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Margaret has just been given a six-to-twelve-month prognosis. She’s in pain from the metastasized cancer, and a little wonky from the meds prescribed for the pain. She’s wrestling with the decision of whether or not to take another course of chemotherapy. Should she do the treatments to postpone her dying time with more months of living fully (but possibly extend her dying time with an unknown quality of life); or should she let go to the process of dying now, as a conscious choice (but maybe short-change the fullness of her life experiences)?

Tough questions.

But the question that plagues Margaret is a different one. “Is there some way I can make this less painful for my loved ones?” she asked me.

“No,” I said. “It’s painful to let go of what we love. They love you, and don’t want you to leave. If they didn’t love you, they wouldn’t hurt so much. That’s the nature of love.”

“I suppose so,” she said, not satisfied, pulling back into her thoughts.

Since then I’ve been pondering her question. Not about chemotherapy, for Margaret is the only one who can make that decision. I’ve been thinking about that bigger question, about love and the pain of loving and losing. Regardless of the timing – now, or later, or both – ultimately that question will loom large as our own deaths begin to consume us.

There is another answer, I think, besides the “no” I gave Margaret. There is a yes-and-no answer. A paradox.

The more Margaret chooses to share with her loved ones the depths of her questioning, the reality of her pain and her moments of fear as well as her times of serenity, the more they will be encouraged to participate in the reality of their own experience of losing her. The more deeply they partake of the exchange, the more they will understand about – and ultimately love – each other. Yes, and the more, therefore, they will grieve the loss of each other. AND the more grateful they will be for the legacy of having so fully known the one they love.

Is that a win/win, or a lose/lose?

Yes. And no. A paradox.

I believe it’s worth the risk.

The emergency equipment I carry in my car includes four kites, four reels of kite string, and two pairs of gloves.

That’s because of what I learned as a hospital chaplain.

2013 Whidbey Island Kite Fesitval

2013 Whidbey Island Kite Fesitval

During my training for chaplaincy certification (a rigorous 1600 hours of clinical experience in eighteen months) my assigned mentor was Joe Voss, who had decades of chaplaincy under his belt. After we’d worked together for a few months, Joe offered to teach me his secret to unwinding from the accumulated tensions of serving people who are in pain, frightened, angry, dying.

He’d go fly a kite.

Joe always kept his kites at the ready in the trunk of his car. One afternoon, following a particularly difficult overnight shift at the hospital in which I’d attended several deaths, Joe drove me out to a huge field behind a shopping mall. He pulled out one of his kites, got it airborne, then let me hold the string while he got another kite aloft. I was fascinated by the connection I felt between myself and that colorful nylon shape growing ever-smaller as the string played out. In a curious, gentle way it insisted that I give it all my attention. Which meant that I had to let go of the tension I was holding in my body. The powerful, distressing encounters of the previous night seemed to flow up the string, one by one, to be flung out into the sky by the dancing kite.

After half an hour of flying Joe’s kite I had the strange thought that I wanted to set it free. I could feel a subtle vibration in the string, almost like a rapid heartbeat. The kite seemed so “happy” up there, yearning to climb higher and further into the sky, and I wanted to let it soar away, untethered, until it disappeared. When I said this to Joe, he asked, “Do you know what would happen if you cut the string? The kite would fall to the ground. It’s the tension of the connection that lets it fly.”

While I tried to make a spiritual metaphor out of that piece of information, the kite string hummed, and the fabric strained against the wind, and after a few moments I couldn’t remember what I’d wanted to say, nor why it had seemed important.

Now, years later, on a recent Saturday I went to the Whidbey Island Kite Festival. A hundred colorful shapes filled the air, dancing on the wind, swirling their tails behind them. Three-year-old kids launched their newly hand-made kites next to experienced stunt-kite fliers. I, and everyone else on that field, was caught in the spell of the enchanted relationship between a kite and a person.

The unformed metaphor of twenty years ago taunted me, but remained just out of my reach – something about difficult situations, wanting to cut and run, staying connected, and . . . surely there were wise words waiting to be spoken. But on that sunny Saturday afternoon my thoughts flew away in the breeze, and I just sat there, gaping and smiling as the kites hummed and danced and smiled back at me. “No need to philosophize,” they called down to me. “Just appreciate.”  And so I did.

The thing I love about the performing arts is the generosity of it all. The rehearsals, the talents, the risks, the giving-ness of a performance, all so that I may enjoy, be amazed, be moved, be transported. There is a reciprocity to a performance, a giving and a receiving that flow back and forth across the footlights in magical mutuality between performer and audience.

The other night I went to see Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, offered by OutCast Productions, a sweet small theatre venue housed on our county fairgrounds. Four musicians and three actor/vocalists brought to life nearly 30 pieces of Brel’s heart-felt music.

pink manhole coverWhen they sang “The Desperate Ones,” near the end of the first act, my heart ached for the marginalized people I’ve known who are so dragged down by their life on the edge of our culture that they sometimes wish to be cut off from life altogether.

They watch their dreams go down

Behind the setting sun

They walk without a sound

The desperate ones

The song speaks of the uncaring others, the ones who “know the verb to love, but never know how,” the ones who pass by the people of the margins.

 

But in my experience, we needn’t summon up “love” in order to honor the value of another’s life. We need only turn toward and truly see, be present with, and maybe even listen to – those are the required actions. Those are the gifts to offer to a person in the margins.

If love arises out of those gifts, it’s wonderful. If love doesn’t emerge, that’s fine too.

But in the meantime take the opportunity to notice how such gifts are offered back in kind: how you are truly seen, how a moment of presence is shared, how a recognition of mutual humanity – even for just a few seconds – can brighten the days of two strangers.

Perhaps this simple, ordinary exchange is the ultimate generous art.

 

How did I come to be in all of the cultural margins in which I’ve served?

My favorite answer to that question is: God’s great sense of humor.

LabyrinthAnother good answer is: by putting one foot in front of the other, moving incrementally in whatever direction seems right in the moment.

And both of those answers are connected in a simile that pleases me: my professional journey has been like the walking of a meditational labyrinth.

The kind of labyrinth I mean is a medieval design that seems confusing like a maze but is really a single path on which one can’t get lost. You can find them all over the world, but I have three favorites: one on the floor of Chartres Cathedral in France, and two (one indoors and one outdoors) at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco.

Early on in a labyrinth walk it looks as if the center is near. But the next moment there is a U-turn that heads back toward the outer edge of the labyrinth; and when it begins to seem as if the center will never be reached, suddenly it is straight ahead, waiting.

From supervising a suicide-prevention hotline in Grand Rapids, Michigan, to becoming a Certified Professional Guardian for the state of Washington; from cleaning toilets and changing diapers for people with Alzheimer’s Disease to becoming a nationally-certified hospital chaplain; from giving seated massages to street people under the viaducts of San Francisco to midwifing the deaths of hospice patients; from earning national certification as a massage therapist to serving as a Guardian ad Litem for the Superior Courts of four Washington counties, I have walked the hairpin turns of a labyrinthine career. As portions of the path presented themselves to me over the years, I kept putting one foot in front of the other. I wasn’t sure where the trail was leading, wondered often if I were terribly lost, then suddenly there I was, in awe of working in yet another kind of margin.

And no matter where I pause along the way, almost always I can hear something that sounds like divine laughter, sometimes in a satisfied basso, sometimes in an ironic alto, and always with a rich timbre of delight and compassion.

All I wanted to do was tell the stories, the best of the stories from my twenty years of work in the margins of our culture.

So I wrote stories of the street people and the isolated people, the sick people and the dying ones, the creative people and the clever ones, the needy people and the generous ones, the “crazy” people and the demented people (two distinct afflictions).

I wanted to tell the funny stories and the sad ones and the amazing ones, and let the readers draw their own conclusions as to which was which. I believed that readers could derive their own wisdom from a well-told tale.

And that is true.

But the book-that-was-yet-to-be demanded more than a collection of vignettes. In its several iterations over the years, Meeting in the Margins has directed me with a variety of voices, not all of them welcome.

The first voice was Christina Baldwin’s, who told me at a writing workshop: “The good news is that your writing is powerful; the bad news is that you have two books in this manuscript, and you’ll need to tease them apart.” (Christina has, years later, graciously written the foreword to Meeting in the Margins.)

Next was a friend who read some of the portraits and said they were “too hard.” He felt uncomfortable reading in such detail about being close to people who, our culture says, are supposed to remain invisible.

Later a copy editor said, “I don’t believe this story. I don’t believe that you can be blissed out while you’re massaging filthy smelly feet. You’ll have to prove it to me.”

And finally, most subtle yet most insistent of all, the marginalized people themselves, or at least my memories of them, said, “Not good enough – go deeper. What’s the real heart of this story? Bring me to life in your words, and bring with me all that I have to offer your reader.”

And when I finally obeyed THAT voice, I was allowed to complete my manuscript.

Meeting in the Margins will be published in October of 2015. Look for it at your favorite bookstore, or online, or here at this website.