The nimbus of irrepressibly abundant bright hair was the first thing I noticed about Joyce Parker when we met four years ago. I once read that hair is a powerful antenna that connects evolved souls to higher spiritual energies. I mentioned this to her. She scoffed, "So what about bald men?" That stopped me. We just laughed and moved on.
It is characteristic of Joyce to deflect any comment that suggests a compliment or praise. The truth is she is a deeply spiritual woman. And she is firmly grounded in humor and wry self-observation.
She recently moved into a condo that she renovated. It is my first visit. She has created a space that reminds me of the word sanctuary. The deep gold walls, the warm light, the soft music are serene. I am immediately at ease. Joyce has the rare capacity to be truly present with people. She is a caring listener. But today it is her turn to talk.
"My life has two halves-life before my husband died and life after he died. It's as though two people have lived in my same body. We were married for 49 years. Like a lot of women of my generation, I went from my childhood home directly into marriage. The night after my husband's funeral was the first night in my entire life I spent by myself."
"I was living in Beaufort then. After driving my daughter to the airport in Savannah, I came home to an empty house. I remember going into my bathroom and just staring at the image in the mirror. I didn't know who was looking back at me. I kept looking into those stranger's eyes asking 'who are you?' My whole life I had lived in a context of daughter, granddaughter, wife, mother. I had never stood alone. I knew then I had a choice. I could either sink or swim."
That was eleven years ago. The last decade has been an odyssey of self-discovery for Joyce, wonderfully eventful and at times beset with challenges. "I often feel a prodding, I resist. Then a louder prodding and then I hit a brick wall. But my husband's death was not a brick wall. It was an open door that led me to amazing gifts."
When her husband died, his Hospice worker suggested to Joyce that she would make a wonderful respite worker. After 14 months of caring for her husband, Joyce couldn't imagine it. But the comment took root. She ended up volunteering with Friends of Caroline Hospice in Beaufort and loved it. Through a series of events "beyond coincidence" she found herself accepted into the Chaplaincy Program offered through the Roper St. Francis Healthcare System in Charleston.
For two years she lived in "cheap second-rate hotels" while she attended classes five days a week and was often on-call most weekends. With a deep throaty laugh she tosses her white mane and says, "This innocent, sheltered woman got two educations in Charleston. It definitely made me more accepting about life and people. I learned that most things I think are broken aren't. It's just my limited perspective."
Another important door opened when she facilitated a class that studied the book From Age-ing to Sage-ing by Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. It offered her a new vision of aging. Joyce says, "The premise is older people are given this 'gift of time' to find out who we are; to improve spiritually; to deepen our relationships. I now have a huge appreciation for this gift. It taught me to be present in now.to see what each moment has to offer."
Spirituality has been central to her journey. "The greatest thing has been opening my heart to what I call 'Divine Love.' It's like watching a rose open within my chest. Because I'm now a chaplain people ask me what religion I am. I say, 'I have become nothing and all.' I see spirituality as the energy of the universe swirling with wisdom, love, and compassion. We all need to meet each other on a footing of acceptance."
She occasionally wrestles with loneliness which she distinguishes from being alone. She sometimes has her "dark nights of the soul" and her little "pity parties." She laughs, "I do depression for about two hours and then I just get fed-up and tired of it. It really helps if you can laugh at yourself. But I think as human beings we have to experience the light and the dark.and accept both to be whole."
I listen to this wise woman who is soft and strong; humble and self- assured. She has become a teacher in the best tradition.by example. Maybe I can't attribute it all to her hair, but Joyce is tuned into something authentic and lofty. As always, I leave her feeling elevated.
Family: Three daughters, a son and eight grandchildren.
Spiritual Discipline: Qigong. She describes it as a "beautiful moving meditation." She is an active participant and leader of the HHI Qigong group that meets on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
Spiritual Teachers: Her books.