A Unique Flavor

This week we are up on the North Shore of Lake Superior. The previous week we were in Upper Michigan sleeping along the shore of Les Cheneaux (the channel Islands) in Lake Huron and drove by and played in Lake Michigan. It feels both a privilege to be in the presence of such bodies of water and humbling at the enormity and power of each while we experience them with their own unique vegetation, shoreline, and personality.

Between these lake visits, I attended a funeral for Walt, a man who had been both a client of mine and a hospice patient. A large gentle man, bound to his wheel chair and oxygen, who deeply grieved the loss of his wife the year before. It took almost a year for Walt to go out to his workshop alone as he was always with Sharon even while he was out tinkering and inventing. He is now resting in peace next to his beloved and the thought of him brings a smile as he touched the hearts of our whole team who grieve his passing. As I write this, I pause as it is challenging to paint a portrait of this man not knowing the day to day life he lived previously. I can only say it was his gentle tears, his inability to put his feelings into words, it was his smile, his loss of his beloved lab, Mitzi, along the way, his passion for good toffee, his decision to bring the outdoor cat in the house after Mitzi died and the cat’s partner died and admitting he didn’t really like this cat but felt sad for the cat’s loneliness in its loss, his deep appreciation for all the attention he received in his illness and loneliness, and in the end maybe it was the peace we all felt when leaving his presence that brings such life to his memory.

I purchased two books this week that are entertaining me between bike rides, hikes, fishing, and exploring along Highway 61. The books are by Kathy Rice, owner of the now closed Pie Place Cafe in Grand Marais, MN. Delightful cookbooks with many of their famous and favorite recipes of salads, sandwiches, soups, fish, and of course pie! I loved that she wrote that she did what she had a passion for, which was make pie. We share that passion. I could have a bumper sticker that reads, I brake for pie. Each recipe begins with a portrait and a story of an individual who entered Kathy’s cafe. Some were local and some from other locales but each captured her imagination in some way with story, art, personality, and life history. Many became life long friends.

In the end, we become a smattering of who, what, when, how many kids, where did I work, who is left behind and on and on in a dry list offered as some form of identity in the newspaper or funeral program. Reading Kathy’s portraits of individuals she has met, I realize each portrait of a life she offered us could be the obituary for that life lived. Kathy captures, as best she is able, the soul of the individual through her words. It puts me in mind of Heather Lende (heatherlende.com) who was introduced to me by my sister, Di, and who is, among other talents, an obituary writer for a local newspaper in Haines, Alaska. Heather’s obituaries paint a portrait as do Kathy’s words. I would say each has a passion for people and take the time to open their hearts and minds to that one before them or the one who is being grieved for by a loved one.

Kathy states “the soups flavor will vary according to what you choose, but that is part of the fun.” Thoughts: What am I choosing this day, this month, this year, this life, that flavors my life? My grandson loves making soup and throws in many questionable items without a recipe. Most often it works, sometimes not. It takes courage to choose but if we do not choose others choose for us. To paint a portrait that captures the essence of the person we have to have the courage to see and portray what the individual might perceive as a flaw. Maybe that is what creates the wholeness of a life. Maybe it is merely that particular “spice” that adds the flavor to a life well lived.

Les Chêneaux, Lake Huron

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Lake Michigan

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Lake Superior

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A Blessing and Blooming

The pavement rose bushes are in full bloom and the waft of rose scent in the air feels like an intake of blessing on each breath. I missed the peonies as rain hit hard on their opening. The lilies are in bloom with splashes of color everywhere.

The last couple of weeks have simply been hard labor with scooping a few ton of rock into our landscaping around the back of the house. What seemed insurmountable in the beginning is now two thirds complete, one shovel of rock at a time. My body still holds a few aches from the job but also pride in accomplishment while realizing the enjoyment of sweaty dirty focused labor. The job was made fun with two grandkids to help us, keeping us focused and laughing in the midst of it all.

During the week, I called Margie, a newly bereaved late 70’s woman whose husband died a month ago and has been told she needs to vacate her rental as fast as possible as it is being sold. Distress, tears, disbelief, stuff to be sold or given away, no time to grieve, panic, all this I heard as I visualized Margie trying to move a ton of rock with very little support. I remember those first weeks of deep grief and the fog we move through as we try to find our bearings with a brain not functioning well as we forget things, have a hard time focusing, and find ourselves melting in tears at the small reminders of our loss. We can feel buried under an insurmountable weight.

For many of us it is the people surrounding us who help us with each shovel load, helping to ease the burden, keeping us focused, and we are grateful. At other times we find ourselves alone in our grief, sadness, and confusion. Whether we are alone or surrounded by loved ones, we ultimately find we must look within to our own resources, that which guides us daily. Finding in our own stillness the quiet moment releasing the waft of roses arising from our own heart, that which is connected to all life and loving and living and that which draws us forward to live and grow into the only thing to which we can become, ourselves in full bloom. Our own wholeness of being.

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Our Daily Work

It feels as if spring is arriving and we are being nudged out of hibernation. We are enjoying the warmth of the sun on our skin, if not a bit cool. We saw two young men in shorts. Maybe my brain will thaw as well and I will be able to write again or maybe it is just that life has been a bit too full and disjointed to get thoughts to line up.

I have been thinking of our travel trailer in storage and some work that needs to be done when we pull her out in early April, and planning a trip to Chicago with two of the oldest grandchildren which happens also in early April, and our family trip to the UP in June and other summer events. My body and spirit want to move more even though I exercise every morning. A bit of adventure thrown in would be welcome. I have been a student for five weeks and already I feel ready for spring break.

Since adding a class to my life, writing has had to be pushed aside for time and I miss the writing and reflection. As I sat in meditation this morning, I remembered that whether I am writing, drawing, painting, meditating, playing with the children, or sitting with a bereaved, it is all the same when I am present. Each activity when I am present allows me to see, feel, experience life in a moment. When I take a seat or stance or walk in the present moment I am alive and connected to life. It may feel like my time is torn between one thing and another but it is not, as at the core it is all the same exercise and as Jon Kabat-Zinn states, it is all “taking your seat in and in relationship to the present moment.” It is our relationship to this moment that is our life. Usually what keeps us out of the present moment is anxiety and regret, one for the future and one for the past. We live in our constant inner chatter about one or the other.

This is my life and it can all seem trite and mundane when we hear reports of yet another school shooting and the loss of so many beautiful lives and this awareness too becomes the practice of focus and staying present. We sit with our caring, our anger, our concern, our activism but not by loosing ourselves in a future or a past but by continuing to live in the moment that is ours in each breath. We connect to the source of each moment as best we are able to be open to grace, spirit, love, compassion and then we bring these out into this world we inhabit.

As Kabat- Zinn states in his book, Arriving at Your Own Door, “Now is already the future and it is already here. Now is the future of the previous moment just past, and the future of all those moments that were before that one.” We live with anxiety worried about the future and if we are where we “should be” in life. Are we where we thought we would be when we looked forward at age 21? And yet, we are our future in this very moment.  We create worry and anxiety about some untold future not realizing our tomorrow is built on today. As we re-center in this one moment, the only one we have, we build a center for tomorrow. We build peace on peace, joy on joy, compassion on compassion. At the center of my being I do know why I am here and why I am drawing and writing and I trust in where it is all taking me. I believe all of this when I hold a steady attention, some days, some moments, being harder than others. By holding a steady attention, holding a focus, we can rest in the focus. There is no anxiety. There is only space, breath, and presence; all grounding for a full life.

Seventeen lovely children and adults were in the midst of a day, in the midst of a breath, and it was the last. We sit in that awareness and feel the pain of those who have been left behind, who grieve their loss, who feel confused and uncertain of their future and wish, with every breath, they could change this past. As we sit in this awareness, we enter this moment with them through each breath in and through each breath out, transforming in each breath hate for love, anger for peace, doubt for faith, despair for hope. We hold steady in the strength we have today and make this our offering, this our daily work toward an untold future, this a promise for a more compassionate loving tomorrow.

The dawning of a new day, a new moment, at Morning Sun.

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A Healing Balm

The Christmas and seasonal decorations are on display in our home and it feels peaceful and festive. I am aware, as I place items, that it is like dressing. Choosing the outfit, the jewelry, telling a story with the choices made and the colors displayed, all symbols of how we are feeling in the day or the season. The outer display of the inner journey.

This phenomenon is alive in many forms in the month of December which honors many special days in the Christian and Jewish traditions as well as including spiritually significant days for Muslims, Buddhists, Pagans and Zoroastrians as well as African-American Kwanzaa. Each rich and alive with tradition in its many forms.

Leo’s family has a tradition of stopping at people’s homes to see their tree. That was a tradition foreign to me but with his large family and extended family all in the same area, off they would go to see a decorated tree. Each tree in each home designed by a family or family member reflecting beliefs, personality, style, taste, likes and dislikes. We each year tell a story with our ornamentation or lack there of, whether we are Christian, or secular and choosing to celebrate Christmas or any other faith or tradition honoring a tradition of celebration.

In the spring season of the Christian Easter, I have attended Jewish Passover in different locations and found this true in the way the stories are told, the seder plate, the personal tastes imbued in the foods. I have celebrated the winter solstice for many years with different friends which was a new creation each year with some elements honored and held. Some with a party, others with burning a traditional oak log, gathering water for the new year, drumming, meditation, and connecting to the earth.

Each celebration in any season brings in light, love, and that which is larger than our singular life on earth, holding all that we hand down, to be used or not, with variations of the next generations additions and subtractions.

I turn to the altar I redesigned on returning from the Camino. I enjoy altars. I have made them many times over the years. A place to honor the Divine in whatever form, adding items from nature, candles, maybe a photo of one who has left this world, or one who needs prayers at this time. As with decorating a house at a holiday, it draws our attention, gives a place to focus and center, being aware of the story told with an outward reflection of the inward journey. It offers a place to ground and is as simple as one candle and as elaborate as one can imagine.

A personal altar offers a quiet reflective place to be in a busy season. Even places of worship are busy drawing one out of the inward reflective space. We live in an extroverted, busy, talkative society. Creating a space where one can take a seat in conscious awareness is a personal gift to the self, now and any time of the year. It tells a story, reflects our inward journey, might include objects and beliefs handed down or might be inclusive of an entirely different spiritual direction. Each year we have many opportunities for ritual, many ways of tradition, as well as space for expressing the beauty and the story of this moment.

Marilyn is 80. Her husband died shortly after last year’s Christmas. This year she is emotionally revisiting those days and states that while she is a person who will decorate every room at Christmas she desires nothing this year as she sits in deep sadness, loneliness, and loss. As we sat and entered the story, she expressed that while the decorating was her delight, she and her husband found their Christmas connection in the manger scene. They always set it up together and it was a connecting piece for them in this season. As Marilyn talked of how the kids would come and bring down all the decorations from the attic, I asked if maybe this year they could just bring down the manger scene, the connecting piece for her and her beloved. I saw Marilyn’s heart open with a smile and a feeling of relief pour over her body. “Oh, I hadn’t thought of that. Yes, that is just enough.” The manger scene is enough to tell her story, this year. An altar for her gaze and reflection. A connecting piece to something larger than self. This year a healing balm.

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Saving a Life

I am at a loss in the moment about what to write but write I must. I am thinking about the man I talked to today whose wife died and he is exhausted being both mom and dad to his 9 year old. Leo tore his calf muscle and has been hobbling with a cane. I flipped my phone to the news headlines and saw a mom threw her baby against the wall. I strained my deltoid muscle, or so I think, I need to get it checked out, but I am unable to freely use my right arm without pain. I am on Mucinex for my lungs and hope to get that cleared up. My lungs seem more vulnerable since the Camino. We bought a new artificial Christmas tree and will put it up tomorrow. I made a nice turkey stew in the crockpot for tonights dinner and some banana nut bread from the overly ripe bananas on the counter. I took extra time today for meditation which makes all the difference; I feel refreshed. A day in a life while spinning on a planet in space.

We each stand in a different perspective of the world. You see and experience a range somewhat different from me. Each is personal as we are the one witnessing the objects in our life. And, each object we perceive and each experience we encounter we imbue with meaning while trying to find our place in the all of life, bearing witness to the only life we know. Each day is a hodgepodge of encounters, community and world events, and tasks that call for our attention.

We face daily that which we cannot repair. That which we cannot change. We cannot mend a little boys broken heart. We cannot bring a baby back to life. We look to the world we inhabit and offer with our kindness and intention what we are able to give to those in our family, friends, community and our connection to all life. I suggested to this tired dad who could not get away and did not know how he could keep going that maybe trying to keep life exactly the way it was when his wife was alive was demanding too much of him. A perfection that he was trying to achieve that was capable of eating him alive, keeping him from the son he loves, wearing out his body and his heart. Maybe he could give his son and himself one night a week with no cooking, no cleaning, no organizing. Just being in the presence of each other. Playing games, being guys just hanging out. Not worried about getting good nutrition but getting the best of each other in the moments together. He liked the sound of that and the thought of it seemed to touch a part of his heart that held enthusiasm, something I had not heard from him in the past months. I heard for a brief moment a sigh, a bit of a smile, “I can do that!”

I guess this is what I needed to write about. When change comes it can demand more change as we adapt to life now. In clinging to the way we have lived in the memory of the beloved we can take another life, our own. By finding a way to give himself oxygen in his new life, he can then also look to the life of his son.

Mary Oliver says it best in her poem,

Journey

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice – – –
though the whole house
began to tremble
and you felt the old tug
at your ankles.
‘Mend my life!’
each voice cried.
But you didn’t stop.

You knew what you had to do,
though the wind pried
with its stiff fingers
at the very foundations – – –
though their melancholy
was terrible. It was already late
enough, and a wild night,
and the road full of fallen
branches and stones.

But little by little,
as you left their voices behind,
the stars began to burn
through the sheets of clouds,
and there was a new voice,
which you slowly
recognized as your own,
that kept you company
as you strode deeper and deeper
into the world,
determined to do
the only thing you could do – – – determined to save
the only life you could save.

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Good/Bad/Who Knows?

Leo and I met up with our daughter and family for dinner one evening. Somewhere between the bread and salad courses, my 10, soon to be 11, year old grandson asks, “Oma, if you could go back in your life and change something, what would it be?” While I am quickly gathering my thoughts, he then asks, “And, if you could go back and visit a time, what would it be?” Time to catch a breath. Both questions begin to get jumbled so my son – in – law carefully parses out the two questions giving me more time to reflect and sort through my life. The wait person catches my eye as she walks back to the kitchen with a big, mouthed, “OH, WOW!”

Now, the easy way out would have been to say, I would have painted my house blue instead of green. The boy would have been happy. They love to play the game, would you rather…  But, never one to loose a moment of intimacy or teaching,… My first response is philosophical. “It is challenging to think of changing something when everything I have lived through has brought me to now,” I say, buying me more time. Finally, I tell Oscar, “I promise. I will get back to you. I just need more time to think.”

This morning I wrote Oscar. First, If I could go back and change something, I would learn how to be a better dog owner. We bought Yoshi, our West Highland Terrier, sometime after the death of our infant daughter, when our then 7 year old daughter was begging for a dog, The dog was meant to be a grief dog which she lived up to by being a lot of grief and, I have to say, fun and comfort for the kids for a while.  Both Leo and I are pretty ignorant of dogs not having grown up with trained house dogs. Yoshi was weaned too young the vet stated and would be a handful as she had not had her mother’s training and the other pups long enough to learn. The name she came with, Sugar Bear Tough Stuff, should have tipped us off. We renamed her Yoshi and did our best. She won out and ruled the house.

I am going to claim two with this question. The house we chose to buy on Princeton and live in was not meant for me. I did not know I was allergic to cats until we moved into our new home which had housed many furry critters. Along with the cats, we add dust, mold and mildew, the death of an infant daughter, a life of 13 homes in 27 years, years of military, Vietnam, living apart, many moves, law school, and the birth of three children. It all took its toll on our marriage and my health and change was required. All of these major events led me down a long path of ill health, in that house.

Oscar’s second question was easier, I would love to go back to a time and visit my parents. It warms my heart and makes me smile to think so. I would enjoy that visit.

And yet, that will not happen in this world. These are questions of a young searching mind. The question of “What would I change.” leads us to our stories of our internal/external conflicts. We all know them in greater or lesser degree. We live with our own inner battles of a conflicted mind, bodies with illness, disease, relationships with people or work that create the inner dialogue of dissatisfaction.

I consider the decade of the 80’s my “de-construction years”. The stripping away years. Down to the bones years. The 90’s were re-construction years and the new millennium brought relief. The 80’s and 90’s were the two decades in the Princeton home. The home that was a catalyst for so much change and turmoil was also the home that was stable enough to allow it all to happen. This home was our nest. The beautiful years of raising our children, meeting new friends, life adventures that helped to form all of us in amazing ways. And, it all happened simultaneously.

It is a good exercise to make a time line of your life. Where are the points of a traumatic event, a loss, a major change. Mark those and then what were the in-between years like. The years of change, adjustment, being stripped away. Then start to fill in the points where you met a key person in your life. Had a life changing moment that caused you to think, “That is why I am here.” “This is my purpose.” My life would never be the same if I never met…” Where do these transformational moments fall within your time line? How do they intersect with the years where life seemed to be falling apart? All of these moments mark the journey of a life.

When the snake sheds her skin or the butterfly is working to be released from a cocoon, they are not without the beauty of a new skin developing or the translucent wings that will carry them away. It is simply that when we are in the midst of it all we do not recognize the new, know it for what it is, trust that it will be the ground for this new life. Our own struggle with growth and development can make the journey much harder than it was intended to be. But the struggle also teaches us. As we learn, we might find that the next time, we allow ourselves to let go into the process rather than struggle against it. We might then trust and allow for simple flow.

When we left our home on Princeton it was with a peaceful heart. All the work that needed to be done in that home happened. A new home was needed to move forward into life and that home was found and continues to support. I am grateful for a home that could give my children stability while my inner world was shifting and I struggled to shed the skin that no longer served me or them. Would I change any of it? It is a fun exercise and I am grateful for my grandson’s questions, but, no. I am grateful for the privilege of being alive, for all that comes my way requiring my discernment, the growth of trusting intuition, learning from the choices made, all lacking perfection as it is a work of art, not a copy. I hold the whole of it, smile, and offer thanks.

When we are in the experience we want to judge the experience and give it a label of good or bad. Years later, after we have named something bad, we find it hard to look back at it as it reminds us of pain that we would sooner avoid. And, as we have named it good or bad we might miss the opportunity to see the flow of life, the connection of our story. Maybe by suspending judgement we will be able to give life the space to unfold.

There is a Chinese parable that many of you have heard but deserves repeating as it is a lesson we are faced with daily. It is about a farmer and a horse.

One day his horse runs away. And his neighbor comes over and says, to commiserate, “I’m so sorry about your horse.” And the farmer says “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?” The neighbor is confused because this is clearly terrible. The horse is the most valuable thing he owns.

But the horse comes back the next day and he brings with him 12 feral horses. The neighbor comes back over to celebrate, “Congratulations on your great fortune!” And the farmer replies again: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

And the next day the farmer’s son is taming one of the wild horses and he’s thrown and breaks his leg. The neighbor comes back over, “I’m so sorry about your son.” The farmer repeats: “Who Knows What’s Good or Bad?”

Sure enough, the next day the army comes through their village and is conscripting able-bodied young men to go and fight in war, but the son is spared because of his broken leg.

And this story can go on and on like that. Good. Bad. Who knows?

 

 

Living into Death

If we have been the caregiver of a loved one, watched another in that role or found ourselves in the throws of grief, we know all too well that life does not pause to allow us the time to do the abundant tasks of caring and grieving. Life marches on and at times that might be a benefit as we are pulled out of our deep inner pain to join in with the children or animals who need attention. At other times, it might give us comic relief needed to bear the weight of the day. This poem was inspired by the end quote, the first words spoken by one of our Hospice nurses as she began to report in team on one of her patients.

The Last Words

A window view from the bed

where Joe lies

waiting for his last breath.

The angel promising,

arriving to guide him home.

 

Sap green, cerulean blue,

a burst of red on the tree

bearing fruit to be canned

and made into pies.

 

Dorothy attending

the daily tasks of the spouse,

the work of the living:

Food, water, leaky faucet,

broken garage door.

 

All intruding

on this precious time left

for the next breath.

 

The soft hollows of cheeks,

the diming of eyes,

the whispering breath

as Joe’s lips part

speaking his goodbye

to the life he has known

on this, his farm.

 

They lean in

waiting for the words,

forming —a sigh—

“The pigs are digging

up the yard, again.”

c) Janis Dehler

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Authoring a Life

We are probably all familiar with a Health Care Directive whether we have written one or not. The lists of what I don’t want when I can’t speak for myself. Today might be a good day to create a health care directive about how I want to direct my life. What now, today, does direct my life? What motivates me? What gets me up each day to enter life’s joys and challenges. Saying what we want might be harder than saying what we don’t want but that is the challenge. To discover what we value and questioning ourselves as to whether or not we are living that value.

At the end of a patients life, I hear in our team discussion: “If Kathy can’t go to the casino anymore, she is done.”, “When he can’t walk to the bathroom and take care of his own needs, he is through.”, “When Joe’s dog dies, he has nothing to live for.”, “Mary just wants to make it long enough to hold her new grand baby.”, “If he has to give up driving…”  From the grieving widow or widower, I might hear, “I don’t want to go on without…”; “I now have no purpose to my life”, “I have absolutely no interest in living without…” Each person in this list has something that holds purpose for them, holds a value to living.

Knowing that the time for our life is coming to an end focuses our priorities. We begin to name the driving energy that pushes our will. As Atul Gawande in Being Mortal suggests, it makes a big difference to the caregivers when the loved one is able to name that which is quality of life when tough decisions need to be made.

My mother said many times during the latter part of her life that she never wanted to live in a nursing home. On the day of a massive stroke that a week later took her life, her last words to my sister and me were,”If anything should happen to me, please don’t put me in a nursing home.” That was her end point. She named what she did not want to happen to her quality of life, she named a value. In the hours following, when the tough decisions needed to be made, as her Health Care Agent, I held to her statement. In the end, after her last breath, we as a family held to the statement. In the weeks and months that followed when as grievers we start second guessing, I held on to that final directive statement with deep gratitude and knowing that this value of our mother’s included us as a family in her community of loving care.

In the naming, my mother also named her biggest fear. For years I have asked my grieving clients the same question, “What do you fear, what concerns you as you grieve your loss and learn to live without….?” Early on it might be a task but it is helpful to sit long enough with the question as over time I then hear a person begin to name a value, a quality of life that holds meaning for them.

Maybe in the midst of life, taking the time to name what drives us could also be useful and life-giving. Shantam Zohar is Co-founder and Director of the Mindfulness Based Therapy Program at Tel Aviv Bar Ilan University in Israel. When I first met Shantam about 20 years ago he was an astrologer and a student at Naropa University where our daughter was a student. He has since become a family friend. I was challenged by him at that time to understand that I could author my life. I get to write the script regarding my spiritual/religious beliefs, the roles I fulfill as wife and mother, and so on. For so many years I felt directed, sometimes like walking through a smorgasbord line. What a concept to be inventing, creating the life I was living. Not that I wasn’t already doing that as I am pretty independent minded and creative but now I could own it and be mindful and conscious of the process. I was seeing Maggie my Spiritual Director who one day said the same thing, “You are authoring your life.” I felt affirmed. Listening deep within myself to hear how I was being internally directed by Self, Spirt, God, Higher Consciousness, however we name that which is larger than our being.

When we author, we are making choices. As when I paint a painting, I choose, is it watercolor or acrylic, which colors, what am I trying to say, what moves me, am I balancing the darks and lights, is it a high key piece or low? It is worth noting that authoring does not mean I am thinking only of myself. The direction and the decision making comes within the context of the whole, the community, how each individual or even element of a painting effects each other which makes it all the more challenging as well as exciting.

Atul Gawande offers us four questions to ask at the end of life: “What are the biggest fears and concerns? What goals are most important? What trade offs are we willing to make? What trade offs are we not willing to make?” Whether I am painting a work of art, authoring my life, or facing the end of my life or the life of a loved one, I am faced with the same questions. Why wait until I am pushed by disease to answer these questions? Maybe today is a good day to know what I value and to assess if I am living that value in a way that is authentic to my life.

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Life Is An Adventure

We had dinner last night with friends, Andy and Joan. Andy is 69, very active in backpacking, fishing, many adventures. Just last year he climbed to 14,000 ft. This year he had a simple fall off a stool on wheels that eventually led into deeper investigation to the diagnosis of Multiple Myeloma. Andy is a Vietnam vet serving 1967 to 1968 in country and being exposed to Agent Orange. As Andy explains it, “I know guys who have died, lost limbs, lost parts of themselves to PTSD or alcohol, and I thought I was a Vietnam survivor.” At 19 years old his own government whom he served placed him in the position to be exposed to Agent Orange. It is like having a delayed hit by friendly fire.

Andy refuses to call his experience of cancer a battle. He does not feel at war. He is calling this experience another adventure in his life of many adventures. In Andy’s words, “Life is an adventure, and death is so much a part of that.” Andy is the kind of guy who goes all in wanting to know everything about his disease, the process, and his choices. Andy is authoring his life.

Last year he and Joan traveled to Vietnam as he wanted a different memory of this country. He was not disappointed. The warmth and hospitality they received and the beauty they experienced was healing. He and Joan met a man from what was then North Vietnam and who was a soldier on the Ho Chi Minh Trail at the same time Andy was in country; they shared a drink and a toast together.

It was a privilege for Leo and I to sit with Andy and Joan for three and a half hours talking about his current journey into the medical realm, decisions that have been made and will be frequently made, the uncertainties of the future, concerns about talking to their adult children and grandchildren, looking at a probable move to a smaller home, pain issues, medications, and the challenges of doing normal everyday tasks, not being able to drive, the desire to keep living, and the meaning of quality of life for Andy. A very rich discussion not without humor and shared laughter. And, it was all very poignant being Veterans Day weekend and Andy now knowing he has not escaped the “negative effects of being in that war.”

I have always felt conflicted about Veteran’s Day. My father enlisted and served in WWII and kept in touch with his close Army buddies until he died. He was buried with colors  and a full military guard and it was very moving. He was proud of that part of his life as was his country proud of him. My father in law was also in the Army in WWII and was one of the first Americans to enter Dachau after the war ended. That experience was what he came home with and sought emotional support for to help him make it through. He rarely spoke of the war.

I came of age during the 60’s in a conflicted country and a war that tore a country apart. I had friends who marched against the war as did I and I dated and married a man who escaped the draft and being sent to the front lines by learning to be a pilot in the Marine Corps which took most of the rest of the Vietnam years except his term doing mine sweeping in Haiphong Harbor and occasional mail runs in country. I lived the life of a military wife which left us on the outside of some of my college friendships. Most of the young men in the Vietnam war were drafted and fighting not by choice but the “luck” of the draw. Andy told us he felt proud to help his country but when he returned and watched four more years happen in Vietnam he also began to doubt and question what we were doing there.  Andy states, “in excess of 11 million gallons of Agent Orange were sprayed during the war, from 1961 to 1972, to eliminate and deny forest and jungle cover to the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops, and to destroy crops which might be used to feed them. Well in excess of 2 million U.S. Military Personnel served in Vietnam during that period.” The Vietnamese people have lived through and continue to live through generations of severe birth defects in their children.

These are Andy’s words on Veterans Day:

“This year, however, Veterans Day has taken on new and different meaning for me. Now, it is me who is working through those after-effects as I undergo chemotherapy and other treatments for multiple myeloma. One persistent thought is that previously I believed that I had escaped the negative effects of being in that war. Now I know that I have not.

At the same time, it has given me a new appreciation for those friends and relatives who have been dealing with these things for years. I envy the strength they have shown in addressing whatever effects they have experienced.

Yesterday, someone asked me what the appropriate greeting was to use in responding to veterans on Veterans Day; he thought that “Happy” Veterans Day simply didn’t sound right.

We veterans will sometimes hear people thank us for our service. I always appreciate that acknowledgement but find that I don’t know how to respond to it.

More recently, I read a suggestion from someone that we should thank veterans for their “sacrifice.” I’m still thinking about that one.”

How we experience war and its aftermath is unique to each of us as to our perspective, our past experiences, our spiritual and religious beliefs. May we honor and hold sacred each others opinions and experiences even if they feel foreign to us. And, may we find a way, as people living on shared limited real estate on this evolving planet, to be people of peace, abiding peace.

I am giving Andy the last word:  “A person I know, in remarking about adventures, says that it isn’t an adventure until “shit” happens. Well, apparently the “shit” has happened, so I’m off on my …. LATEST ADVENTURE! “

Amen and so it is..

All That We Carry/Part 2

Phase two of clearing. Phase one was putting everything in my art closet and trying to get the door closed. Phase two, today, was cleaning everything and bagging it and making any last minute changes as to keeping or giving away. I do take seriously all the stuff we leave behind when we leave this world, which I don’t plan on doing any time soon, but…it feels good to stay on top of the stuff.

The hardest is books. I enjoy books, reading and having them around but I do have many that I will not read again and then I bring more into the house. Of course, not everyone I live with agrees with my decisions. Sometimes I have gotten rid of something I later needed and had to buy it again. And, maybe the books aren’t the hardest. The hardest I think is my art closet which holds more than art. It holds all the paper memorabilia from kids and grandkids, photos that have not been catalogued, stuff from my former businesses, wrapping paper that needs to be sorted with all sorts of ribbons. It is amazing how much one can get into a closet. But I try to keep it in order and am waiting for a time when I have a week to really focus. It will take focus and willpower, because it will.

I like fall cleaning. In the spring, I want to get outside and not think about the inside of the house. Also, in the fall it is a natural time to empty before we enter the long winter ahead both physically with maybe a cleanse and emotionally with a good hard look. Let’s throw in mental as well. November is a time in many spiritual traditions when we attend to our losses for the year or maybe a lifetime. What still needs to be said, done, mourned, named?

The physical level of clearing can be pretty straight forward with dieting, cleanses, eating healthier. Spring and fall are the most important times to pay attention to clearing on this level. The emotional level is more of a challenge. Being willing to be honest with how we are feeling, not on the surface, but deep down. What adds to our emotional weight? What needs to be named, talked about, cried over? These are some of the probing questions. Sometimes we can do this clearing on our own and at other times we need to have a person at our side who can guide the process. And then we get to the mental level. Some of these thoughts just have to go. It can get awfully crowded in there with voices criticizing ourselves or others, wishing us well or telling us we can’t do this or that, worries or regrets that are so old we can’t even remember when. And some of this crowd may have a face from the past that is long over due to let go of.

It can be a tall order but again willpower and focus are needed, and time. As with the house, when we look at the whole it is overwhelming to think of sorting through and making decisions but as with the house, the freedom that results from clearing out unused and out of date stuff on all levels can be exhilarating. It can feel like we are full of unwanted guests who arrived and never left. Sometimes, just being straight forward and showing them the door is all that is needed. Other times, we need to have a good sit down discussion and come to a point of understanding, forgiving, with movement toward peace. In this way we make more room for our spirit, our heart of love and compassion, our kindness to self and others, and our creativity. We can then begin to stay on top of it so it is not a lifetime to look through and deal with as we move through our day to day living. We can begin to notice earlier when the closet is getting a bit full.

Your vision will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes. Carl Jung

Stuff that is headed for the door.
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The space that is open and waits.

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