16 March 2012

What can you learn from a mother-in-law?

My mother-in-law, Margaret, will celebrate her 90th birthday this summer. I have had the honor and joy of knowing Margaret for the past 31 years, after meeting and marrying her youngest son. Margaret is an amazing woman, role model and inspiration.

Each day, she rises and greets the morning by walking several miles through the Colorado mountains with Zoe, the family's beloved Labrador retriever, then returns home to enjoy a hearty breakfast, engage in an hour of yoga and meditation, and later rides her stationary bike to stay in shape for hiking and climbing nearby hilltops. Margaret spends several weeks a year in Boise visiting our family, and one of my favorite things to do is to walk with her and our dogs along the many miles of hiking trails in the high deserts of Idaho.

Margaret, age 89, prepares for another day.
Her pace is brisk, deliberate and certain. Her energy level is beyond comprehension-for anyone, but especially for a woman of such advanced age. As we hike the rolling hills outside our country home, surrounded by mountain ranges, we are delighted by the myriad birds and wildlife that accompany us.

The high desert of Idaho
Margaret was born in southern Virginia on a tobacco farm. Her family was very poor by monetary standards, but rich in love, family and community. As she ran barefoot through the fertile soil of Virginia during her childhood and adolescence, she became forever bonded to the earth-and has remained connected to the earth throughout her long and active life.

Margaret is also a thoughtful, wise and deeply reflective person. We have spent countless hours walking and talking-sharing our innermost thoughts about life, family and our mutual love of the earth. An avid journalist, she handwrites all of her journal entries and has neatly maintained them in notebooks over the past several decades. She often shares her philosophies with me-including her “tenets for life”- principles by which she lives her life. I would like to share some of them with my readers as a source of inspiration and as a catalyst for intentional living.

First, Margaret suggests that “spend time in quietness” to listen to the voices of our soul and to stay in tune with nature; that the energy of the universe is available to all of us, especially if we integrate life's processes and experiences from birth to the end of life. Margaret's life partner, soul mate and husband of nearly 60 years died in 2010 after losing his hard-fought battle with brain cancer. Ed was a brilliant and gifted college professor, environmentalist and author. He died peacefully amidst the mountains of Colorado, administered to and cared for by Margaret, who was always at his side. His life ended quietly, gently and without pain as the two said their final goodbyes.

Since Ed's death, Margaret has helped many of us realize that “we can experience joy to the same degree we experience sorrow,” paraphrasing her favorite poet, Kahlil Gibran, who reminds us that “sorrow expands our ability to experience joy,” that being fully present and having a life philosophy to guide us is all-important.

Both of us admire the simple wisdom of Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc., who describes a process to reduce harm to the environment and ways for each of us to make a difference. One of Chouinard's philosophies is “Lead an examined life.” He suggests that we often cause harm as a result of ignorance and a willful avoidance to learn, because we don't want to act on what we know.

I spoke about this concept in my previous post, “Knowing better and doing better in uncertain and uncivil times,” Only after we make a conscious effort to seek the truth, to ask questions and become aware are we able to move to action. Another Patagonia philosophy is “Support civil democracy,” reminding us that organizations large and small, as well as individuals who deeply care about an issue, can make an incredible and important difference. Small groups of dedicated and passionate people can make extraordinary changes.

For Reflections on Nursing Leadership (RNL), published by the Honor Society of Nursing, Sigma Theta Tau International.