Considering Lilies

 

Many years ago, I told someone that I hate money – I hate talking about it, thinking about it, worrying about it. She said, “That’s a second chakra problem.” So, knowing how many other second chakra issues I have had to work with, I set out to work with this one. Money is energy. Our relationship with the world. An externalization of an internal relationship. I began to notice ebb and flow and all my reactions to both. I learned how to become a part of the flow and not a holding or empty point.

I was “lucky” that at this time several other second chakra issues began to clear up as well. Physical and psychic – if there’s a distinction to be made. Like each birth matrix in the Holotropic model, each chakra is a doorway into a vast universe and healing this universe in myself has been such interesting work. Hard work, too – but it’s so much fun as all the layers unfold and I can see, clean, clear, admire, and grow into each layer.

Now, I am coming up against the money-energy-second-chakra-learn-to-trust-the-ebb-and-flow moment again. Perhaps the big one. So far, I have been able to grit my teeth, clench my fist and keep moving through. A little openness has gone a long way so that energy has been more available, and I have been able to weather the empty times knowing that the flow will come around again. But now, I want to change how I make a living, and I am so afraid, because it means that I will have to change my relationship with everything.

Twice a month, I get a paycheck. This comes with health insurance, vision insurance, dental insurance. I can afford to get my teeth cleaned, cavities filled, new contact lenses, and an ECG when I suddenly think I need it. Blood work, colonoscopy, hormone level testing, pap smears. All worth every minute I spend on my commute, every workplace tension, every overtime hour at work. Forget the stuff I can buy with my paycheck – a car, a house, food, college tuition – these are not necessities compared to health care. Remember the movie Elysium? Will I live on the grubby, grabby earth or on that beautiful turning resort-like planet of those who can pay for good health?

The second chakra rests in the web of life. We are connected through it, with it, in it. It is Life as we carry it in us. As I wrote the previous paragraph, I could feel some despair settling in the gut – this country has a second chakra problem. We do not take care of each other. We do not honor the web of life. We cannot rest in the interconnectedness of all consciousness. We have built a society in which only the third chakra – the seat of the ego – is honored. Such imbalance will destroy us. Is destroying us. The healthcare problem is symptom and proof. Our inability to find a good solution that will keep human beings healthy and in the flow of life is indicative of deep second-chakra dysfunction.

A chakra is unhealthy or dysfunctional when it is not open. Like points on a meridian, it remains healthy as long as it is open. If something causes a blockage, or an emptiness, then the health of the organism is impaired. Flow implies constant movement. The second something grabs on, flow is interrupted.

According to Biblical lore, the lilies in the field neither toil nor spin because a Gardener fertilizes, waters, and prunes. If we were supposed to be taken care of by some Gardener in the sky, we should all be like lilies: vegetables. But we are not. We have in us and in this world all the resources we need to take care of every human on the planet and the planet itself, and we have the intellectual capacity to do this. Only, we refuse to do it. If one percent keeps most of the resources, then there can be no flow – only emptiness and starvation on the one hand and glut on the other. Neither is healthy, not that I expect anyone to believe that.

In fact, now that I think about it, Matthew 6:28 – the passage about the lilies – is a bunch of baloney. It gives one the impression that the lilies do nothing but stand around while the Gardener in the sky takes care of them. In fact, they are busy giving and taking nutrients in the soil, exchanging with the bees, inhaling carbon dioxide, exhaling oxygen, creating nitrogen when they decompose. We are the lilies and we are the gardeners and it’s the constant movement of resources and nutrients that manages to keep us all alive. Interdependent instead of dependent.

This is not an Occupy rant. Because while we point a finger at this or that one percent, our third chakras grow and swell, absorbing important energy from all other chakras. Instead, one person at a time, healing, opening, allowing the flow, not grabbing – that seems to be the way. Each point of connection on the web settling into give and take. That might work. Becoming a gardener, each blade of grass a beauty to be tended. And trust? Trust the gardener in each of us, trust the soil, trust the exchange, trust the connection, trust the trust.

Coming back to my fear of changing how I make a living, I’ll first need to reject or rewrite the story of the lilies in the field. I can inhale and exhale. I can exchange nutrients and resources. I can barter with the bees and reflect dew off my petals. And fear – that will be the poison that I will mix into the soil. Sometimes, a little poison becomes really great fertilizer.

 

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Four Noble Truths

‘Tis the season of peace and goodwill. The Marmite Journal tackles some big deal stuff with apologetic bows to those who know more and wonder at my audacity.

We live by certain “truths”—inalienable, if you will. We can fight them or we can live along with them, in accordance with them. Either way, they don’t change and they don’t go away. Every group of people has tried to put down truths they understand. Some overlap with others. Truths are arrived at in different ways, during different times in the history of humankind. Truths, unlike rules (commandments, precepts, etc.), seem to transcend any particular time period.

One of the definitions of “noble” is: “of an admirably high quality; notably superior; excellent.” As opposed to “ordinary” or “unexceptional.” So that’s cleared up.

The first notably superior truth is that human existence is characterized by sorrow. The Sanskrit and Pali word is “dukkha”. Sometimes translated as dis-ease, discomfort, or suffering. Sorrow. It seems true that dis-ease, discomfort, suffering, fear, depression, anger, rage, envy, misery, wretchedness are all caused by unrecognized and/or un-worked-with sorrow. Deep sorrow in our bones, in our cells. We experience it as psychic, emotional, or spiritual pain and it often ‘causes’ pain in the ‘outer’ body. Such a beautiful, scrumptious, full word. Sorrow. Breathe it. All the way down into the belly, into the seat, into the legs and feet. Roll it around in the head and neck. Like a bright, hard flame licking at the very core. Feel the richness of the word: more than sadness, deeper than fear. Red and lusty. Our very being.

It is said that the second exceptional truth is that this sorrow is caused by ‘attachment’ or ‘craving.’ From my experiences of this stuff, I think maybe we have taken hold of the wrong end of this stick. I would rephrase this—with apologies to all the wise ones who have gone before me—and say that all sorrow is caused by our understanding of loss. This understanding might cause us to crave or attach, but it is the deep knowing of loss that is the root cause of the sorrow. When said like this, it feels simple and real and not self-blaming. I can live with it.

Loss is multi-layered, many faceted, always and forever as long as we are human. To be born human is to suffer loss. Loss of the state of being not-human: whatever that state is. As we come through the birth canal, we lose the powerful and life-sustaining connection with the mother. Small m. Placenta, blood supply, oxygen, etc. Warmth, heartbeat, voice, touch. The separation becomes real and metaphor as we seem to lose connection with the big M, as well. Birth seems to be the separation of heaven and earth, embodied in the birthing process. Here we are then, skin-encapsulated. Cut off from everything, able only to breathe in and out, somewhat trapped, small orifices opening to the outside, most of our selves cowering in the shelter of flesh and ego. As we grow into this world and learn to love its dazzling gifts, we learn—from the deep voice within us and also from external experiences—that, in fact, we are doomed to lose all. What a great cosmic joke. Separated from all we know, cast into this world and, because we are naturally loving creatures, deeply in love, we are reminded over and over that the having of what we love is impermanent. All that we love will be taken away. Anything we stand on will be whipped out from under our feet. Life is impermanent. Our dogs will die, our spouses will die, our children will suffer and die. Our mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters will die. This body we love will decay and rot. We will be abandoned by our jobs, our loves, our beautiful cars. It is not our attachment to all this that causes pain, and it isn’t that we don’t really have it to begin with. I think these two statements are used by many to describe this second truth, but they deflect in some way our encounter with the deeper truth—which is that we have and we lose. We love and we know we will lose. It’s a subtle difference, but it shifts the attention from our holding to the loss itself. It does away with the self-hating struggle against attachment. To be alive in any form is to love, to feel, to interact, to connect. To be human is to experience the loss of all that, and to understand the fact of the loss before it happens. Inalienable truth, and it hurts like hell.

The first two truths give rise to some death-idealization. If I were not alive as a human, I would not have to feel all this crappy crap. I posit that since we don’t know what happens after we die, it may not be worth taking the chance. Might as well do what we are doing here and try to do it as well as we can. Forget the escape. But it’s hard not to fantasize.

The third superior truth says that there is a way out of this pain and sorrow. It seems that this third truth is contrary to the first and second, and that offends my sense of flow. How can there be a “way out” of a truth? (Why do I deal in such absolutes?)

According to one essay I read, this third truth assures us that the above-mentioned pain and sorrow and loss and general horrors are not caused by any god or force. They just are. And we can move on to an existence not controlled by those truths. Only, not completely, as long as we are in human form. If enlightenment means finding a way out of this maze of loving and losing, I am not an enlightened being, and I don’t know any who are. I cannot believe that anyone who is still human is living outside the maze. Even the Boddhisatva, who has the capacity to transcend the maze, but who chooses not to, still feels all the pain and sorrow and craving and losing. It still must hurt; that’s the point of the great sacrifice.

It’s possible that the third truth isn’t about escape. Maybe it says that we can live along with the two previous truths without being imprisoned by them. This, I can go along with. Imprisonment by the first two noble truths happens when we feel really sorry for ourselves that we have to live with so much loss and the resulting pain; when we choose to curl up inside the pain and suffer it. There is no nobility in this kind of suffering, or dignity. What’s the alternative to self-pity? Think freedom? Adventure. Joy. To live side by side with the understanding of loss and suffering, to feel it when it arises, and to work with it—to be equal to it—that this is possible is a truth. I’ll call it the third truth. Maybe that’s what it’s been saying all along?

It is possible to do this. But it’s difficult because the drug of self-pity is extremely addictive. It’s a fine line to accept pain without feeling sorry for ourselves. To live with it neither distancing ourselves from it nor succumbing to it; to be in it and beside it at the same time. To hold it. Like holding a ball of fire but without being consumed by the fire. To be a-flame and still whole. We cannot be human and escape what comes with humanity. Loss and pain are inevitable. Our sorrow about the state of our souls, the state of the world, the state of our separation is immutable in a way that nothing else is. Fear, anger, escapism, jealousy in reaction to this sorrow are inevitable and can even be useful. Self-pity is useless, avoidable, self-defeating, imprisoning, and counter to the impulse towards Light and Life. The third truth says that we have a choice about how we will work with the first two immutable truths. Those present no choice. This is all about the choice we make. The third noble truth is that we have a way through and out if we make the choice to take it.

And the fourth truth lays out a way in which we can choose to light a candle in the darkness. There are many ways, and times have changed from the Gautama’s times even as they haven’t. Bodies and minds evolve, needs shift, the whole paradigm is different and the same. Figuring it out, finding a path what works in this age—that is a whole other thing. Practical day to day living in the world in such a way that we are able to forge a friendly relationship with our never-ending loss and the resulting pain in our fragile psyches and bodies. A moment-by-moment thing, never perfected, hardly ever even completely ‘good.’

But we try, don’t we? We try.

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Reality Checkout

I was in the super market checkout lane today with a cart full of stuff for Thanksgiving dinner when I had a sudden hard memory of a day–many days–long ago-when I went to the ACME in south Philly with $5 in my purse trying to feed myself for a few days. (Canned beans is cheap and extremely nutritious. Add some tomatoes and Indian spices and you’ve got a feast.) A memory is hard when it won’t leave after you’ve seen it. It sits and sits, drains from the “mind’s eye” into the heart and arms and muscles and just won’t leave. A hard memory pins you down and stares you in your face. I had to do some surreptitious Lamaze breathing to keep myself from crying in front of the checkout guy. My nose watered, my right eye began to drip (I don’t know why it does that), and I kept my sentences short and didn’t make much eye contact. Into the parking lot, still leaky.

Sweet Jesus, why can’t everyone have food enough to not go hungry? I just can’t understand it. So simple and so absolutely fucking impossible.

These days, I am blown away by the mystery of everything. Nothing makes any sense–do you see that? Elizabeth Kolbert, in her astounding book The Sixth Extinction posits a theory–or someone she meets posits the theory–that humans have a “madness gene”–it takes us to the moon and causes us to wipe each other out; it creates the Internet and motivates us to bleed the earth of every resource.

Reality–whatever that is–seems to be like some psychedelic dream. If you look at a shape, it shifts and melts into something else. Every curve moves, every line floats, every color is not quite. Just when you think you are following something with some clarity, a new tuck is revealed, a new shade, a different look, and the whole picture is changed. There’s no holding on to any part of it for even a second.

A friend of mine posted a Sanskrit prayer on facebook. A prayer to say before eating. It translates roughly to: This is an offering to Brahma (the creator). The act of offering is Brahma. The food is Brahma. The one who eats is Brahma. In fact, there is nothing else. The Course in Miracles says, (I saw this quote on facebook–all hail fb) Nothing real can be threatened. Nothing unreal exists. Herein lies the peace of god. Someone else on fb quoted someone else saying something like–keep your eye on the big picture but work with the small. Maybe my giving $5 to the NJ Food Pantry is working with the small, while I keep in mind that the poor is mother, the rich is mother, the food is mother, the taste is mother, the hunger is mother, the greed is mother, the breaking heart is mother.

Or, shit happens, I have no idea why, but I feel it in my gut and it rips my heart out-I hope that it makes sense somewhere. You will argue, perhaps, that it does makes sense–human beings are rotten and greedy and evil. Yes, of course. But also almost saint-like in their generosity and intelligence. If I try to follow any argument about any of it, none of it holds together.

The fact is that the reason I don’t want anyone to go hungry is that I can’t stand the pain in my chest when I think about it. The trap is that I think that I need to do something about their hunger so that I don’t need to feel my pain. The truth is that I want everyone to be happy because I don’t want to feel any pain. But what if the whole point is to feel that pain? I don’t know why-it’s a mystery, remember? What if the pain is the thing? But then I start to feel grateful that someone else is hungry so that I can feel my pain, and that’s just fucked up. The woman on the street who cannot feed her children could be me. I feel that. And I want to vomit with fear. The minute I feel grateful that I am not her, I feel sick with myself-with my fat-cat gratitude for having so much.

The soma-drinking Hindus kept their eyes on the big dance-none of this exists, only god is real, but the work of taking care of the world is god. The post-soma Hindus remembered the first part and forgot the second. Who cares, since nothing exists anyway.

All these mental exercises notwithstanding, I am very grateful that I can still feel so bad about people suffering every day. It feels terrible, and I often worry that I will lose my job or somehow be ostracized by the mainstream because I cannot keep it together when the pain comes on. Nevertheless, I am glad that I can feel so deeply. I am going to try to have the courage to say to the young guy at the supermarket checkout–isn’t it really sad that I can buy so much and some other people cannot? Maybe we will cry together. Or he might look at me funny. I want to try to do that anyway. The Lamaze breathing is good for giving birth–I’ve heard–but maybe letting out one big fucking yell is better.

Feed the hungry–somebody–god or human. It sucks to be poor.

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The Box

Yesterday, I saw someone whom I hadn’t seen for many years. As we talked, she said, “You always were an out-of-the-box person.” I smiled/nodded at the cliché, instantly aware of the pain in my gut that that sentence hasn’t yet failed to trigger. Everybody says this to me – it is a pensive compliment – and it brings my loneliness into sharp focus. Then I have something to work on for a while. For “out-of-the-box person” read stranger in a strange land, sister from another planet, swimmer against the stream, dancer to your own drummer, alone alone, alone. But then, she went on to finish her thought. She said that recently, she had heard so called “21st century thinkers” say that, in fact, there is no box, and a person like me has the advantage of seeing that clearly and the hard work of having to work with people who cannot. It is not often that someone understands my life’s work so succinctly, and I was very moved.

Hardly a 21st century thought, of course. Socrates, Jesus, Gautama Buddha, Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, Sri Aurobindo – to name some non-21st century people who didn’t believe in the box-like existence and told us so, quite loudly.

No boxes. No box to live in, think in, believe in. No walls, no boundaries, no rules. Customs, traditions, mores – all by choice. We build from the inside, carefully constructing around us until we can’t see over the top, then can’t see the sky, then can’t breathe. Then we take little spoons and try to dig ourselves out, deconstructing ways of thinking, unlearning the ideas that create the laws that bind, breathing in and out and chanting I want to be free in every language. So much effort. Then one day, a sudden glimpse is offered and we see that there’s nothing at all. No stone construction, only an idea; and if you huff and you puff, you can blow the whole damn thing to smithereens.

(The problem, of course, is the ensuing nakedness.)

We are great and skillful architects of complex, hi-tech and interesting cages. We cage chickens, pigs, calves, goats, cows, fish so we can eat them. Lions, tigers, bear, fish, whales, birds, camels, monkeys, rhinos so we can look at them. Then we write odes to the freedom of the soaring eagle, to the power of the wild tiger, to the roaming of the wind.

We imprison wild humans. Humans who drive too fast, drink too much, smoke pot, hallucinate, beat their wives, rape their girls. We put them in little cages with bars, chain them to posts and shackle their hands and feet. This is law, entertainment, religion, and we have come to see it as how things are. We have lost our understanding of how shocking it is to see a person chained and caged. We have covered up our shame at seeing a brother or a sister with shackles behind bars. Prisons are now among the most lucrative industries in this country. We gorge ourselves on the imprisonment of our species and call it righteousness and safety.

There’s a sweet little Zendo close enough to walk to, and I have spent many good Sunday mornings meditating there. It is loosely connected to the Zen monastery a couple of hours away, in which I have spent a few really important weekends. I love the place. I have had a long flirtation with Western Buddhism – almost an affair, you can call it. But I just can’t commit – not even to an open relationship with no strings attached. I get to second base and then need to bolt for a while. So many precepts. Don’t, don’t, don’t. And so much taming of the wild human mind. Leading the bull, riding the bull, taming the bull. I want to do it, I really do – but there it is again…the walls of the box – so neatly constructed, so cleverly narrated that they mendaciously seem to offer freedom. Frost’s famous (and very misunderstood) poem says, “Before I built a wall I’d ask to know/What I was walling in or walling out.” What do all these precepts seek to shut out?

How is it possible to take the brilliance of Jesus in the temple or on the cross, of Gautama under the tree, and create this web of chains? To tell the congregation that true freedom lies only within – when there is nothing else but freedom – no inside or outside, no walls, no need for taming anything. We are not wild and dangerous creatures – we are beautiful, intelligent, graceful, loving and absolutely perfect in every way. We do not have to lock the dog in the basement – we can bring the bitch out to play, roll around and bite and bark at will. We can trust ourselves to be OK and we will be.

In fact, of course, the longer you lock up the dog, the madder he becomes. The more rules in a place, the more chaos that threatens to erupt. Look around. The institutions have failed at their mission. We are not tamed at all.

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Black and White

The Marmite Journal got a new follower yesterday, which spurs on some fresh activity. ☺ Always grateful that anyone pays any attention. It isn’t that I have had nothing to say, and I never make the excuse of “no time.” The pathway to a blog-post is a mysterious one. A thought arises, and I need to wait and wait to see what it becomes. Sometimes, after enough waiting, the complete thing just pours itself out and rolls around on the page, a surprisingly round egg in its newfound nest. Most often, the thought moves away and does something other than forming that egg, and I am left without sentences.

During times of great change, it’s better to be quiet. Although change inspires much thought and many ideas and opinions; although the pathways to and from multiply and proliferate rapidly; speaking is not easy. And anyway, let’s face it: The Marmite Journal isn’t exactly mainstream stuff. To ramble among these brambles with me, you’ll need to have spent some time Underground—as in Apollo’s caves. I do think it’s cool that so many people have, by the way. Hope.

The other day, on Facebook, someone said something about rebellion. A day later, someone else said it in my office. Now I hear the word all over the place. It certainly is a rebellious time. But the word conjures different things for different people, and I am curious about that. It’s what words do, right? We use a word thinking one image, and the receiver of the word translates it into another image. We think we communicate, but all we do is trigger or instigate. And that’s the way it is. Managing this is another story. Not going to bother with that one right now.

I listened to a Sounds True recording titled Divine Rebels by Caroline Myss and Andrew Harvey. Despite their loud and somewhat hectoring tone, I stayed long enough to be completely swept up by their vision. It isn’t a new vision—certainly I share it and have shared it for a while—but I am, these days, amazed, moved, and thrilled by people’s courage to say this stuff out loud. The only rebellion is the rebellion of the completely open heart. These who come to this understand, as I am beginning to understand, the absolute danger involved. And yet—have some faith—it works. Even in the corridors of the day-to-day. The word “absolute” echoes and vibrates. There is a fierce-gentle absolutism involved in this open-heart way. There’s nothing at all “weak” about that voice that shows up and yells in my face, “SAY YES!” And in the moment—that quickest, most ordinary, most evanescent moment—choosing to say “yes” is devastatingly terrifying. Much easier to bring out the guns.

Imagine saying “yes” on the biggest of world stages? Imagine the consequences? But The Marmite Journal does not do politics. Nor race. Nor gender. Remember?

Myss and Harvey speak clearly, and without fear, of “evil”—that word that has been expunged from our liberal, psychologized dictionaries. I prefer to call it “Darkness.” Evil is a word from Christianity—it brings forth the image of Satan—horned or slithering—and the notion that it can, a la Linda Blair, take us over but also be exorcised. Of Darkness—there is no exorcism. We must learn to carry it well or be subsumed.

The world seems covered in Darkness these days—men in hoods and men in masks and men with huge tanks and little drones. Deadly viruses and plastic tents. Shootings in the streets and riots in the wrong places. All against the background of slowly but too quickly melting ice, hurricanes, and oily-feathered birds. Heroes with PTSD, violently misogynistic athletes, schoolchildren with guns against a drop cloth of haves wanting even more. Darkness rolling over the mountains, oceans and plains. Can you see it?

And yet, it might be worth saying here—possibly for the first time and because when one is loudly honest about the Darkness, one must strive to be that way about its opposite—that I have been living in the Light. I mean, like completely, like really, like never before. Living with Light, in Light, for Light. There’s hardly anything else. What an admission to make, right? So totally out of character, I don’t even know what to do with myself. It shines and shines—through, around, in… Damn. Who woulda thought? It comes after what seems like a two-year grapple in my darkest corner. Coming upon this corner was shocking, a relief, and then completely horrible. But—as they say, those who say these things—this is where the Light had been trapped. And now it is free. Alefuckingluyiah.

We know—or maybe we don’t—that it’s all the same thing. Light and Darkness. Beyond the beyond, there is no Light and there is no Darkness; there is only that which has no name. Then there is this mild differentiation—just an understanding of perhaps plural instead of singular. Each within the other and part of the other and really the other, but still—a difference. Just so it’s discernible, you know—the complexity—just so no one is fooled into thinking that that which is beyond the beyond is simple, lacking nuance. Maybe that’s it. All this Light and Darkness we have made such a big deal of. Nuance.

Most of the time, I go about feeling frustrated that we don’t take the time to recognize nuance; while really, we are so fixated on it—on the shades and hues and tones—that we can’t see the Whole for the parts. Name an area of human living, trying and lying, and this argument holds. We are so proud of ourselves for being able to discern, distinguish, differentiate—we hold it up as our most important achievement. And it is, in some ways. I am so grateful, when I look up at the sky in the summer, that I can see green against blue. To see a line against a white sheet of paper—what could be more important? All of everything comes from this.

Of course, the issue is that we rely too much on our sense of sight and forget to hone the other senses. If I could close my eyes and feel the different breezes on my body and be able to tell which one has just touched the large pine tree that is oozing sap and which has just wandered over the basil bush in front…if I could hear the woodchuck that has taken up residence in the backyard moving around in its hole…if I could sense the lives that were lived in this old house before I came to it…it would become clear that the plurality is so much more complex, so much more nuanced, than I can imagine. Then I would not talk of light and dark, or good and evil, of black and white or god and human. I would start to talk and the words would freeze because there are no words for so many in-betweens. See, that’s the thing: either admit to all the complex plurality or focus on the singular. To use the brain to differentiate and then to be too lazy to differentiate all the way—that’s dishonest.

But it’s too easy to blame everything on the brain. There’s something else—I’ll have to wonder what for a while. We humans—we distill the Darkness out of the Whole, we sip at it through a straw so it seeps into our cells, all the while crying out in longing for the Light. The Darkness seems to be inside us while the Light is “out there”—to be yearned for, reached out to, prayed for, worked towards. We insist on keeping it this way, refusing even to try sipping at anything else. Drink up and be miserable. Then cry out this misery and blame the set-up for causing it. God, society, the other party, family, whatever.

The joke here is that there is no beyond the beyond. There is no space between here and wherever else. We are that thing that has no name—we must be—because there is nothing else. Singular, after all. And we are—in all our creative and destructive glory—nuance.

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Gratitude

I am relatively new to the world of Hospice and, recently, I went through my first experience of having a client I knew well ‘complete’ her journey. It’s not just a euphemism – this ‘completion’ – it certainly felt like the appropriate word. I will call this client “my friend,” because that is what she called me when her brain wouldn’t connect fast enough to be able to say my difficult name. She said it with pride and affection, and I was certainly proud to be her friend.

I knew her for a long while in Hospice-time. Almost six months. Early in our relationship, maybe a month in, she was fretting about stuff – as she was prone to do – and one of the things she worried about was that Hospice would drop her because she wasn’t dying fast enough. It was a valid concern, as she had been dropped by another Hospice group some time ago. So I said, probably breaking some rule, that since I was a volunteer and on nobody’s payroll, I could continue to visit her even if Hospice dropped her, so she could maybe let go that particular worry for a moment. She was very surprised that I wasn’t being paid – that I was coming to see her for no recompense at all. The next time I visited, she had had her daughter buy me a beautiful shawl – a gift to show her appreciation and gratitude, since I wasn’t getting actual money for my trouble. Then I began to think really deeply about gratitude and how we are able or not able to hold it in our hearts and minds.

I was not supposed to accept this shawl – it was definitely breaking a Hospice rule. I said that, I argued, but how churlish it would have been for me to walk away from it. She needed to show her gratitude – more – she needed to pay a debt – and it bothered her terribly to have that debt unpaid. I took the shawl. I feel a little guilty every time I look at it, but I also have something to remember her by.

If my friend had been younger and not so close to the end of her life, if she were able to hear me easily and see my face clearly, I would not have accepted this gift – I would have let her stew in her gratitude. I have had to do that many times, and it is an interesting experience. I have a close friend who often buys me little gifts for no reason at all. I rarely think of buying her gifts except for birthdays and other occasions, so every time she gives me something, I have to do the work of feeling all my feelings and being with them. Gratitude is actually a somewhat hard one, because it removes the opportunity to equalize a relationship. If someone gives me something and I give her something in return, we are quits, equal, and we don’t need to think of it or feel our feelings anymore. The transaction is over. But to get something and not be able to do something to be quits – that brings up a host of feelings. And of course, we have a real hard time with those.

We are given – I am given – so much every day. So much grace flows around us all the time. If we stopped to think, we would be inundated by feelings of gratitude – there would be no room for anything else. I make a mistake on a fast-moving highway and I don’t get killed because a couple of drivers around me have quick wits and hands. I need to leave my job early and someone steps up and says, “Don’t worry, I’ll cover you.” My daughter’s car stops in the middle of a street and the cop who shows up helps her out and sends her on her way. My husband has done the dishes, taken out the garbage, and fed the dog, yet again, and I can come home and not think. Every day, all the time, people do amazing things for us. Most of the time, we are able, I hope, to say “thank you.” But much of the time, we think of these acts as our right – I have the right, for instance, to expect that cops will be useful – and we spend a great deal of time thinking about what has not been done for us. People are selfish and self-centered and don’t have time for the little decencies – we say. We are victimized by this notion into being selfish and self-centered ourselves. So there’s a connection to be made here between our ability to feel gratitude and our ability to put ourselves out for others.

After those early days, my hospice friend expressed her gratitude to me many times – heartfelt outpourings these were – and I had to learn to sit with this gratitude, to take it in and not reject it. I could say, with complete truth, that I was doing no great thing. I loved being with her. She was intelligent, funny, incredibly kind, and completely undemanding. But she felt my presence as something to be grateful for, and I had to be with the feelings that triggered in me. At first, I fidgeted a lot, trying to shake them off. But then I grew calmer and saw that this is the way things are. The lines we draw between giving and taking are complete fabrications. We sit in the Flow of Energy and there’s nothing else.

Twice, or maybe three times, I was able to assert my own gratitude to my friend, and this was a hard one to explain given her weak hearing and sight. Once, when I said, “and I am grateful to you,” she demanded an explanation. She was like that – needed to know stuff – her very bright eyes would look at me and she’d say, “What do you mean?” and I’d have to tell her. I found it really hard to explain without going into all sorts of things from my life. I was grateful to finally know someone I really liked. I was grateful for the openness with which she suffered so that my heart could be touched and I could journey a little ways with her. I was grateful that even at this stage, I could watch her grow and change in her attitudes to people. I was grateful to watch her demand a degree of responsiveness from her family and friends; to ask to be treated kindly by her caregiver and to set the terms of that kindness; to finally learn to set some boundaries with those closest to her. The word ‘lady’ has never held any allure for me, but now, I wonder if it’s too late to become one.

But then, there was a whole other layer to this for me – one that is agonizing and yet somehow crucial for me to admit to. Both my parents are dead. The last time I spoke with my father was on June 19, 1997. He told me then that he could be dying soon (of emphysema) and that my astrological chart was responsible for his death as Saturn had just entered my 8th house, the house of Death. His exact words were, “Your horoscope is killing me.” In 2009, I spent three weeks in a hospital room as my mother died from seemingly little cause. I spent the nights with her and a good part of the mornings and evenings, going home to try to sleep in the afternoons. She knew I was in the room with her. She was in a sort of psychic agony, screaming or groaning a lot, not completely with it, but she knew I was there. At one point, late in the game, in the middle of the night, as I was standing over her, my hand on her chest, trying to soothe her screaming, she opened her eyes and said, “You must be hungry. Why don’t you eat something?”  Those were her last words to me, and in some Hal Sirowitz kind of way, it’s funny. The sort of thing that mothers say when they can’t think of anything else to say. But it’s been hard for me to let go of the understanding that she couldn’t think of anything else to say. Those were her last words to me, and I guess if I put aside my lifetime of need and got over my three weeks of hell in the hospital, I can glean some caring from her words. I am good at this sort of gleaning; I am good at moving on from unfulfilled needs; and I work hard on myself, even grateful for the opportunity to taste these human frailties.

It came as a complete surprise, therefore, to be put into a Hospice relationship in which these very intimate and long-held wounds were addressed so openly and without any drama. Every time I left my friend at the end of one of my visits, she knew that it might be the last time we saw each other. At first, we made jokes about it. “I’ll see you in a few days,” I’d say. She would say something funny about the tenuousness of that, I’d laugh and leave. Later, she said, “I love you” when I left, and I said “I love you,” and we meant it. Once, on a really bad day, she said, “You give all of yourself, don’t you? I so appreciate it.” Many times, she blessed me. “I hope that you live a happy life. And that your whole family is well.” She was not a religious person, so the blessing was from her, and I appreciated it so much more for that. “Be well,” “be happy,” “have a really good life.” I heard these so many times, I almost came to take them for granted.

I last saw her two days before Mother’s Day. She was a Mother all her life, and her daughters were a part of every moment of those times I spent with her, clearly her complete focus. She worried about them constantly and, watching her, I came to understand and feel more peaceful with my own maternal worries. They never go away, do they? When I left her that night, I whispered to her that she was a wonderful mother. She could barely talk, but she managed to invite me to her house for a Mother’s Day pizza party. [:)] I didn’t go – she wasn’t my mother, and it was a day for her to be with her daughters. I don’t know if she ate the pizza she craved – I doubt it. She died sometime that night. She had lived for ninety-nine years and three months, exactly.

Sometimes, when I am indulgently drowning in self-pity, I can say that a stranger’s love for six months cannot make up for a lifetime of nothing. But this is not about ‘equal’ or ‘fair’ or ‘making up for.’ I need to learn to allow what comes my way to enter, to take up residence and change me. Genuine good will, appreciation, friendship, and love – I’m hoping that these can be like seeds – that over time, they will spread roots and shoots and branches and leaves. I know that Mothers come in many forms and at different times in our lives. They live in our hearts, they feed and soothe. They make jokes, they get angry, they fart.

I am so grateful for my short experience with this earthly Mother-love, and I hope to remain open to the possibility of it – anywhere and at any time. Perhaps she needs me as much as I need her.

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Table For Two?

I was in a Starbucks last week – 8:30 on a Sunday morning buying ground coffee because we had run out. One never knows what one will find. I hardly ever go to Starbucks – not because I have an ideological difference (I haven’t actually paid enough attention to the coffee wars – I should.) but because I don’t have the time for lolling around. But when I do go, I like the feeling of people who are friendly with one another, hanging around. God knows we don’t do enough of that.

So here I am, waiting for them to grind my coffee, and a woman who was in line before me takes her stuff and goes over to a table where a much older, tiny woman is sitting. The younger woman says, “Excuse me, I was sitting here,” and takes some magazines off the chair opposite the older woman and throws them on the table. I think the old woman is confused. But the stance of the younger woman is clearly aggressive, so she sidles off the chair and looks for somewhere else to sit. I am a little mortified and watch her, hoping she’ll find another seat, but the place is pretty full and all the tables that have two chairs have at least one person sitting at them. She goes to a table and asks a woman if she can sit down opposite her, the woman shakes her head. Then to another, and this time the woman shrugs, clearly annoyed, and says, “If you have to, I guess.” There is no doubting her body language. The old woman slips into the chair and just sits. Quietly. She does not open the magazine she has in her hand, but sits with hands folded in her lap.

What is she waiting for? She’s not homeless – at least, she looks too well dressed to be, she doesn’t seem to be waiting for coffee. It is agony to watch her discomfort but luckily (for me!) another table empties, and she walks over to it – with small, timid  steps and big, light eyes. She now has a table all to herself, and I can relax. I take my coffee and leave, but I am almost crying – surprised that this little Starbucks drama has gotten so under my skin.

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