Welcome to my Blog

This Blog is a collection of my thoughts and experiences as a music therapist and human being working with people at the end of their lives in hospice. In my experience I have seen some amazing things- things that have given me a glimse of something bigger. I have learned that in our suffering, in our doubt, there is also room for beauty and a deeper sense of the divine. Music taps into the rhythms of the earth and at the same time transcends it. I want to share my experiences from the past and from each day moving forward. Hopefully one or two people will find it interesting. Please visit my Web-sites at http://www.nielsenmtbc.com/ or http://www.musictherapycd.com/

Please note that I take client confidentiality very seriously. Names and sometimes other details have been changed to protect the identities of my clients.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Silent November Air

Oh that moment each year... I step into the cold, silent November night air. No more crickets and frogs singing. No more night birds singing. Even the owls have left for the year. Stillness and silence. Nothing but the Erie sound of grain dryers in the distance. It's always a little moment of grief and gratitude for the summer that was, and a bracing for the winter to come.
Winter is a part of life, but as we move from autumn to winter, there is a sad goodbye to what was- a practice in letting go. Winter is a time when life pauses, with a hopeful promise it will resume. We hold the light in the darkness with a faith that life will begin again. The creatures of the earth will awaken and return again. Nature will be reborn. We will be reborn.
In this present moment of change we need to both mourn and celebrate the beauty of what has been, and what will be.
"In the cold and snow of winter, there's a spring that waits to be, unrevealed until its season, something God alone can see." ---- Hymn of Promise, Natalie Sleeth

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Is Suffering "Inhuman"? I Don't Think So.

After a long absence, I'm back. Life has been a little crazy the past couple of years and this blog page has languished too long. Some recent cases being covered in the Media, as well as an increased awareness of end-of-life have inspired me to pick it up and carry on...
This evening I was watching PBS's NewsHour, and a discussion about end of life and the case of Brittany Maynard, who has decided to legally end her life. Like I said before I have mixed feelings about this case. But aside from the larger moral-ethical issues, I had a strong response to something Barbara Coombs Lee said when speaking on Brittany's behalf. She referred the dying process as "inhuman" and "dehumanizing". No. A natural disease process is not removing a person's humanity. Dying is often a stripping away in a progression toward a spiritual transition, but suffering is a part of it... until the part that's human is left behind. I've seen just how awful it can be, but it is not contrary to our humanity. Suffering is not only part of life, it defines what it means to be human. I'm reminded of Captain Kirk famously stating, a little too overdramatically, "I need my pain." But it's true.

The Buddha taught that "all of life is suffering". Jesus' life was about suffering. Indigenous people still engage in spiritual practices that involve symbolic suffering. Nearly every spiritual tradition has suffering at its core. Why? Because to suffer IS to be human. It's terrible. It's gut-wrenching. It sucks!!! But it IS human.

To ease suffering is also human.

To be afraid of suffering is human.

I don't condemn Brittany for her choice. It would not be my choice, but I honor her right and do believe others should have that right. But before we do that we need to make many more strides toward increasing access to quality hospice and palliative care, which can ease suffering and increase quality of life until the last breath. Natural, human death with dignity is possible. I see it every day.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Waiting for the Light

This was a message I've delivered a few times for "Blue Christmas" or "Service of the Longest Night" services. It seems even more appropriate to share in light of recent tragic events.

Joy to the World…
Deck the Halls with boughs of Holly…
We Wish you a Merry Christmas…
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas, it’s the best time of the year…
You better not cry… I’m tellin’ you why…
These are the messages that surround us at Christmas
Messages that we should be happy- that no matter what we are feeling,
No matter what we have been through
We should just get over it and be happy
A message mixed with another message- a message of consumption
A message that if we just buy this toy or that big screen TV or that piece of jewelry we can make the ones we love happy
That we can make ourselves happy
So what happens when it’s not enough?
What happens when material goods cannot fill the empty places?
Joy to the World… but how can we be joyful when we have lost someone we’ve love?
Deck the Halls with boughs of Holly… but how can we do that when it hurts too much to move?
We wish you a Merry Christmas… but I’m just too sad every day, why should today be any different?
Have a Holly Jolly Christmas- How can I do that if I am diagnosed with a serious life-threatening disease?
You better not cry… I’m tellin’ you why… But how can Santa come to town when I’ve lost my job?
How can we talk about heavenly peace in a world of war, in a world where bridges fall down, in a world where there is poverty and disease, in a world that can sometimes seem so broken?
What if we want the perfect "White Christmas",
But we are left with this aching, imperfect "Blue Christmas?"

Where do we find light when we are surrounded in darkness?

We remember another time of darkness when the world waited for its light.
Jesus did not come into a happy world of sugar plums and tinsel
He did not come to a world of ornaments and presents
He did not come to a world where we wait in the dead of night for a $299 laptop computer
-or an Ipad
He came to a world where people searched the night sky for a sign of hope
He came into a world filled with darkness, oppression, and tyranny
A world of those who had and those who had not
A world of sickness and disease

Think of the frightened young mother having to explain her pregnancy to her fiancé
Think of this young couple with child, having the burden to travel great distance
Only to have this child born in a dirty barn
Remember the tyranny of a king, willing to kill children for fear that one child could threaten his power
The family of refugees that had to flee their homeland so that their child would not be killed.
It is the story of one sent to bring peace, but who was sentenced to death.
Of light that was brought to the darkness, but that the world tried to snuff out
But that light shone in the darkness… in the form of a child, and a star shining in the east
A light of healing for the sick

A light to free the oppressed and sick at heart
The light of God’s love and acceptance
A light of forgiveness
A light to make us whole when we are broken
A light that transformed the world

Who were the first to see and feel this light as it shone around them?
It wasn’t kings or heads of state
It was not the rich and comfortable
It was a group of poor shepherds watching their flock in the cold night
Wise men and kings came later, following this light
And this light would shine for thousands of years, despite so many attempts to put it out,
…and those that would exploit that light

Tonight we are as these shepherds and wise men were
Feeling alone and in the cold
We feel the pain of loss, the pain of despair, the pain of living in darkness
We search these long nights for the same hope
Tonight we will light these candles, not just as a representation of what we have lost or the pain we feel
But as the light of our hope, no matter how small
Jesus did not come to promise us a perfect world
But to promise us that there is always hope, even through the darkest night
To set an example that we should care for others as we would want to be cared for
To remind us that, even when we are lost and suffering, even when we are dying,
He is there, and that we are surrounded by His multitude of angels

If we step away from all the noise of the holiday season
And take time to listen to the Silent Night
Just as a child listens in wonder for the sound of hooved feet
We just might hear it
We just might hear the voice of the angels speaking to us
If we take time to listen to our hurt and pain and not hide it away
Then we give ourselves the chance to be transformed

We can’t ignore this these feelings of pain
Right now, for whatever reason, we need to embrace the feelings of pain we feel.
We need to make this tree, these feelings of sadness or frustration-  a part of ourselves
We need to honor those feelings
and honor this part of ourselves in order to find our way back to the Christmas of Joy
Just as Jesus honored the pain of those he healed.
We read in John that later in his life, when the disciples asked him who sinned to make the man blind, Jesus said:

 "Neither this man nor his parents sinned… but this (blindness) happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."

The gift of Jesus is that it is not about our sins and wrongdoings
But rather it is about allowing the light of hope into the world and into ourselves
Through this gift given to us by God the world was transformed
And we can be transformed as well
And through that transformation we can be healed, we can be whole, we can be free
Free to accept this gift so silently given
The gift of new life, new light, and of resurrection and rebirth.
The gift not of boxes and tags and bows
But the gift of eternal and ever renewing life.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Why I’m Voting No: Because Life’s too short

I have worked with people near the end of their lives for well over a decade in our community through my hospice work. I have laughed, cried, prayed, sung, and worshipped with people of almost every denomination and church in our area during a very sacred time- a time of loss and healing. While this work can sometimes be hard, it has taught me many lessons and given me a lot of perspective on life, love, death, and the next life. It has taught me to treasure every moment, because we don’t know how long our time on this earth will be. It’s taught me that we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are not black or white: we enter into this life as a child of God, and when the time comes God calls us back as his children- loved and forgiven. This work has also given me a unique perspective on an issue that deeply troubles me. I want to share with you what is on my heart in a way that is kind and respectful. I don’t wish to debate interpretation of Old Testament scripture. I recognize that people of good faith can read and interpret things differently. I know that my guiding principle in life is to love God and love all others as the highest commandment.

In my time I have worked with clients who were gay and lesbian. I have seen firsthand the very deep hurt that many of these people have experienced in their lives. They have lived with a lifetime of bullying; they are sometimes rejected and abandoned by family and friends, and have faced a life of inequality simply for who they are. This hurts people in ways that run so deep. It destroys self-esteem and self-worth and creates scars that sometimes never go away- even 30, 40, 50+ years later. It is a pain I can tell you many people take to their graves.

As a straight male, I don’t understand homosexuality. In being honest, the thought still makes me uncomfortable. Years ago my father, a Methodist Minister was assigned to a church in Minneapolis that welcomed people who are gay, lesbian, and transgender. The first time I sat down in a church so open about this, and realized I was sitting next to a transgender person, I became extremely uncomfortable. I didn’t understand why it was so important for “those people” who are gay to be open about who they were. But in time, as I prayed and worshipped with these people, as I listened to their hurts and their struggles I came to realize that “those people” were really no different from me. In their hopes and dreams, in their everyday lives, and in their love of God, they were really no different. The day my new-born son was baptized in that church, I looked around that sanctuary and realized that family and faith were every bit as important to them as it was to the people there who were straight.

I’ve since come to understand that God often places us in positions of discomfort as a way to challenge us to see beyond ourselves- to help us grow.

Despite my discomfort back then, I have since had the privilege to know many people who are gay and lesbian who are people of deep compassion and great moral character. I know that who they are is not a choice. If you know people who are gay then you would also know this is not a choice. I’ve grown to see that what people do in the privacy of their bedrooms is not what matters, rather it’s about the content of their character. I can tell you with no discomfort now that I love my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, even though I will never completely understand their sexuality.  “Those people” are our family, our friends, and our neighbors. They deserve the same right to family and happiness as any of us.

I know people who are progressive who say that conservatives are hateful. After living, working, and serving with many conservative people in this community, I wholeheartedly reject that notion. In my conservative friends I have seen such great compassion and willingness to do anything to help ease the suffering of another human being- even for those who are different. We all have differences in our experience that affect the way we see the world. I pray we can all conduct ourselves in love, kindness, and open-mindedness as we discuss this issue. Judging and yelling at each other isn’t helpful on either side.

We face the decision to amend our constitution to permanently remove the rights of an entire group of people- a constitution that was devised to protect freedoms, not take them away. This amendment also threatens the religious freedom of those who believe deeply in marriage equality. Many faith communities are working against this amendment for this and other reasons. More importantly this amendment imposes one religious view and turns it into law. History has shown that this is never a good thing- especially in a democracy. There is already a law that prohibits gay marriage. Laws are things that we live by in a democracy. They are also something that we can change as our understanding grows and changes. They are something we can continue to discuss. This amendment will end that discussion and will curtail the freedoms of generations. It relegates a whole group of people to second-class citizenship. Is this really something we need to do?

I want to respectfully ask you to consider voting no on this amendment to limit marriage to one man and one woman. I ask you to give this another thought, to listen to your heart, to pray, and consider what impact this amendment might have on other families- on people you don’t even know. Is this a government intrusion we really want? If you are voting for this amendment because you believe homosexuality is a sin, I ask, is it not also a sin to further marginalize a whole group of people, to push them out of the American dream? Is that really consistent with family values- with Minnesota values- with American values? Is it right to impose our individual beliefs on others by amending our state constitution? And lastly I ask, isn’t life too short and precious to be limiting others in who they can and can’t love and commit their lives to?

“ ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’ “(Matthew 25:40)

Sunday, May 1, 2011

The Death Of Osama Bin Laden

It seemed the hateful acts of 9/11, and the country's reaction to it caused us to go to some very dark places as a nation, and it caused a rift that seemed almost impossible to heal. It feels to me that this is why things have gotten so ugly now.

God's gift of free will made it possible for people like Osama Bin Laden and Adolf Hitler to exist, but it also gave us people like Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Ghandi, Nelson Mandela, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and the list goes on. Too many people have died from the acts of September 11th and in all that came after- too many families forever changed- this country far too divided. I find it very hard to celebrate on this day.

I am proud of and eternally grateful for all those who risked and lost their lives to keep us safe. I feel renewed hope today, that maybe we can move on; maybe we can start heal this giant rift in our country, maybe people will ratchet down this hate that seems to be consuming us. Call me a pollyannish optimist, but I would like to hope something good can ultimately come out of his death.

I hope and pray that we can start to find our way back to heal that rift and come together again. One nation... I don't know how, but I know we have to find a way home.

It is up for each of us to make the choice in our lives:

We can create or destroy.
We can hurt or heal.
We can love or hate.

By the same token, we can yell at each other, or work together to create a better world for all of us. Sometimes I need reminding of this too.

Ultimately it comes down to us to make the right choices.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Leo's Story

Leonard's Story
A year and a half before the storm, Leo's wife died a difficult death from Breast Cancer, a cancer that would have been treatable if they could have been able to afford better health coverage. Leonard was a good man, but he was poor, as were most of his neighbors. His wife had been his soul mate- many considered them inseparable. Leo had just himself fought a long battle with prostate cancer, a battle he thought he had won.
Then the storm came.
Leo chose to stay home, rather than face the already backed up evacuation traffic. He also had all of his memories in that house- the thought of leaving was like the thought of leaving his wife all over again. The winds came first, shaking the small home where he and his wife had spent so many years. He listened as the shingles were ripped from his roof. Then the rain came. Then the flood came. It came fast- very fast. Leo climbed up into his home's small attic, but the water continued to rise. Like many New Orleanians, Leo kept a hatchet in his attic. He used that hatchet to cut a hole in the roof- not an easy task for a man approaching 80.
There was no light and the dark windowless attic. Daybreak had arrived through the storm clouds. As he chopped through the attic in the darkness, he saw more and more light shining through the hole. He knew that he was still alive for now. He climbed out onto his rooftop and as he sat on his rooftop island the reality slowly sunk in.
Everything was gone. Every picture and photo album was gone- everything that tied him to his wife was now under 10 feet of water and would never be recovered. Every record album, one of Leo's few indulgences, was gone. His home was gone.
And to make matters worse, as with many poor New Orlean's residents, he had to wait 3 days- 3 DAYS for rescue.
After he was evacuated he went to live with some family in Minnesota. After a month in Minnesota, he went to see a doctor. He was noticing some pain and other symptoms. The doctor did the tests and sure enough the Prostate Cancer had returned. It had metastasized everywhere and there was no possibility of treatment. He was given 3 months to live.

This is when I met Leonard- a few days after his admission to hospice. By this part of the story I couldn't imagine the pain and loss he felt.
“You have lost so much”, was all I could manage to say.
He sighed for a moment, and then said:
“I have lost a lot son. But you know what? I am a lucky man- the luckiest of all”.
WHAT??? I said to myself- how can this man call himself lucky?
“Lucky?”, I asked.
“Lucky”, he said.
I am Alive. I have my family- at least what I have left of them. I didn't die in that flood or end up like so many others there. I have this moment- this moment to listen to the leaves in the trees and the birds singing in them. I have this moment to breathe in this air. I have this moment to thank God for the life that I have- the live that I’ve been given. And now after a life of toils and snares, I am going to be with my Lord. I'll hold my wife in my arms again soon. I see now that the struggles I have faced have taught me so much. Now I know just how much being alive means. Things are just things- I can't take them with me when I go. I thought I would have rather died at home, but now I know I was meant to be with my family here. God gave me storms, but he gave me so many beautiful things. The storm put me on that roof, but it was God who lifted me off that roof when I thought I would surely die. That rescue crew was sent by Him- they had answered the call. And I know it is God who sends people like you to me now. Now I see God everywhere. You can't truly see the light, until you've seen the darkness.”

How many of us can say we have a faith like that?
Faith that through the storm there is light...
Faith that through pain and death, there is healing and life...
Faith that does not question why God allows suffering, but merely understands suffering as a part of this life. And that it's what we and others do with the suffering that matters.

Precious Lord, Take my Hand, lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired, I am weak, I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night, lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord, and lead me home.

- Song: Precious Lord, Take my Hand, by Thomas Dorsey