"Ellen" 9 inches by 12 inches; ink on paper, $125
Looking back and being fortunate to do so. I would say a trillion of moments of doubt about living the right way for me are a lot of wear and tear. No paycheck to smoothen the frustration. Doing what you need to do so far away from societies accepted ways, makes you feel alone, as we are, but not lonely, I feel rich inside, and when I get my Aha moments, I share with open eyes and heart. If it connects me with someone, it makes me happy.
I think a lot of people can go a long way if they sit with their inner knowledge. They will know, and persisting with their story, opens up doors unimaginable.
Every time I have been led into something new I said No, because I had no idea how to. The jobs I have been guided to puts me in Limbo, and it is not a given to have the confidence without a solid CV, which I don't.
I was 22 when I strongly felt I should open a store. I said No! I had no money, not the necessary license or accounting skills and no urge to do so, but the drive did not leave me alone and I surrendered. I had nothing else as strong in me and I had the nerve to hold my nose and jump, borrow money and the rest of it to get things going.
I gave it all I had and followed my impulses. After some years it was a real store working very well. That taught me more than anything that thoughts create matter when you work it. It became my foundation for life.
I said YES to my drive. It is up to each and every one to say yes to their own drive. It will always be the most difficult decision. There is no guarantee for the outcome, but something will come out of it.
There is no paycheck and no pension and Yes, it can still frighten me, but once having taken life in your own hands, life will never be the same, due to crawling the basement floor of your inner doubts and swirling in the mist of the unimaginable.
Photograph of Ellen Swane taken by Ann Ringland
"Bill McMillan" 9 inches by 12 inches; ink on paper, $125
About the time I was out of the service and newly back in Chicago I met a guy by the name of Bob Goodfriend. (Bob always lived up to his name.) He knew that I was interested in the theater and so he said, “I have a friend you have to meet, he is also interested in the theater.” And he introduced me to William Dunn. William is my oldest friend because he is older than everybody else and I have known him longer than everybody else. William and I formed a really tight friendship many years ago. He is about 6’2”, skinny and black and I am short and fat and white.
After Martin Luther King was shot, not only was Washington burning by Chicago was burning as well. During this time, I was still in undergraduate school and working with a friend as a Chicago Transit Authority bus cleaner. We used to clean buses. We had a minimum of work that we had to do and we could get that done by lunch. After lunch, we would sit in the back of the bus and do our homework. There was another guy that I worked with and he asked me what I thought about the riots and the burnings and I said, very truthfully, that I thought it was relatively ball-less. That if the rioters really wanted to make an impression they needed to go downtown and burn it because that was the only way the establishment would pay attention. Burning your own neighborhood was pointless. The establishment would just sit there and wait to collect the insurance money and the rioters would have nothing. So, don’t burn your own, burn something else.
Well, I didn’t know but the person asking the question about the riots was Tommy Dunn, William’s brother. Tommy told William that he had met this crazy white kid and William shared that he had met a crazy white kid too. Eventually we all wound up at a party together and realized that we all knew each other. We all grew very, very close very quickly until pretty soon I was a guest in their house. The story I am telling you is really just the build up to this part.
My dad used to say the difference between a good neighborhood and a bad neighborhood had less to do with color or economics than behavior. He said it was very simple. On a weekend in a good neighborhood you see people outside picking up the cans, bottles and trash and cutting their lawns. In a bad neighborhood people throw the bottles, cans and trash on the lawn. That is how you could tell.
Well, one time William and I came over to his house. I was driving and after parking the car in front, I got out and William looked down and he saw a can. He said “Oh, I’ve got to pick this up and take it in to the garbage. We will go the back way because if I don’t, the first thing out of my Mom’s mouth will be, ‘William I want you to go and pick up that can in the front.’ So he did and afterwards when we walked into the house and his mom said, “William” and he said, “I already did it Mom.” She said, “Thank you, son.”
Photograph of Bill McMillan taken by Ann Ringland
I am the youngest of three children and my brother and sister are seven and nine years older than me. I’m pretty sure I was a surprise. When I was young, my parents were in the thick of traveling, my father was a successful traveling salesman, so I spent a lot of time with my grandparents whom I loved dearly. I would sneak upstairs at my parents’ house and call my grandmother and say, “Could you please call our house and ask if I could sleep over?” I was her pet, among other things, she would brush my hair, she would buy me Fritos, give me soda, and she spoiled me rotten. She really doted on her baby granddaughter. She was a most important figure in my life.
Twenty-six years later she was at Greg’s and my wedding and shortly afterwards she became very sick. She had never been in a hospital, not even when she had a broken leg. She had the doctor set her leg in his office and then she went home. She also had her tonsils removed in a doctor’s office. She was born in 1891 and didn’t believe in hospitals.
She was sick for maybe eight weeks and then finally went into the hospital, much to her dismay. I went with my husband to visit her. She was so sick that at that point, she couldn’t talk. So, I kissed her and I said, “I love you” when we left for the evening. The next morning, we got the call, “Gram passed last night”
At this point in my life, I had no idea that you didn’t want someone to die alone. I may have been in denial about her impending death. My mother didn’t know how to help her pass or that she was even supposed to be there. Whatever the case might be, it had a huge impact on me to think that my grandmother had been all by herself in distress when she died. I was haunted by the vision of her dying alone. I loved her more than any words could describe.
Fast-forward many more years and eventually my Mom became sick. We moved her into our house knowing that she had cancer. She lived with me, my husband and my three boys for six months. My husband, Greg, was the one who said, “Your mom is going to come here.”
“Oh,” I said, “I can’t watch her suffer, I am not a nurse, I won’t know what to do, I have a really weak stomach.” But she came and she stayed with us. It was hard on our boys because they loved her dearly, as we all did. It was our first close experience with someone who was dying. I have a very dear friend who is a hospice nurse and she came for two or three weeks to help us.
We all slept downstairs with her and we set the alarm. We had to give her morphine every eight minutes. If you let it go any longer she would be in terrible distress. My boys were beside themselves as we gave her more and more morphine to keep her comfortable. They were concerned that we were killing her. Essentially, you are helping them to die.
When the time came, we were all there when she passed. I felt that it was the way it was supposed to be. We had a beautiful experience with my Mom. It was life changing to learn how to face death and embrace it with your loved ones. It was a whole different way of looking at and accepting death.
This experience helped us when last year Greg’s father, who lived to be one hundred, was dying and we were able to be with him. He was only in hospice for twenty-four hours. He couldn’t speak but I remember saying to him, (he was a devout Catholic,) “Papa, would you like to have a priest?” He winked at me. So, we brought in a priest and we were all there when he passed. It was beautiful and we had no regrets because we had helped someone cross over.
"Rachael" 9 inches by 12 inches; ink on paper, $125
When I was 22 I was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. Although physically and emotionally painful this experience turned out to be the catalyst for the life that I wanted to have. The experience of cancer itself feels irrelevant now. However, what is extremely relevant to me is the way it changed me, the rebirth within me.
As soon as I finished treatment I was eager to move forward with my life and I did. I felt my growth and transformation. I finished my undergraduate degree and continued working towards my career and life goals.
While house-sitting at a beautiful home on Lake Erie, I developed a fever and was hardly able to move for a few days. Luckily the room where I rested was all windows and my view was clear. It was a particularly cold February and the lake was completely frozen. It was so beautiful, so quiet, so still. I remember no sound and no proof of life beyond myself. It was an amazing time of forced stillness and sensory and social deprivation. It was a time of unintentionally going inward and just being there, alone.
Once my fever broke and I emerged, I couldn’t help but see this experience as a metaphor for my life. Soon the lake would change form. The ice would melt and break apart. The water beneath would come through, moving the frozen, snow covered pieces and forming new structures, structures that would also change as the temperature did. The water would continue to move and gain power as it warmed. The perfection in this process was striking, although violent at times.
This is how I felt. My life had reached a state of visible movement and clarity. I was no longer trying to experience life through a thickness that skewed the light. There was no room for stagnancy. There was no space for wasted time or for unhappiness. There was no more mental, emotional or physical energy available for falling into old patterns or behaviors. My life had become about the will of my Higher Power in a way that I never could have understood had I not faced this illness. This experience allowed me to do the work necessary to break cycles and to really learn to live.
"Kathleen" 9 inches by 12 inches; ink on paper; $125
In November of 2001, I found myself terrified of dying. I had just turned 50, which was the age at which my mother had passed away. On top of that, the events at the World Trade Center that September had left many people in the US with a great deal of anxiety. Fears about anthrax and bombs swirled and merged with my personal fears of dying. That winter I got sick with bronchitis that turned into a serious pneumonia in which I could barely roll over to sip a cup of broth. Throughout months of illness I felt on some level that my fear of dying young, as my mom had, and my brother had years before, were what was making me ill. But despite that understanding, I was gripped in a terror that would not seem to let go.
In the spring of 2002 the pneumonia turned into asthma. As a singer this was even more scary. How would I make a living if I couldn't sing? My doctor gave me steroids and an albuterol inhaler, and although it did help me breathe, I felt anxious after using it. One day I read the fine print on the packaging and I saw that anxiety was one possible side effect. As if I needed more anxiety!
That was the moment when I realized that I needed to find support somewhere other than in those drugs, and in the diagnosis from one of my doctors that I had adult onset asthma, and would probably always have asthma. By doing an internet search: asthma + natural healing, I discovered the Butkyeo Method, which was developed by a Russian doctor in the 20th century, and has only been getting to the west during the past 20 years or so. I also found on line, to my amazement, that although there was no one in our area teaching the method at that time, my friend Susan Gladdin was bringing a Buteyko teacher from Indiana to give a workshop on this method that following week!
At the workshop I learned something that revolutionized my understanding of breathing. Although I felt starved for air and for the energy that oxygen brings, the way to get it was not to breathe more, as so many people with asthma do, but to breathe less, slower, and deeper into my body. At the workshop we sat practicing slower breathing by softening and relaxing our bodies, then holding our breath after a long outbreath, then breathing low and slow very quietly, like a sleeping baby. Within the first few minutes of practicing this I began to feel calm and I could feel the oxygen and energy returning to my cheeks and hands and feet and whole body. The science of this is that the red blood cells, in their journeys around our body, do not release new oxygen unless there is enough carbon dioxide in a particular area of the body. So the CO2 released by cells as O2 is used up is the signal to the hemoglobin to release more O2 to the cells. Buteyko theorized that if people are breathing too much their blood carries too much oxygen, and so new oxygen is not being released to the cells. It is counterintuitive at first, but in practicing the slow breathing method, it soon became apparent that the calm, rest and renewed energy I had searched for was available right away as soon as my breathing slowed down.
I had already been meditating for years, and with this new piece of information, to allow a long slow outbreath and a pause at the end of the outbreath for the CO2 to build up, my meditation took me deeper and deeper into a peaceful place, and within three months I was off all of the asthma drugs, and I felt back to my normal health Enjoying the twice daily dip into deep peace, stillness and calm, I wrote a song that winter with these lyrics:
Got enough socks
Got enough shoes
Got enough reasons to sing the blues,
What I need, you can't buy in a store
Found a little nothing on a back road
And I want a little bit more.
Nothing on my mind, no fear in my heart,
Nothing to finish and nothing to start.
When I get nowhere, no reason to leave
I'll just sit down here, on the grass and breathe.
Still, I felt there was something more to discover. I had read an article by an Indian teacher who said that on a complete outbreath, we face death. He also said that in a complete out breath the diaphragm massages the heart. I had not felt such a thing and I was interested in what that might be like.
All along the way, as I learned to allow my breath to slow down, I did it in a way similar to Vipassana meditation, by noticing where I was holding tension in my body, and allowing that part of my body to soften and let go. Over the months I had less and less tension in my belly and solar plexus. But one particular day in May of 2003 I noticed I was holding tension in my chest, in the area around my heart. I had never noticed this before and I suddenly realized that this chronic tension was preventing a complete outbreath from happening. So I asked my heart, "What's up with you? Why are you gripping like that?" After a long pause, I heard answer from my heart:
"I've been totally locked down since the last relationship you were in."
"Ah, well," I asked my heart, "Are you thinking of changing on that?" What I think was important was that I waited for an answer and didn't try to force it. I was being really present to my body. I was feeling quite peaceful, waiting several minutes for an answer, and suddenly, the muscles in my chest released and opened up in a huge new way. My diaphragm rose up into the opening and a very complete outbreath started to happen. I felt that massage of the heart from below, and it was amazing. My breath and diaphragm were moving freely on their own with nothing in me obstructing the flow. Every time the breath came up higher I felt joy, peace, and love, really tangible love, bubbling in and rising up out of my heart.. As someone who had lived with fear as a constant companion for most of my life, it was a miracle to realize that this sweet, tangible fountain of love was in me, not something I needed to get from outside myself!
I got up from there and I went into the world and discovered that same love flowing out of my heart was pouring out of everyone else's heart as well! I was teaching preschool music at the time. I remember sitting down one day with the very little kids, the 18-24 month olds. They toddled over to me and stood around me. They are so young and so open that there wasn't any need for words, we were just exchanging love, their little hearts buzzing and overflowing with it. Time disappeared. The teacher was puzzled, "Aren't we going to sing today?"
Wow, this is what people mean when they say HEART. I had not known before this. Now I saw, felt, and knew that love is pouring out of children, trees, grownups, dogs, birds, everything. That everything is made out of that same love that is always arising in my heart. I could feel that river of love coming out of everyone, even people who were being rude, or feeling sad, or mad. This love is deeper than our surface thoughts and feelings, always flowing, always connecting us to everything.
There was one more piece. A couple of weeks later in meditation, when I noticed that I held a lot of tension between my eyes, I asked my body what that tension was about. I was peaceful, resting in my heart, waiting for an answer. The thought came: "Don't tell me that!"
"Dont tell you what?"I asked.
"Dont tell me that everyone I love is going to die."
Instantly I went from the very peaceful heart awareness to an intense fear of death. I felt pure terror, I cried, I felt trapped in the big fear of death that had started this whole journey.
Finally, I remembered to ask for guidance from my heart. I put my hands on my heart and asked a different question. "What do I know in my heart about death?" What happened next was that the things I had believed about death started coming into my mind. It was like a Rolodex of thought: "You'll be alone!" "It will be scary!" "God will punish you!" And as each thought came through, I checked with my heart, and none of these thoughts resonated as truth in my heart, so I kept watching the thoughts and listening to my heart.
Suddenly, the tension in my forehead opened up and I saw something beyond form. It was like a light, a flame, or a knowing, a truth. I just knew right then that what I am, what all of us are, does not die. I knew then that the essence of people I love who had died, my mother, my grandmother, my little brother, were all right there with me in that moment, whole, and one with me. And then the understanding expanded, and I knew that all the people that were still alive that I loved and felt responsible for were right there and we were all one with no separation. The responsibility melted away, and all fear was completely gone.
That was it. My fear of death was gone. The fear of death I had had my whole life was just gone. I have great gratitude for the Buteyko teacher and other teachings about breathing and meditation, through which I was able to sit in silence and be with my fear until gradually and finally that deeper truth, deeper peace, deeper Love became evident. The songs I write and sing now are about that Love. And I pray, as Buddhists and so many others pray, that all beings may awaken to the awareness of who we really are.
Photograph by Kathleen Hannan
Debra Wuliger, figurative artist working with color, texture and pattern to celebrate life.
Image silhouetted with story. Ready for hanging.