All blog posts must be in this category.

care photo

On her way out my front door my friend turned back and said, “Take care.”

I use that phrase all the time.

Sometimes it is a caution, meaning be careful, drive safely, don’t do anything foolish.

Sometimes it is a wish, may things go well for you.

Sometimes it means be good to yourself.

Often it’s a sign off, goodbye, tata, see ya later.

But this time, when my friend turned back and said, “Take care,” I heard the phrase in a new and powerful way.

It happened earlier this month. I had just returned from an unexpected three days in our local hospital. I had received blood transfusions, tests, and excellent nursing skills for what I was told was “life-threatening anemia,” a reprise of my longer hospital stay in March. (Cause so-far undetermined.)

My friend had stopped by the day I got home to assure herself that I was okay, to hear my story and keep me company for half an hour, and to leave prepared food for my supper.

And when she left, saying, “take care,” I heard it as a reminder to me to TAKE all the care I was being offered. This was not a time for me to be heroic or stoic, not a time to think I can do it all by myself. This was not a time to judge myself as being weak or whiney or unworthy.

This was a member of my circle of chosen friends, a part of my village, telling me, “We are here for you. Whatever you need, we will try to provide it. We are all grown-ups, and we will tell you if we can’t manage what you ask, but please ASK, and please be willing to RECEIVE. You’ll have your chance to reciprocate when you are well. So TAKE care.”

I am so very blessed, and so very grateful.

And to you, reading this, I offer the phrase, complete with its expanded meaning: whenever you are in need, reach out; and TAKE CARE.

care photo

 

 

I have been sorting through memorabilia.

Again.

Still.

Five generations worth of photos, newspaper clippings, report cards, dance cards, grade school art, certificates, ticket stubs, merit badge cards . . . you know – memorabilia.

This week I found a large black-and-white photo of my brother, Jay, tall and handsome. He looks to be about 21 or 22, so I would have been 13. He’s wearing a white tuxedo jacket. He is pinning a boutonnière on the lapel of our uncle, a military physician, who is also wearing a formal white jacket. I put the photo in the “keep” pile, mostly because it was a mystery to me. I could not remember, nor even imagine, the circumstances behind this image.

I sorted through many more inches of papers and photos before I quit for the day. Then, later that afternoon, it came to me: that photo must have been taken on the day of my cousin Judy’s wedding. Jay would have been a groomsman. I remembered nothing about the ceremony nor the reception. But I retrieved a fragment of an emotion, and then a flash of memory: we’re on our family’s long drive home from the wedding celebration. I am looking pensively out the back window of the car and crying; I’m stroking Jay’s thick wavy hair as he sleeps with his head on my lap. Then other wispy fragments, hardly big enough to be called memories, squirmed around inside me: Jay drinking too much at the reception; my humiliated parents; us packing up in embarrassment and heading home. Angry parents in the front seat, with our youngest sibling between them. Jay passed out in the back seat. And me, his adoring sister, holding him to protect us both from being pummeled by powerful emotional undercurrents I don’t quite understand.

One week after that photo was taken, Jay would begin medical school. Two weeks later was his own wedding ceremony. And just three weeks after that Jay would die in a private plane crash.

It’s a poignant story. I clearly remember getting word of his death, and much of everything that happened in the following weeks. But I was blind-sided by my brief memory of siding with him and comforting him that one day six weeks before he died. Without the mystery photo that memory might never have surfaced.

As I’ve sorted memorabilia I’ve gleaned a few items to save, culled most into “recycle” or “burn pile” bags; I’ve held and considered each and every piece before deciding which goes where.

But philosophically I am puzzled, wondering what is the purpose of this exercise. What good did it do, that particular memory of Jay? How do these pieces of my history serve me? Why not just dump everything? Or why don’t I leave all the boxes stuffed under my bed and let my progeny worry about the contents?

And here’s another, more perplexing question: of what value are memories in general? Would it be such a tragedy to develop dementia? I expect all my memories to evaporate anyway, when I die; or perhaps I’ll be presented with all my memories at once for me to review in something like a film called “Cynthia’s Life Condensed Into Two Minutes.” So why am I caught up in the sorting of memories now? (Probably Inie, my beloved Jungian therapist from thirty years ago, would have an answer, offered in her gentle Dutch accent. But I think I’d rather figure it out for myself.)

How much of my life’s details have I forgotten? Far more than those I remember.

How many of those forgotten memories are important to me now? Not many, I’ll bet.

Would I want to change any of the details of my life if I could? No, not even the really painful ones. Because I like who I am, and I couldn’t have become who I am without everything that adds up to be me.

Here’s a thought: maybe it’s more important to try to bless each moment as it happens, and then let it go, confident that it has served my life’s inscrutable purpose. Instead of GATHERING memories, maybe I should just BE the sum of them in the moment.

Nevertheless, I suspect I’ll continue doggedly pulling one box after another out from under my bed; I’ll continue sorting through the contents, keeping some, discarding most, and finding an occasional gem that helps me honor and appreciate, even more, all the moments that have contributed to a life that I really like a lot.

retreat photoIt seems that my May blog post on “stillness, silence, and solitude” struck a vibrant chord with readers. I’ve heard from several folks yearning to “go on retreat,” but then wondering how one prepares to “do” a retreat?

One SOS email came from a woman wanting to bail out of a retreat that ended up far more congested with other people than she anticipated. She felt herself “constricting” away from her co-retreatants, wanting to be alone. But, she said, that “feels a bit scary, because I have not learned to structure solo retreats for myself. Maybe I’ll create a daily schedule for myself that involves meditating, writing, walking, reading. Is that how it works, oh solo-retreat guru ;-)) ??”

I fear I have a somewhat ill-gotten reputation for retreating. Perhaps I’ve made my retreats sound way more spiritual and satisfying than the reality might warrant. I thought: oh, if only she knew how I REALLY “do” my retreats! But then, I guess that’s why she wrote to me, so I told her honestly: I’m an introvert; I understand “constricting.” I do it all the time. If remaining constantly “open” to others is what I’m supposed to learn, I’ll work on that one in my next lifetime, thank you. I wouldn’t survive if I couldn’t curl up in my snail-shell and close its door (it’s called an “operculum,” by the way, at least for snails, and maybe for retreatants too).

In fact, THAT’S what a retreat means to me – pulling back from daily demands to be very alone, with just myself and – if I choose to allow Her to join me (She never insists) – with the Holy One.

As for structuring solo retreats: the only advance planning I do is to answer these questions:

1) what do I hope for from this time away?

– to listen more clearly for the voice of the Divine?

– to write six poem drafts each day?

– to sleep as much as possible? (if so, do not take a clock)

– to simply wander in Nature and notice?

[note to self: focus on just ONE of the above – if you try to cram everything into a few days, you might as well stay home.]

 

2) where shall I go?

I’ve often stayed in inexpensive motel rooms, ones that have a small fridge, a coffee maker, a microwave, and a desk.

The hospitality offered by religious sisters, especially those of the Benedictine Order, comes with the option of spiritual direction, meals with the sisters (often silent), and is imbued with a gracious warmth – you can design your own solo retreat, do not need to follow any set pattern, do not need to be Catholic. (Check out https://www.retreatfinder.com)

However, I’m on a fixed income, and often I’ve been lucky enough to be offered hospitality by a variety of friends who have a studio, a guest house, a mother-in-law apartment, a guest room. The difficult part for me is the asking. It’s worth it to take the risk.

 

3) do I really want to lug twelve books with me?

Leave behind the spirituality books (do I care what someone else thinks, or do I want to learn what I think and what I hear inside?). Leave behind the how-to-pen-the-perfect-poem books (if writing is the focus, just DO the writing). Okay, maybe take two books of well-written poetry for inspiration, plus one well-written novel to fall asleep with. That’s plenty.

 

4) what shall I eat?

– if I’m going to cook, have I packed all the ingredients and utensils I’ll need?

– if I’m only going to snack, will I be satisfied, and do I have enough finger-food? (Sometimes being on retreat builds up a powerful appetite.)

[note to self: eating at restaurants breaks the rhythm and the spell of away-time – not recommended.]

 

5) is there any special clothing I’ll need?

– do I plan to get out of my pajamas at any time during this retreat?

– am I likely to need a rain jacket or hiking shoes?

 

So much for “structure.” I generally avoid anything planned or facilitated by anyone else. And I seldom go away with anyone else unless I am certain they are of like mind and know how to be silent and solitary. If I do go with another, we may share check-ins during a pre-chosen time each day. Otherwise, we agree to be mostly in our own snail-shells.

Don’t use cellphone or internet. Both cellphone and wi-fi can decimate an operculum!

The real “secret” of a retreat, for me – the real magic – is closing my operculum, but opening myself interiorly and letting go to whatever emerges there. Being an incurable wordsmith, I usually journal the thoughts or questions that arise, but I don’t try to reach definitive answers – nor finished manuscripts – in the moment; answers and obsessions close off the creative/holy flow just as would a crowd of people (or the internet) clamoring to be listened to.

For me, becoming comfortable within a silent-spirally-alone-uncertainty is what retreats are all about.retreat photo

bird feeder photo

My favorite chair is one next to the large window overlooking a dozen flower pots and three bird feeders. At least twenty different species visit those feeders, and I love getting to know them and learning their behaviors.

 

I want to know the names of all my avian visitors. (I think it’s unfair, however, that the birds “change clothes” with the changing seasons, and the purple finch that I recognized in his spring finery isn’t as easily identified in late summer.)

 

Robin photoA name, for me, is like a jewelry box into which I put everything that I experience and all that I learn about, for example, the robin. In my Robin jewelry box are such things as

  • how “common and ordinary” I think the bird is, but every spring I’m amazed again at how big and bright he is when he’s hoping to attract a mate
  • the robin’s songs at twilight, repetitive and full of gratitude
  • the corner of my deck railing that becomes his personal porta-potty while he sings
  • the stubborn bird that keeps bashing his head against my window, fighting off the “competitor” he sees reflected there. Neither he nor his equally persistent rival will give up the fight until they’re too exhausted to go on.

 

 photo I have an avian jewelry box labeled Flicker.  The gems in that box are

  • that huge black bib and the red cheek splotch and all those polka dots!
  • learning that flicker’s tongue wraps around his brain to cushion it when he’s pounding on a tree (or a roof) – how wonderful is that?
  • the memory of the flicker who cost me $110 a couple of years ago. He wanted the neighborhood ladies to understand his sexiness, and his pounding on my home’s metal roof vents sent reverberations throughout the house exhaust system. Unfortunately, that was before I had a Ficker jewelry box, and I didn’t yet understand flicker habits, so I called in a heating repairman to see what was “wrong” with my propane furnace and my propane fireplace log, and why were they making that odd unpredictable noise!

 

Yesterday I had a close encounter with a hummingbird. Unbeknownst to me this hummer flew into my garage as I was backing my car out. Several hours later I drove back into the hummingbird photogarage and found him, exhausted, fluttering weakly against the inside of the garage window, frantic to get out. Hummingbird feet can only clasp around something narrow; they cannot stand or walk on flat surfaces. So this poor hummer could not rest safely anywhere. I was able to capture him in my hand, a tiny, fragile, depleted, trembling creature. I confess I held him a minute or two longer than I needed to, just to soak up the miraculous fact of his being. Then I carried him out to my front garden and watched him soar up into the birch tree. Wow, did he have a story to tell when he got home! And I had a beautiful new gem to add to my Hummingbird jewelry box.

 

jewelry box photo

silence photo

 

In emails from friends, in blog posts, in discussions over tea, more and more often lately I’m noticing certain words:

Stillness

Silence

Solitude

 

In poetry and books of prose, in conversations at the grocery store, in magazines, there they are again:

Stillness

Silence

Solitude

 

Is it just that I happen to notice these particular words? Is it because they all begin with S, and I love alliteration? Or are these words slowly becoming more important in all our thoughts?

 

Are we becoming more aware of our lack of spaces for emptiness and quiet? Am I hearing appeals for, longings for, these simple states of being?

 

Here’s what I think: There is a STILLNESS that is different from silence. This stillness is a quieting of the mind and the body in the midst of mental chatter and bustling schedules. This stillness is refreshing.

 

The SILENCE we seek is the absence of human-made sounds, those produced by electronic devices or motorized vehicles or even sounds spoken or sung. We long for vibrations made by nature, like bird calls and wind through pines, rainfall and river song, bumble bees and hummingbird flight.

 

I understand SOLITUDE as that sort of being alone that is not lonely, but filled with the opportunity to listen for the whisper of the Divine. Solitude is a rest from interacting with others, a celebration of sabbath not because it’s required but because it nourishes.

 

Yesterday I received an email from a friend who has arrived in Santiago de Compostela, Spain, after a month as a pilgrim walking the Camino de Santiago. Sadly, the Camino has become such a popular “vacation destination” that there was little sense of solitude about it for her. She writes, “It seems that the longer I am gone the more I become protective of my private spaces.” Even in the midst of a “pilgrimage” she hungers for more solitude and stillness and silence.

 

A few weeks ago a friend and I rented a cottage for a three-day writing retreat. We decided to do no cooking, just snack when we felt like it. We brought crackers, peanut butter, string cheese, apples, granola, and bananas. We each claimed a corner of the common space for our writing, spending hours in stillness and silence. For long stretches of time we were either unaware of each other, or present in a nonintrusive way. It was a delicious, creative, and nourishing time.

 

As I’ve been pondering them, I realize that stillness, silence, and solitude are opportunities that come with a privileged life. For people who are wage-earners, those who have children to raise or loved ones to care for, those who don’t have the luxury of disappearing from their daily routines, some of their most creative work may be finding a fragment of time here or there in which to experience such gifts. (I remember when, as a young mother with three children under the age of four, the most creative thing I could do to nourish my soul was to lock myself in the bathroom for five minutes and just breathe!)

 

I grieve for the millions of people crammed into crowded refugee camps and tenements and homeless shelters, who are denied even a moment of the blessings of stillness, silence, and solitude.

 

I don’t have any conclusions to draw from these thoughts. I have only the certainty that these gifts are profoundly precious, and I commit myself to appreciating as much of each of them as my days can hold.

 

Four years ago when I first began this blog column, it was with reluctance, and solely for the purpose of promoting my not-yet published book, Meeting in the Margins: An Invitation to Encounter Society’s Invisible People. It was one of those things, like ”having a Facebook presence” and hiring a publicist, that folks in the field said I had to do in order to successfully market my upcoming book.

So I began a Facebook page – which I’ve mostly ignored ever since. I hired a professional publicist, an expensive exercise in futility. And I made a commitment to myself that I would write and post one essay each month, for the purpose of marketing my book.

 

Even though it amazes me how fast the end of each month seems to approach, I have kept that promise. I’ve found that I really enjoy having a forum on which to air some thoughts, and how I enjoy having readers who respond to those ideas. Most of my posts have NOT been about my book, per se, but about the wide variety of margins that are part of our culture.

 

However, this month, in my 57th blog post, I need to crow again about Meeting in the Margins. The book just won a gold medal in the Independent Publisher Book Awards – the “IPPY.” My award is in the Social Issues/Humanitarian category, and it’s very satisfying to have the book nationally recognized in this way. The IPPY comes with no monetary reward, but I do receive a certificate and a “gold” medal on a neck ribbon. PLUS, I get to affix gold medallion stickers to every cover of the book from now on!

 

That’s pretty much all I had to say this month. Except perhaps to invite you to stop by for a cup of tea, and I’ll let you take a turn at polishing my gold medal!

In last month’s post I described sitting in a sixth-floor hotel room watching the construction of a building in downtown Seattle. Three weeks later, I study that same building, but from a different angle. This time I observe from a bed on the fifteenth floor of Seattle’s Virginia Mason Hospital.

 

My different perspective started with an appointment with my primary care PA to discuss abnormally low (for me) blood pressure readings, and a couple of incidents of near-fainting. She ordered a STAT blood draw that returned critical-level numbers (half the red blood cells one needs to function), and I was hustled to our island hospital’s Emergency Department. There I was transfused with two units of someone else’s blood (thank you, whoever you are). Then I was transported off the island, by ambulance via ferry and freeway, to a hospital with a good reputation for gastroenterology expertise, in search of a suspected internal bleed.

 

The following seventy-five hours were a necessary physical nightmare. Four days of IV needles, blood draw needles, and prep for endoscopy and colonoscopy, plus CT scan of the small intestine (and the explosive, continuous, unpredictable thirty-six hours of “fallout” from that prep), no food, fragments of sleep, nearly-naked skin, and chilled body.

 

But, despite my bodily discomforts, I have another angle on the story that I want to share with you. This angle brings me back to the construction workers in that building that I have now studied from a new and different vantage point.

 

In my post last month I described some of the construction people at their work, but more importantly I described a “bag lady” struggling up the steep sidewalk beside the building. For a few moments in the late afternoon she was immersed in a tide of headed-home construction workers; after they had rushed past her, she was again alone, an old homeless woman stumbling up the hill, lugging her possessions. Did one “hard-hat” stop to talk to her that day? Offer to carry her burden to the top of the hill? I’ll never know.

 

What I do know is that in the midst of feeling isolated here in the hospital, of being humbled and humiliated by my physical condition, I have also been surrounded by such skilled and compassionate help that I grow tearful just recalling the details. For example:

 

  • The island phlebotomist who initially took the “STAT” order to heart, and her colleague in the lab half an hour away who together bent some protocol to get the alarming numbers back to my doctor in less than two hours.

 

  • Sari, my Medical Advocate (Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare) who stayed at my side helping me understand the options the professionals were proposing, asking for clarifications, taking notes so we’d both remember what was said and done, comforting me.

 

  • My hospital Patient Care Technician (aide) Tyson, who when my bowel-cleansing process was under way, was not dismayed by the mess I left on my bed and the floor, but instead guided me toward the bathroom and advised me, “Just don’t look behind you,” then cheerfully cleaned up bed, floor, bathroom, and me, as if he were out picking daisies in a field somewhere. Nor did he falter when he had to repeat this process three more times during the very long night.

 

  • LaVonne, the anesthesiologist, full of confidence and compassion, whose eyes told me we were in this together, and together we’d get through these procedures.

 

•Dr. Venu, the gastroenterologist who oversaw the testing procedures, welcomed me back to consciousness, and explained what was done and what we now knew and didn’t know – complete with photographs from inside my guts.

 

  • Wonderfully cocky young Joshua, who provided in-hospital transport several times for me; he had a way of flipping his black hair back from his forehead that was both studied and charming, and he treated me as if I were the only person on his full list of transports.

 

  • Trisha, RN, who, when I was most exhausted, cold, afraid, vulnerable, and tearful, tucked me into my bed with a warmed blanket, ordered me to take a nap, and put a sign on my door saying that NO one was to enter my room for the next 75 minutes, not even a doctor, without speaking to her first.

 

All these people swirled around me like the construction workers who swirled around the old homeless woman three weeks ago – except that THESE workers did stop. They looked me in the eye and they SAW me, they cared for the scared, exhausted ME inside this human body that was doing such undignified things; they cared deeply for me while trying to discover what would lead to my healing.

 

Three weeks apart, two different views of the same building-under-construction. Three weeks apart, two different versions of me. Three weeks apart, two vastly different immersions in the paradox of human life and human connection. Deo gratias.

In a cozy room on the sixth floor of a Capital Hill hotel in Seattle, I’m seated at the window watching snow and traffic and bundled pedestrians.

Tomorrow morning I’ll be speaking at the Search For Meaning conference at Seattle University. But now I’m focused on what’s outside my window. I’m letting my mind play with trivial questions that pop up. Too often I hush this annoying-little-kid part of my mind, or run roughshod over it, believing I don’t have time to play. Today I have time – no computer, no smart phone, no schedule. My presentation is prepared and rehearsed. I have the leisure to be diverted and to play with my kid-self and her questions.

 

street people photo

A block away there is a building under construction. So far it is eleven stories high, not counting the giant crane on top. On the ninth floor a man is working in one of the windowless openings in the wall. He is affixing wide strips of orange material around the opening’s edges. What is that material? How does it stick? What’s it for? Is it a sealant of some sort, for when the windows are put in later? And, more importantly, how is that man suspended there, nine stories above the street? After several minutes of studying this question with my kid-self (how IS he defying gravity?), I realize he’s standing on a tiny platform that juts out of the window space from the inside. Isn’t he afraid? I don’t know. I would be!

 

On the south side of the building two large bright-orange boxes made of metal grating slide up and down a narrow erector-set trunk. These are exterior elevators, each with their own operators, taking workers and supplies to and from whichever floor they’re working. I can see the safety gates slide – one half up and one half down – opening each orange box to disgorge or admit their cargo. How many people can fit into each car? Are all the workers men, or are there some female welders and ironworkers? How cold is it up there? Why do the elevator doors move vertically instead of opening horizontally? Do the operators get bored? Do they ever give in to the temptation to race each other to the top?

 

I love watching people work. In this playful mood it feels like spying. I love knowing they don’t know I see them, don’t know I’m watching and wondering what they’re doing, and why, and how each movement contributes to their task. There is a crane operator in a glassed-in cab at the apex of the crane’s 60-foot upright support – what’s the name of that part? – and the how-many-feet-long? working arm of the crane. For as long as I’ve been watching the crane its operator has apparently been sitting there, idle, waiting for the next task to do. Does he read a book in his cab? Does he do sudoku puzzles? Text his girlfriend? Then suddenly there is a little crane excitement: the horizontal arm spins fairly quickly around the supporting tower, then comes to rest exactly where it was before. What was that about? My favorite guess on this playful day is that the operator got bored and took his gigantic crane for a whirl. Or maybe he wanted to see the other 180 degree view of the city for a minute.

 

I make myself a cup of coffee, and then return to the window. On the street below, construction workers, now finished for the day, jaywalk across four lanes of traffic, their florescent yellow or safety orange vests and jackets and hard hats and coolers stopping cars that were on their way to somewhere. I hope now to see the crane operator make the perilous climb down from his perch – I’ve stared and stared, waiting.

 

But my attention is diverted by a woman in gray baggy pants and shapeless coat, her ankles bare above run-down moccasins in this freezing weather. Isn’t she cold? Why is she limping? Where is she going? What’s in those heavy bags? Does she have any friends? Is she sad? Briefly the slow-moving gray bag lady is surrounded by bright OSHA-approved colors, swallowed up in a surf of building-makers; then she is alone again like a cold gray stone deposited on the concrete by the headed-home tide.

 

I must have missed the craneman’s descent, because all is quiet now at the building-under-construction. That’s okay. What I really needed to watch was that woman, and her work of limping up the steep street. She needed my attention just now; she needed my prayer that she find warmth for her restless sleep tonight.

 

Tomorrow morning I’ll encourage an audience to notice – and maybe to bless – the many, many people deposited on the concrete of our society who are doing their work of surviving on the margins.

 

This week a little brown bird crashed into the window where I sit and write. He broke his neck and died instantly. I laid his body under a tangled mat of evergreen phlox in the front garden, and I thought, “There it is again: memento mori – remember death.” And I took a deep breath, amazed, as always, at the fact of Life, and how intertwined life is with death.

I’m grateful to so many people who engaged in the conversations prompted by my last two blog posts considering life, and death, and living with dying. I hope that the discussions will continue with as much curiosity and insight as they have had so far!

For the most part the ideas that were shared fell into three general categories: the positive(s), the problematic, and the philosophical.

 

The positive(s)

Many people mentioned joy. They recognized that life, for as long as we have it, is a gift, and there can be pleasure in “unwrapping” each moment. We can be amazed that we get to participate in the adventure of living. The experience of joy and amazement do not automatically come with the gift, however – these we must choose. To take the time to appreciate, to focus on the positive, to find the beauty and joy, to be fully present to life even in the shadow of death – these are our ways of saying “thank you” for the gift.

 

The problematic

Comments from those with acute or chronic illnesses (or even just the “terminal prognosis” of having life at all) added rich dimensions to the conversations. Some mentioned the “problem” of hope: Hoping not to have to go back into treatment. Hope as a grasping at what one wants rather than being fully present to what is. Wondering if hope is antithetical to presence, or is hope actually being present more fully?

Some who are in various support groups mentioned a subtle “competition,” an insidious “inequality of status,” as members compared their states of health and the support they do or do not have.There is also the American expectation of optimism and self-determination that can work against being present to what is true for each individual.

One correspondent had become aware that having a serious disease forces one to become “bicultural” – “you have to learn a whole new language, a new culture of illness and medicine and healthcare, but not everyone in your life understands that culture or speaks that language – and they may not want to, either.” This new culture and language often include analogies of fighting and war, and that may be incompatible for a peaceful person. How can we validate the different qualities of each person’s own genuine experience?

And there is the unspoken problem of guilt: feeling guilty if one has a disease, feeling guilty if one is dying, feeling guilty if one is not “succeeding” by “winning the battle” over a disease. And then there are the medical professionals who feel they have “failed” when a patient dies. A hospice director smiles as she tells the story about being asked by a religious professional how a particular guest was doing. “She’s failing rapidly,” the director had replied. And then she corrected herself: “She’s succeeding very well at dying.”

All these “problems” are intriguing dilemmas that can be made easier, I believe, by recognizing them and bringing conversations about them into the open among our family and friends and in our society.

 

The philosophical

Terminal illness, chronic illness, or just aging and becoming increasingly aware of our mortality can help to bring us back to our cultural memory as ordinary humans, back to what we knew before we began worshiping youth and accepted unattainable standards of health and physical perfection and beauty – and believed the photoshopped ads that “prove” these standards are possible and normal.

Because, folks, none of us is going to make it out of this life alive. We need to acknowledge our illusions of immortality and get on with living as mortals in all our glorious imperfection!

We’ve had some good teachers about normalizing death. There are the monks who remind themselves continuously to memento mori, “remember death.” There is a de los Muertos the annual Mexican Day of the Dead, with death decorations everywhere, and children playing with skulls and skeletons, and families picnicking on gaily-decorated graves as they remember their deceased loved ones and ancestors. There was the philosopher Seneca who, 2000 years ago, urged us to tell ourselves “You may not wake up tomorrow,” when going to bed and “You may not sleep again,” when waking. And there are hundreds of books on the best-seller lists, from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s pioneering works to Mitch Albom’s Tuesdays with Morrie to Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal. So many teachers, so many opportunities to consider what we’d sometimes rather not!

The real take-away for me from these past two months of correspondence and in-person conversations is that an understanding of impermanence helps us to prioritize our lives. Counter-intuitively, choosing to contemplate death can make life more purposeful.

Will we choose to befriend our mortality, to appreciate and be present to what we are and what we have in this very moment, even, and especially, when it’s right in the middle of the muddle?

May it be so.

 

cemetery photo

 

 

 

[Please see a brief self-promotional save-the-date announcement at the end of this post]

 

[dropcapMedium]I[/dropcapMedium]n last month’s post I addressed a question that arose in a cancer support circle: How is it possible to sustain the feeling of every moment being precious when one is not “actively” dying?

Pondering the last part of the question last month, the part about about “actively” dying, sparked many great reply comments; and the conversation is continuing among thoughtful circles of folks, which pleases me immensely! Those comments and conversations will be added to this month’s comments, all to become fodder for the third of three posts derived from that original, juicy question.

For now, back to the first part of that question: How DO we “sustain the feeling of every moment being precious”? How do we make every moment precious? Regardless of our state of health. Regardless of our life expectancy.

 

These are three of my ways:
nurturing the earworm of gratitude,
following curiosity, and
practicing presence.

 

Gratitude
An “earworm,” is one of those annoying songs that shows up in your head and just won’t leave until you deliberately replace it with another song that you like better (for now). I think of gratitude as a single sacred earworm — or “word worm,” perhaps — that reiterates a hundred times a day: “Thank you.” Sometimes it says a delighted “Oh, thank you” or a prayerful “Dear Holy One, thank You” or a joyful “How can I possibly say ‘thank you’ enough for all of this?’” Maybe a “thank you” comes when you realize that that place in your shoulder hasn’t ached for the last two hours. Or that the toilet, yet again, reliably flushes. Thank you!

So many moments for gratitude: the small birds excitedly flocking in to a freshly-filled feeder; the fragrance of oregano in a simmering pasta sauce, or of lilac in a hidden-away garden; the close call at an intersection that didn’t become an accident; the colors and abundance at a farmers’ market. All precious moments. Let your earworm sing its gratitude! Every day. All day long.

 

Curiosity
Remember, back in the dark ages, when we had to look up stuff in the Encyclopedia Britannica, hoping that the current annual, filled with last year’s developments, would give us the almost-up-to-date info we needed? Then in 1994 the EB went digital and online, and in 2012 it ceased hardcopy publication altogether. Now we have Wikipedia, updated minute-by-minute; and Google, so ubiquitous that the brand name has become a lower-case verb.

These days, any time I find myself thinking, “I wonder [what, who, where] . . .,” I revel in the fact that it takes only a few keystrokes until the answer is right there on my computer screen. And from time to time I dive into one of those digital rabbit holes that a simple search often presents. I try not to spend too long there, but once in a while curiosity says that I’ve gotta follow that white rabbit who is perpetually “late.” I am not yet late (in the deceased sense), so I go ahead and follow my curiosity and often end up with a dozen more reasons to say “Wow, thank you!”

Even better than googling is the feeding of curiosity with first-hand experience, taking time to magnify the five senses and enjoy them. Follow the trail of a snail, or the flight of a heron to its nest. Watch your skin heal from a blister – notice the dying of cells, and their replacement. Be fascinated by the way that morning sun makes ground fog seem to be a living thing. Listen for the harmony of sounds as water flows over stones in a creek bed – hear that deep bass note? It’s always been there, but you had not noticed before; now you can smile “thank you” for the secret that the creek has revealed to you.

Be curious about people, too. Ask them unexpected questions about themselves: “What are you passionate about?” “Tell me about your favorite place in the world.” Then take the time to really listen to their answers as if this were the most important thing in your whole day. It possibly is!

 

Presence
My third way of sustaining the preciousness of every moment is really a part of the previous two, but it’s sort of gratitude and curiosity on steroids. Presence is being as fully open as possible to every detail of every moment, bringing your curiosity, your attention, and your gratitude to each moment with as little judgment or fear as possible.

I believe that’s the whole point of incarnation, after all — to surround the invisible spark of divinity, the soul, with the amazing complexity of mortal flesh for the length of a lifetime. The soul wants to experience every detail of a life, to be fully present within it, however long that life may be.

It helps to take advantage of some wonderful guides who understand and embody presence. Read Mary Oliver’s poetry, or the new anthology titled Poetry of Presence, or the brief meditative essays in Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening, or the glorious Love Poems from God, sacred poetry of twelve mystics, translated by Daniel Ladinsky.

 

Do I hear someone saying that all this practicing of gratitude and curiosity and presence takes time? Yes, indeed it does. And isn’t that the essence of life: time? Precious time, that begins ticking at conception, and, at some unpredictable point, stops. Yet, as a very wise friend of mine once told me, we have all the time we need in the time we have. We have been given the gift of time, in a body equipped with miraculous senses, directed by a mind that is curious, and enriched by a soul that is grateful for the chance to be embodied and fully present.

So, however much more of it we may have, it is enough.

Here’s to life: L’chaim! champagne photo

 

 

 

[A brief self-promotional save-the-date announcement: I have been invited to be a presenter at the 2018 Search For Meaning Book Festival at Seattle University on February 24. There will be many presenters, hundreds of books, and an expected 1000 registrants from around the country. It’s a fabulous day of community comprising a melange of spiritual perspectives, all on a lovely welcoming campus; I’d be going even if I weren’t among the presenters! Check out the information at searchformeaning@seattleu.edu   Tickets go on sale in mid-January.]