specific. This was a new inner sense. I travelled immediately from Perth to New Zealand (where my parents were living) and was with my father and mother over a few days. The evening before father died we had a wonderful time and lively conversation together. He had a massive heart attack and died early the next morning.
Earlier that week a friend had come to see my father. After the visit my father said “Through his gentle conversation Bill prepared me for death.” I know no details of what the two men shared. I can only conclude that it was a rich time of shared presence. My mother afterwards observed that sometimes the caring visitor brings exactly what is needed. I draw on her insight in my own work with older people, especially those living with dementia, who need compassion, hope and love.
At a Symposium on Dementia and Love in Ballarat in March 2017 I had the privilege of some deep conversations with several men and women living with different forms of dementia. Many of them were able to share with me stories of how they were learning to let go: letting go of fear, and discovering the experience not of a lost self but a journey towards a true self—a deepening inner self that is truly who they are. They spoke of the deep power of being held, and a confidence that they will continue to be held, in Love, no matter the future.
Letting go and letting come. That’s the theme of my ongoing spiritual journey to soul.