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My Heart Feels Lean ~ A Love Note from Your Online Abbess

Dear monks, artists, and pilgrims, 

On Friday, December 15th we are pleased to welcome Wisdom Council member and long-time forum facilitator Melissa Layer to lead us in the mini-retreat My Heart Feels Lean: Behold the Darkness, Cradle the Light. This will be a sanctuary space to be met with tenderness in these days of Advent and holy gestation. Read on for Melissa’s reflection on the grace of conscious grieving.

December dusk falls early in Port Townsend on the wild Olympic Peninsula in Washington, where I live.  This liminal time calls me to wander in forest and field and on beaches where powerful king tides surge.  Moist fog and fragrant wood smoke swirl around me.  There is a soft muted mystery not apparent in daylight’s clarity.  As I return to my cedar-shingled cottage,  I see warm lights in unshuttered windows and dinner preparations unfolding.  Familiar feelings of yearning and longing stir in my chest.  My heart feels lean, aching with a poignant bittersweetness.  Susan Cain, the author of a book with this title, describes bittersweet as “a tendency to states of longing, poignancy, and sorrow; an acute awareness of passing time; and a curiously piercing joy at the beauty of the world.” I cradle these words, often simultaneously brought to tears and suffused with an upsurge of gratitude.  Bittersweetness has been my enduring companion for as long as I can remember, and it is only now in my wise (s)aging years that I consent to its potent invitations. 

November and December are significant for me in that 4 years ago my husband of 24 years died the day after Thanksgiving and our wedding anniversary was the day after Christmas.  In hindsight now, it is significant to reflect upon those early grief-saturated days, not just for the piercing pain of loss, but for the moments of welcome comfort, beauty, and gratitude that inexplicably wove their way through the frightening numbness.  There was the childlike comfort of my purple flannel pajamas and how a pink hot-water bottle was a warm weight on my aching chest in the empty bed; how the Olympic mountain range, blanketed in fresh snow against a blue sky, filled my eyes with tears of appreciation; and how I even laughed when a trickster breeze reversed itself, swirling my husband’s ashes across my cheeks and through my hair as I scattered them from a high bluff above the Salish sea. The coyote pack’s reverberating call and response in the frosty meadow beneath the night sky of sparkling stars gave voice to a keening that arose in my own throat.

Grief is an intimate experience and yet, as Cain writes, “… if we realize that all humans know loss and suffering, we can turn towards each other.”  In my vocation as a psychospiritual counselor and interfaith spiritual companion, I work with those who are fissured and broken open through loss, including those living with cancers and chronic illness.  I behold how “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in” (from Leonard Cohen’s Anthem).  Attuned to Mystery’s breathing presence in nature, I offer metaphors via the naked winter trees as they are revealed in their stark vulnerability, with the frosted veins of their fallen leaves beneath them; or the meditative art of mandala making, knowing the wind or incoming tide will bring their teachings about impermanence. As grief hollows and empties us, we may discover an increased capacity for engaged connections with the other-than-human world and each other. There is an opportunity in this vulnerability for us to behold the extraordinary in the everyday ordinary.  Tenderized and marinated by grief, we may discover the wisdom of Frances Weller’s words: “The work of the mature person is to carry grief in one hand and gratitude in the other and to be stretched large by them…Grief keeps the heart fluid and soft, which helps make compassion possible.” 

~ ~ ~

Melissa Layer, MA, LMHC honors our unfolding journeys as invitations for creative, integrative meaning-making in BodyMindSpirit.  Her sacred calling and training as a psychospiritual therapist and spiritual companion have taught her about the potency of thin places in thresholds and dark nights of the soul. Cultivating curiosity, Melissa offers expressive exploration of the Great Mystery through journaling, collaging, poem-making, dreamwork, visio and lectio divina, creation of rituals and altars, and engaged encounters with nature.  Melissa offers her compassionate, attuned presence and deep listening with the ear of her heart from the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, where the Salish sea meets the evergreen forest. Visit Melissa’s website at

Join us for this Friday, December 15th for a two-hour retreat to open ourselves gently to the graces that conscious grieving can bring through explorations in poetry, writing, and prayer.    

With great and growing love,


Christine Valters Paintner, PhD, REACE

Images © Melissa Layer

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