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Grief by Erin Dunigan

Grief

My dad passed away fifteen years ago. He had been struggling with cancer for two years, so it was not a surprise when the day came, even though it was. Those of you who have been there know what I’m talking about. As much as you think you can do to prepare for that moment, you still are not prepared when it actually hits. My dad’s passing was peaceful, at home, amidst family and friends. It was actually a lovely sacred time – you could even call it a gift.

For the three years prior I had been studying theology, including courses in what is considered pastoral care – courses such as how to be present with people in difficult times, how to help families make difficult end of life decisions and how to deal with grief. So, though I would not have said so in so many words, somewhere under the surface I thought I had a handle on the whole ‘my dad is dying thing.’

It became clear very quickly that I thought wrong.

When my dad did actually pass it was as though the ground had been pulled out from under me. I was not a child – I was a grown adult in my mid 30’s. But even still, it felt as though the very ground that I walked on became unsteady, unstable, shifting. I felt as though I was looking for a firm place to stand and tapping with my foot, but I couldn’t seem to find anywhere to actually step down.

“Oh, this is just part of the grief process,” I told myself. There are traditionally thought to be give stages of grief, that can happen in any particular order and that can cycle as one moves through grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally acceptance. Another thing I had learned is that there is no particular timeframe – grief can last far longer than one expects, or than others realize.

I had read. I had studied. I knew the five stages. I knew all ‘about’ grief – but it was not until I was in the midst of it that I realized, no amount of learning ‘about’ could save me from the ‘going through.’ I realized that somehow I thought I might protect myself from the grief, that I might be able to take a short-cut around it – I’ve studied this, I don’t need to actually feel it myself! What I learned when my dad died, more clearly than I had up to that point in my life, is that there is no short cut. Grief is something that one must travel through, not around. But I did also learn that it does not last forever. That in going through it, one actually does, eventually, get to the other side. That the grief does not have the last word. That the grief does eventually pass.

Of course I still miss my dad. But the missing is not as painful as […]

By |2020-03-25T10:43:44-07:00March 25th, 2020|Articles, Blog|0 Comments

Begin Again

Tap Dancing

by Erin Dunigan


I love the idea of ‘beginner’s mind’ – this idea that we should be open to the new, willing to be a learner, accepting of not knowing. The idea of Beginners mind, to me, is one of possibility – who knows where the path may lead? Who knows what new journey might be just around the corner?

I love the idea of beginners mind…in theory. In theory not knowing and being open and being willing to be a learner all sound like great ideas.

Until that is, you wind up in a leotard and tights as a grown adult in a children’s production of the Nutcracker.

Not long ago I decided that I wanted to take up a new hobby, a new practice in order to learn something new, get out of the comfort zone of my normal routine. They say the brain actually rewires itself when you learn something new. Rewiring my brain? Why not?

So, I decided to take up tap dancing when I found out a neighbor was teaching a class at the church in Santa Anita. In the beginning it seemed a bit less like brain rewiring and more like blowing a fuse, but I kept at it. I like the combination of hearing the sound that the tap shoes make as they contact the floor, as well as the movement that goes along with the sound. Slowly, week after week, my body and my brain began to get the hang of the steps, the movements, and remembering how they all go together. In fact, one day I found that instead of remembering the dance we were learning with my brain, it was actually my body that remembered. Success!! Beginners mind, conquered. I was ecstatic. I had learned something new!

And then came the real test – this new dance that had moved from my head to my body was to be performed. In public. As part of a children’s program of the Nutcracker in which ours was the only dance being performed entirely by adults. Immediately, the brain kicked back in. “It is one thing for children to look cute in a production of the Nutcracker and who cares if they forget the steps or aren’t in rhythm? And it is one thing for professionals to perform the production for a paying audience. But me, in a leotard and tights (a leotard with tassels and sequins no less!), hoping that both my brain and my body would remember the steps and not wind up falling on my face in front of the crowd…? Well, that’s an entirely different level of ‘being willing to be a learner.’

As the recital day neared, I began to think of any possible excuses I could use to get out of showing up. But, the thing is, there was also part of me that wanted to embrace the challenge of stepping so far out of my comfort zone, being willing to risk looking like I […]

By |2020-03-05T15:16:05-08:00March 5th, 2020|Articles|Comments Off on Begin Again

Take the Reins

by Erin Dunigan

It’s a saying, of course – but the thing is, it’s also true. Like so many sayings that have been separated from their original context, ‘Take the reins’ is not just a metaphor – it’s actually a ‘thing.’ It applies to horseback riding. It applies to life.

When people ask me what I ‘do’ I often have a hard time answering – at least in any kind of brief or simple way. One of the things I ‘do’ and that takes up much of my day, is around horses. Sometimes it is working with them, sometimes it is taking people on rides. (More info at http://www.horsesbyjose.com). I find that through it all, I am constantly learning – both in my horsemanship, as well as in life.

One such example happened recently. It was on a ride. One of the riders, let’s call him Jack, supposedly had quite a bit of riding experience and it was clear that he was comfortable around horses. But as we left the ranch and headed out onto the trails I saw that he was holding his reins not just loosely, but practically not at all. “Hey Jack,” I said, “you need to hold your reins a bit tighter, not so loose. Otherwise the horse doesn’t even know you are there.” As we rode along I noticed that he still had his hand way back on the reins – and that the horse was going where he wanted, and not necessarily in the direction we were headed. “Hey Jack,” I said again, “You really need to take the reins.” To which he responded that he knew that, but that he didn’t want to be mean to the horse, didn’t want to be so assertive.

It was like I was hit in the face, the realization, and the parallel to my own life came at me, smack!

The thing is, when you are riding a horse, taking the reins is not ‘mean’ – it is part of the deal. If you are going to ride, you must assert control – it is your job to ‘drive.’ The horse needs you to be the leader. Taking the reins does not mean you have to be a jerk or mean – it just means that you need to be assertive. What I realized with Jack is that he was confusing the two. He thought being directive, being assertive, was being aggressive, dominating. But one of the things that I love about working with horses, and riding them, is that it is an invitation to find a gentle strength, an assertive firm, but not domineering hand.

Isn’t it funny how it seems that things seem to appear just when we need to hear them, or learn them? Because what I saw clearly that day with Jack was my own tendency to associate being firm with being mean. And so, in an attempt to not be ‘mean’ I had essentially been riding my life with loose reins, letting it […]

By |2020-03-05T14:57:39-08:00March 5th, 2020|Articles|Comments Off on Take the Reins

Letting Go

by Erin Dunigan

Image may contain: sky, cloud, outdoor and nature

I have to admit, I’ve got a love hate relationship with the idea of letting go.

Just last month I wrote an article for Baja News with the title of ‘Taking the Reins’ – about just that, taking the reins of your life, rather than just letting it lead where it will. I had realized that too often in life, in an attempt not to be ‘mean,’ I had held my reins loose – too loose. Reins are there for you to use – to steer, to stop, to decide in what direction to travel.

The thing is, I used to be more of a take the reins kind of person. And then I went to therapy. And learned about letting go. About balancing my over achiever self of doing with the self of being.

“I’m just letting go” I would say to myself. But I began to wonder, had I gotten it all wrong?

And then recently I had an aha moment.

On this particular day, leading a group of people horseback riding, this particular rider was trying to improve his skill. He had been riding a number of times, but he was still trying to get the feel of how to hold himself on the horse, how to balance his weight, how to feel centered and secure.

He was on a horse who is nice and smooth, dependable – the horse for first time riders, little kids, old people, or others who need a slow and gradual confidence building for their first time riding or for building their confidence. He wanted to try going faster. So, I explained to him how to hold himself, how to position himself in the saddle, how to signal that he wanted to go a bit faster, including giving a bit of a shout of a ‘yeehawww!’

I watched as he built up his courage, implemented the signals, including the yeehaw, and the horse began to respond – for about ten feet, and then slowed down. I watched as he repeated this again. And again. And then as he was doing it, I rode up beside him and saw it – with one hand on the reins, the other hand was firmly planted on the horn of the saddle, holding on for dear life. “If you want the horse to run, you’ve got to let go of the horn,” I yelled over.

And that was when, like a book end – the second realization hit me.

Letting go.

If you want the horse to run, you’ve got to let go.

That’s what it is! I almost yelled out loud, like a moment of epiphany with the clouds parting and the light coming down upon my newfound realization.

That is what letting go is all about – it is not about letting go of the reins, it is about letting go of the horn.

The reins are what give you direction – you need to keep […]

By |2020-03-05T14:47:16-08:00March 5th, 2020|Articles|Comments Off on Letting Go

Pumpkin pie and the bigger questions

By Erin Dunigan

It was Thanksgiving. This year my family could not make it down to La Misión, as has been our custom for years – Thanksgiving in Baja. My mom always makes the mashed potatoes and the green beans. Melissa and Steve, my compadres, are in charge of the turkey (even though Melissa is a vegetarian!). Martha, who is like my second mom, makes the southern style cornbread stuffing and the most important item of the day – the pumpkin pie. Because of this family tradition, I have only once, when I lived in Scotland, actually made any of the Thanksgiving dinner myself. It’s not a bad deal, really. Until, of course, your family can’t make it to Baja for the holiday. As the holiday approached I didn’t really even think about it. That is, until the day before Thanksgiving. That is when it hit me – the undeniable craving for a piece of pumpkin pie. And that was when it also hit me – wait, even though my family isn’t coming, the truth is, I could make a pumpkin pie myself. It was as if a chorus began to sing hallelujah. Yes! I will make the pie – and even better, I won’t have to share it!

So, I set about looking for the perfect pumpkin pie recipe. I didn’t want to bother Martha by asking for hers, so I let google be my guide. I found one that seemed to be just right. I went to the local market and made sure that my ‘manteca’ was the vegetable kind, not the pig kind – pork pumpkin pie is an experiment I’d rather leave for someone else. As I began on the crust I realized I had hit an impasse – it called for parchment paper on the raw crust, which then needed to be filled with weight such as uncooked dried beans to keep the crust from ballooning when being precooked. I knew I didn’t have parchment paper. Where might one get parchment paper? Perhaps the new Climax in Puerto Nuevo might carry it, but I had just got back from buying a turkey breast there and didn’t want to hop back in the car, especially with the rain coming. So, I turned to google again, seeing what I might use as a substitute. No luck – no clear answers. Foil didn’t seem to be a good option, nor did wax paper, which I did happen to have, albeit from the 1970’s. So, I decided to turn to the expert – Martha. I sent her a text asking her what I could use instead of parchment paper. She had a few follow up questions but then asked, “How long does the recipe say to pre-cook the crust before you put in the pumpkin mixture?” I looked and reported back. That was when she sent me a photo of the recipe from her cookbook – […]

By |2020-02-12T11:28:46-08:00December 6th, 2019|Articles, Blog|Comments Off on Pumpkin pie and the bigger questions

On Duty and Delight

 

Ice Blended BeverageDon’t ask yourself what the world needs; ask yourself what makes you come alive. And then go and do that. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.
—Howard Thurman

It was summer. The last place I wanted to be, if I admitted it, was in the hospital. But that is where I found myself, not by choice. The good news was, I wasn’t there as a patient.

A summer chaplaincy internship was one of the requirements for my graduate program and since I had avoided it the summer before by taking Greek, if that gives you any indication of how much I wanted to avoid the summer hospital chaplaincy. I had heard horror stories about it from others who had gone before me – dealing with intensely traumatic situations, screaming family members, fear, grief, anxiety, anger – none of which said ‘summer’ to me.

But there I was, in the hospital on a bright sunny Southern California day. My ‘job’ was to cover the third floor, knocking on doors and asking the patients something along the lines of ‘how are your spirits today?’ Kind of like the people who come knocking on your front door selling their God or religion or their politics – except these poor people were confined to hospital beds and couldn’t pretend not to be home. It was awful. What made it worse was that when I introduced myself as the chaplain many people assumed that the chaplain visit could only mean one thing – they were dying – and so panicked. It was awful.

So, on this particular sunny summer day, I made an executive decision. I would ditch. Not completely, as I needed the internship credits and couldn’t justify leaving the hospital. But I would ditch my door to door work on the third floor and head down to the hospital lobby where I knew there to be a coffee cart. An ice blended mocha sounded like the perfect solution to my predicament.

With my deliciously chilly ice blended mocha in hand, I looked for a place in the lobby to sit down. “If I sit down and talk to someone, then I can justify ditching in case my supervisor walks by,” I thought.  I know, not the best of motives, but alas.

So, I spotted an older woman sitting alone and went to sit near her. She too was drinking something and we struck up a conversation. She was a delight. As it happened, she was there waiting for her husband, the patient, to have some tests. We chatted about life. When she asked what I was doing there I explained that I was working as a summer chaplain. “Oh, I hate chaplains,” she responded, not intending any ill will toward me, just stating […]

By |2020-02-15T12:47:11-08:00December 4th, 2019|Articles, Blog|Comments Off on On Duty and Delight

From “Time Magazine” —a great story about Not Church

time magazine image from article about the

4 The Rise Of The Nones — Monday, Mar. 12, 2012
By AMY SULLIVAN

The online story is available only to subscribers this week. But here’s a copy from Diana Butler Bass.

In the tiny coastal town of La Misin on Mexico’s Baja peninsula, dozens of American
expats meet for a Sunday gathering they call Not Church. Many of them long ago
gave up on traditional religious institutions. But they function as a
congregation often does–engaging one another in spiritual conversation and
prayer, delivering food when someone is sick and working together to serve the
poor.

On a recent Sunday the group, which began as a monthly discussion about a year
ago, featured a sunny-haired ordained Presbyterian named Erin Dunigan delivering
a sermon about tomatoes and God’s call to Samuel. (Organized religion, she told
them, can be like supermarket tomatoes–flavorless and tough. That isn’t a
reason to give up on religion, or tomatoes, but instead to find a fresh, local
version worth cultivating.) “It was beautiful,” Dunigan says. “The people who
don’t want anything to do with the church or religion were the people who were
leading everyone else in the service.”

These expats provide an example of a very American trend: turning away from
organized religion and yet seeking rich if unorthodox ways to build spiritual
lives. The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is the category of people
who say they have no religious affiliation. Sometimes called “the nones” by
social scientists, their numbers have more than doubled since 1990; major
surveys put them at 16% of the population. But as the Not Church community
shows, many of those who have given up on organized religion have not given up
on faith. Only 4% of Americans identify as atheist or agnostic.

Diana Butler Bass’s new book Christianity After Religion notes that the past
decade has been particularly challenging for organized religion in the U.S.,
from the Catholic sex-abuse scandal to the entanglement of faith in heated
political campaigns–resulting in a “sort of ‘participation crash.'” Nearly
every religious tradition has suffered. Even some megachurches, which pride
themselves on marketing to people turned off by traditional religion, have
floundered.

But the hunger for spiritual connection and community hasn’t gone away. A 2009
survey by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life asked respondents whether they
believed in God, how often they prayed and whether they were affiliated with a
particular religion; it found that “40% of the unaffiliated people were fairly
religious,” says director Luis Lugo. “Many said they were still hoping to
eventually find the right religious home.”

That resonates with Dunigan, 40, who acts as a sort of unofficial chaplain for
the Not Church members. “My sense is that for most, they’re not rejecting God,”
she says. “They’re rejecting organized religion as being rigid and dogmatic.”

The U.S. has a long tradition of producing spiritual innovators and
entrepreneurs. Today they’re the organizers in the emergent-church movement, an
effort by younger Christian leaders (there’s a similar movement among Jews) to
take religion away from musty pews and fierce theological fights by creating
small worship communities that often meet in members’ homes.

For traditional religious institutions, the challenge […]

By |2020-02-15T10:17:02-08:00March 12th, 2012|Articles|Comments Off on From “Time Magazine” —a great story about Not Church