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Thursday, March 24, 2011

Priviledge Of Being Alive



I am lying on my back in my sleeping bag woken from a sound sleep by the imperceptible presence of something outside the tent.  Was it a noise that woke me with this fear I am feeling?  I don’t know.  No growling or rustling sounds.  My mind races as I lie perfectly still for what seems like an hour or more waiting for whatever is there to reveal itself or vaporize in my imagination. Nothing. I hear the sound of the river nearby and the wind blowing through the Ponderosa Pine trees surrounding the camp site. I am wide-eyed and my heart is pounding loudly.  I am overwhelmed by fear!

I have come to the wilderness alone for the first time since my father’s passing.  To a place we had been before and to the exact spot on the river where we had fished a couple of times during his last years.  I had come seeking peace and connection and, yes, even to grieve his loss. But as I am lying there I am not thinking about any of this..I am fear!

Then I hear it.  The soft groans and gentle sniffing sounds.  I sense something very close to me outside the tent.  I am energized and want to yell or run but remain still and quiet. What is it; bear, possum or raccoon, who knows?  My heart beats louder and I think I am dreaming but this is no dream. I am terrified but remain strangely tranquil and there is a growing presence inside of me suggesting that this fear is a good thing and all will be well.

The animal soon moves away but I lie still, heart pounding. I wait relying only on my sense of smell and hearing to inform my next move. I realize that I am actually enjoying this experience.  I am quiet but alert and my entire body is engaged in the fear yet I have surrendered to the experience.  I am alive and it is perfect! My fear is turning to awe and appreciation.

After some time I get out of my sleeping bag and go outside to survey any damage to my food or equipment.  Finding none and not sleepy I decided to walk down to the river in the dark and found the log that my father and I once sat on.  It was fully illuminated by the moon and the full sky of stars and I felt the presence of him and a healing and palpable connection to the Universe.

                                                       *************

It has been nine years since this wonderful experience and ten years since my father’s passing. As I grow older I am also profoundly aware of the amount of time in my past that I have tried to ward off  any emotion as if it were a virus.  I ache when I think how many times in my life I let fear make decisions for me and how much time and energy I spent trying to avoid being afraid. As I transition deeper in to the “Fall” of my life I want to live life full and alive.  I want to experience the “juicy” parts of life even if I am afraid or uncomfortable.  I want to remember lying alone in that tent letting fear take me with such extraordinary clarity and consciousness and how totally alive I felt in that moment. It’s a privilege to be alive!

Blessings,

David

Monday, March 21, 2011

No-sense


What is your tolerance for no-sense?

What is your habitual response to being faced with situations or experiences that seem to make no sense and about which you want to – are desperate to—make sense?

I ask these questions as much of myself as I do of you, because I’ve found myself staring into the face of no-sense over and over during these past several weeks. (And not just these past few weeks, but these past few years, and by “few” I mean at least 40!)

I ask these questions because I’m almost at the end of grading my students’ work for the winter term courses we engaged in together.  I find myself rejoicing at the profundity of what each of them, to a student, has written about their learning this term in the face of so much personal and global tumult.  Writing sometimes helps us make a certain kind of temporary sense of complicated things; sometimes it is the medium through which we declare our near-certitude about some previous state of no-sense that now seems to makes sense; and sometimes it gives us a way to document our confusion, our anguish in the face of no-sense. And sometimes, writing is about all of these things, and other things, too. What an honor to bear witness through reading what my students have to write about the learning they are experiencing, and to get to write back to them, even if mostly in the form of my official “assessment feedback.”

Much of what learners – students and teachers, alike -- engage in when in formal academic settings is together trying to make sense of things. That is, in fact, what all formal, institutionalized, and codified ways of knowing are about, whether scientific, artistic, philosophic, or meta-physic (or, or, or…). Students get taught and learn about knowledge traditions, and hopefully how knowledge(s) are produced and used and their implications, and perhaps even go on to shape (dismantle, re-create, create anew) these knowledge traditions. And educators determine, model, and facilitate what should (can, can't, and might) be known, and the many ways to go about knowing.  When we assess how we are all doing in this ongoing, grand learning project, we look to see how well students are learning about different ways of making sense of complex reality, and how well we as teachers are doing in support of their learning.  We are all trying to make sense.

From a broader perspective, the human journey across the life course is fundamentally about learning how to make sense of no-sense. Which is really about trying to make meaning of experiences that are given to us, that we stumble into, that may or may not have “inherent meaning” in and of themselves, despite what we are taught to think about who we are and our place in the ever-emerging universe. 

We are all trying to make sense. Which is really about trying to make meaning of things that we may not understand, not now, perhaps, and maybe not ever. There are some things that are unknowable, or only partially, provisionally knowable. In the middle of, in the aftermath of, all that’s been happening in individual lives and within the larger human community right now (and always), we are all trying to make sense. Some of us call upon our spiritual or meta-philosophical practices to bolster us in the face of events and experiences that challenge our capacity to make sense of that which seems to make no-sense. And yet, and yet. 

Oh, wow—you know what I just realized as I'm writing this? No-sense can actually be a certain, sneaky kind of sense – Think about your own experiences: Have you ever had to conclude, after much learning and consultation with others and critical reflection and obsessive-thinking and spiritual practice, that something just didn’t make sense, and that this no-sense might, in fact, actually be its sense, its meaning?

Circling back to what I was saying about formal education, there’s always at least one moment in the course of facilitating a learning experience where I or one of my students meets the morass of confusion. And back to my question about our habitual responses to no-sense, I’d observe that I and many of my students almost always panic when we reach this place of confusion and lack of clarity, we resist it, fight it, beg for it to be over or to magically evaporate. (And in the case of my students, they may even become temporarily mutinous and claim that they shouldn’t have to be in such a muddle, that 1) the book is unclear; 2) the course is poorly designed; and/or 3) I’m not doing a good enough job explaining things!). (Also, I’ll admit that I intentionally build in moments of confusion into the learning experiences I facilitate; that’s how deeply I hold to the importance and transformative power of not-knowing, of no-sense.)

But when we really reflect upon how we learn and develop as humans we know that these moments or periods of confusion, or no-sense, are absolutely necessary, and without them, well, the process of learning – and of traveling through the human life course -- wouldn’t be as deep, meaningful, and interesting.

Of course, it is helpful – perhaps crucial-- to have someone in our life who has developed wisdom about how all this seems to work and holds the faith on our behalf that no matter how long it takes, something new will come out of the confusion, some sense will be made of the no-sense. I try to serve this role as a teacher (and a parent!), but I’m still learning, and what’s really beautiful is that my students (and my daughter!) often serve this role in my life; we are all in it together, you know?  Some of my elder friends at Mary’s Woods who participate in our collaborative inquiry group also serve this role in my life, and it occurs to me that this tangled matter of living in the face of no-sense would make for a great discussion topic. And, also, that I might thank them for serving this important role in my life.

So, what do we tell ourselves and each other about how to respond to and live with no-sense, how to make meaning of experiences and events that seem to defy coherence and rationality?  One of my students wrote early this morning, asking what I thought about the fact that she’d experienced so many losses – big ones, deaths – in the past month. She felt completely uncertain, worried, a bit superstitious, even – She wanted so much for there to be meaning for all that she and her close-in people and companion-creatures (two dear pets were amongst the deceased) were experiencing, a bright side to all of the darkness. And in pondering my potential responses to her questions,  I realized that often –always?--our desire to make sense of no-sense, to find meaning in what seems to defy meaning-making, is also about our yearning for permanence, for certitude, for the fundamental soundness of our own and others’ existence. I mean, this stuff that hurts so much, that scares us so deeply, it has to count for something, right? 

As I’ve written elsewhere, we make plans for a future we may not experience; we have one foot on the earth, and one foot in the stars.

I’m never sure what to say. Sometimes it seems the best I can do is to murmur sweet assurances that while right now it feels that absolutely nothing makes sense, that this crappy no-sense is a totalizing force, at some time in the future, maybe soon, maybe not, I promise things will feel more sensible, some things will start to make some sense again.  And this is actually true, right?  And sometimes it seems that the best I can do is to cop to one of the other true things that can be said: All of this loss and the no-sense and the enormous pain that is experienced in the face of it—it totally and completely sucks.  Wouldn’t it be nice to not have a creaturely-consciousness such that you are aware of what’s happening and how you feel about it?

But we do have such a creaturely-consciousness. And we are aware, more aware, even, than we sometimes want to accept. And, no doubt about it, there is so much that makes no-sense. And -- please try to get your mind around this -- that no-sense actually is a certain kind of sense, a fecund kind, the kind where you think all is lost, only to emerge, with the support of your comrades (who sometimes help, sometimes just witness) into a new kind of self-sense, with a new kind of understanding about and purpose – impermanent, tentative, temporal and glorious— as a human-creature on the ever-changing Earth, in the ever-emerging universe.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Do you know what I mean?

-I-

All week, I’ve been haunted by a particular line from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,” and by my friend Sara, who died in November of 2006. I’ll save my story of Sara for another time.

The line from Kunitz captures the question that seems to be at the center of everything that’s happened this past week: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses?”[1]

Change and loss; every minute, somewhere on the Earth, someone is hurting, suffering, letting go, or holding on for dear life, running for the hills looking for safety.

(At the end of one of the many articles in today’s newspaper on the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and the potential for tsunami off the Oregon coast, there was the line: “In Bandon (Oregon), for example…45 percent of the people in the hazard zone are older than 65 and ‘telling them to run for the hills might not be fair.’” What does “fair” look like when a tsunami is coming?)

The events of last week – large and small, local and global – hit me particularly hard because I went through the week sober. By which I don’t mean to imply that I usually go through the week drunk. It’s just that right now there is work I need to do, work I want to do – must do – that requires that I have my wits about me, that my edges are sharp and unsoftened by a nice glass of wine (or two) at the end of the day, that my capacities for awareness and lucidity are as expansive as possible. Do you know what I mean?

So, the events of last week.  

One of my students asked for help so she could plan her spring term schedule of courses around her chemotherapy schedule.  Another student wanted to let me know that they may miss a couple of sessions in some of their courses next term because they will be flying home to take care of their partner, who has just been diagnosed with stage-four terminal lung cancer. Another couple of students have missed a lot of work this term because they have older adult parents who have dementia or other serious, life-altering circumstances to manage. I just met a new student who is a single parent of two special needs children. And just last weekend, there was a memorial service – the second one this term – for a student who died an untimely, sad death. My colleagues at my university and I talk all the time about the delicate balance of our adult students’ lives (and our own lives, as well!) – work, family, education, service, self-care – but how do we help them, help each other, create and maintain their delicate life-balance when we are facing  the immediate, cataclysmic matter of our or our loved one’s very existence? You asked the right question, Stanley Kunitz: “How shall the heart be reconciled to its feast of losses”?

This past week, I was reminded at all levels of reality – from the cellular to the geophysical – what I already know but so often forget unless I make it a devotion to remember it: I am a little creature living in an emerging universe on an ever-shifting and changing planet; sometimes the ground I stand on seems solid and stable, and sometimes it shakes and threatens to swallow me whole. I can tell stories of the past, I can cast my mind into and plan for a future I may not actually experience, but I can only ever triumph in the present by courageously embracing whatever happens as best I can (which sometimes means being sober and lucid, sometimes means having an extra glass of wine, sometimes means skipping in the park, sometimes means writing until my eyeballs fall out of my head, and sometimes it means taking to my bed for the day.). Do you know what I mean?

-II-

The newspaper this morning told me that because of the strong earthquake in Japan, the Earth’s axis may have shifted by about 3.937 inches: “…earthquakes can involve shifting hundreds of kilometers of rock by several meters, changing the distribution of mass on the planet. This affects the Earth’s rotation.”[2]

My first question, after experiencing complete amazement about this fact, was: How does the shift in the Earth’s axis affect the creatures living on the Earth’s surfaces, in its waters? What reverberations does such a geophysical shift have for human consciousness?

In addition to the axis-shifting, it seems that time shifts as well, as a result of the Earth’s rotation speed increasing in the aftermath of the quake. The newspaper tells me I won’t really notice it, because it is only a difference of 1.6 micro seconds. But if you think about all of the major, massive earthquakes that have transpired in the past 111 years, those microseconds add up!

What does all of this mean? We may not notice these changes, whatever “notice” means here, in our conscious minds as we may not have developed (or remembered) the sensitivities required to do so, but how can these changes not affect us and all other living creatures on this planet?

Disasters, whether “natural” or “human caused,” have the potential to arrest our attention away from the local and person and onto the global and transpersonal. [3] Catastrophes on a grand scale, crises on a personal and interpersonal scale, have in common that they can close us down or open us up (sometimes both!). They jar us, shake us up, and remind us of the deeper reality in which we live – which is temporal, provisional, vulnerable, impermanent, changeable-- and invite us to live our lives as fully, richly, and audaciously as we can, committed to all that is most important to us, rejoicing in our great good fortune that at least for the time being the ground beneath our feet is solid, stable. Do you know what I mean?

Disasters, catastrophes that happen to others, that we witness from some distance as onlookers, by-standers, can be opportunities for enlarging our sensitivities, our capacities for empathy and compassion.  I think of Rushdie’s essay, “Step Across this Line,” in which he entreats the reader to examine how the lines that we draw, the boundaries and borders we create and erect to keep some people in and some people out, are constructions: made by humans during particular times, in particular places, in responses to particular forces. And, thus – good news!-- can be unmade and remade, as well. “Step across this line,” he invites me, he challenges me – disrupt closing down, resist separation and isolation, reconnect across differences, embrace complexity, behold reality face-on, even when reality sucks.[4]

Catastrophes, tragedies that happen to others can also give us moments of temporary amnesia – the good kind – in which we forget what the fight was about that caused us to not see or talk to each other for awhile, and in forgetting, we remember that we are actually all kin, all of us traveling through the life course together on this magnificent planet with its shifting axis and inconsistent speed.

In addition to wondering how it is that we can withstand so much loss, I also wonder what happens next.  What happens when we have these feelings of kinship, when we forget to separate ourselves from others and in forgetting start remembering really important stuff?  What happens? Do we witness? Do we stand-by? Or do we step across the line and reach out?

-III-

Before I went to campus yesterday, after I dropped Isobel off at school, and after I finished writing a report for work that I’d procrastinated on all week, and after waking up to the news of the earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the reverberations across the Pacific Ocean, Happy and I took a walk around our park.  As we approached the north-east bend of the pond I saw sitting upon the shore a pair of grebes.  Grebes aren’t ducks, so don’t make the mistake I made for years of mixing them up.[5]

Ducks, geese, and swans belong to the same family: Anatidae. But grebes are their own family entirely, the podicipedidae, and there are seven species and four genera of grebes. Nonetheless, it is important to note that ducks, geese, swans AND grebes all belong to the same class: Aves, e.g. Birds.[6]  But back to Grebes, which are amongst the smallest waterfowl at my park and thus are sometimes hard to spot, but when you do spot them amongst the other members of the Aves class, even if you don’t know they are properly called a grebe, you will know you are seeing something not quite ordinary (not that ducks, etc. are ordinary.).  I’ve always found the grebes to be more formal and fancy, all dressed up for their time at the pond—splendid forehead plumes, solid patches of saturated colors marking their heads, lovely curved necks, and short, delicately pointed bills. I always look for them (and I wonder sometimes if they ever look for me?), because spotting them causes butterflies in my chest, which I enjoy feeling. 

So, I stood on the path, Happy at the end of the leash, and watched the grebe-couple for a bit. May I take a moment to commend Happy-the-dog, who seems to have grown so accustomed to my habit of stopping to watch the waterfowl that he doesn’t even pull the leash, but waits patiently until I’m finished?  As I watched the two handsome grebes, male and female, my attention was suddenly pulled away toward a commotion at an upward angle to the grebes, great splashing and squawking and carrying-on in that part of the pond.  It took me a few beats before I realized what was actually happening—five or six male mallard ducks were holding one female mallard duck under the water.  She kept trying to fight her way up for air, but each time she did so, a couple of the male ducks would grab her by the neck with their bills and  push her head back under the water’s surface.  She was fighting so hard, she was ferocious, but she was outnumbered.  

Let me admit that I am no innocent bystander. I don’t -- actually can’t – stand by. Since the time I was a little girl, I’ve been unable to just bear witness and stay out of it when there’s what seems to me to be something aggressive, even violent, going on, whether between humans, between humans and other creatures, or between other creatures. This uncontrollable impulse has gotten me into a lot of trouble, but it has also gotten a few others out of a lot of trouble. Any way, quite possibly the mallards were engaged in some sort of mating ritual, or perhaps a disciplinary procedure of some sort. Maybe what the males were doing to the female was part of some intra-species agreement that evolved over time which my non-Aves consciousness (and untrained ornithologist mind) has no capacity to understand. All I could do was observe and react.  And wonder what the hell to do. I wanted to exercise cross-creature cultural competence, I didn’t want to throw my human weight around, but standing there, watching this thrashing, screeching tornado of ducks, I couldn’t innocently stand-by – I had to step across the line.

First, I tried reasoning with the mallards.  I stood on the shore and yelled, “Hey, you ducks, stop that!” They ignored me.

Then, I tried taking a long stick and poking the ducks when they spun closer to the shore. This was an ill-conceived strategy, as they never got close enough and I didn’t feel quite right about poking them, so I threw the stick in the water and made a big splash. They ignored me.

Then I turned to Happy, and I asked him for help. Literally, I yelled, “Happy, you gotta do something!”  Fortunately, he was already a bit worked up, since I was so worked up, stumbling along the shore of the pond, waving a stick, trying to talk reason with the ducks. So, I let him have as much leash as I could without letting him go, and he ran a bit into the water, barking, which spooked the gang of mallards enough that they disbanded temporarily and the she-duck was able to escape.  But, alas, she didn’t get far, she experienced but a momentary respite, as the guys followed her and this confusing drama began anew.

I realized then that I couldn’t actually do anything.  I also wondered if I even should have been trying to do something, if it even made any sense to intervene in the affairs of other creatures, if I even had a right to do so.  There I was, thinking I could do something to help the mallards. But at the time, in the moment, I wasn’t really thinking, I was feeling, I was acting from a place beyond thinking, I was in the throes of empathy, compassion, kinship with the mallards: for the female, because from my viewpoint she was being victimized; and the males, as well, because – and I’m a bit embarrassed to admit this – I wanted those guys to behave better![7] My actions were probably very misguided, prideful in the way only we humans can be, but there you go. This is exactly how I felt, exactly what I did.

In the aftermath, as Happy and I left the scene and headed home, I reflected upon the few times in my life when a non-human creature had intervened on my behalf, when I was in danger, real danger or the appearance of danger.  I remembered various family dogs having helped me, Marlowe most of all, and remembering this made me feel better about my decision to try to come to the aid of the she-mallard. Now, as I write this, I also recall the first essay in Kingsolver’s collection, Small wonder, in which she recounts the verified story of a mama bear who took care of a little human toddler who was separated from his family.[8] I also think of a passage from Skolimowski, and am somewhat comforted: “Men can be arrogant creatures, but so can lions.  However, among all creatures it is we, human beings, that can understand fully and completely the meaning of compassion and can act on it; can take the responsibility for all, can defend the rights of species different from our own.”[9] I’m not sure if we humans are the only creatures who can do so, but I do know that we humans are creatures who, indeed, do do so.

-IV-

Reflecting further on my experience with the ducks, which happened to happen on the morning after the earthquake in Japan, and which took place before my encounter with one of my students who had such monumental and tragic news to share with me about her partner who is dying – and the poignancy of their geographic distance and emotional closeness – I realize that all of these stories I’m telling are pointing to the same few strong ideas: interconnection and creaturely-kinship; deep participation in each others’ lives and in the weird world that we live in; the instability, alterability, and fluxness of everything, and by “everything,” I mean from the micro-cosmic chaotic duck pond, to the macro-cosmic axis-shifting Earth, and everything in between.
-V-

In an instant, the ground beneath our feet shakes and shifts, waves swell and crash, buildings sway and topple. Some lives end and some are spared but forever altered.

Citizens of the world watch what happens: earthquake, tsunami, revolution, famine, hurricane, genocide, war, corruption, violence, environmental devastation. Many cry and yearn to help, desire to not only bear witness and stand-by, but to step across the lines that separate us from each other, to support their Earth-kin to re-establish a sense of safety and stability on an ever-changing planet, in an ever-emerging universe.

I have a small wonderment: Can we keep these rekindled feelings of kinship with other humans, other creatures, and willingness to boundary-cross as needed at the center of our hearts and the front of our minds once the current catastrophe has passed?

Do you know what I mean?


[1] To hear an NPR interview with Stanley Kunitz and see the poem in its entirety, go to: http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2001/mar/010330.kunitz.html
[2] “Daily Developments,” The Oregonian, March 12, 2011, page A7.
[3] We could have quite a discussion about whether there is any such thing at this point in Earth’s history that is beyond the influence of humans and thus pure, pristine, and “natural.”
[4] “Step Across This Line, from the book Step across this line: Collected nonfiction, 1992-2002 (2002), by Salman Rushdie. 
[5] (I wonder if grebes would mind being mixed up with ducks. If I were a grebe, I think I might not like to be mistaken for a duck! But why, is the question.)

[6] All classification information comes from The Sibley guide to birds, by David Allen Sibley (2000).  By the way—and I know you’ll be very impressed--in middle school science I won “most likely to succeed in science” because I could recite from memory scientific taxonomy: “Kingdom, phylum, class, order, family, genus, and species.”
[7] I wonder what the ducks would say to me if we spoke a shared language? “Hey, human, what makes you think we want your help? Stay out of our duck business, it has nothing to do with you!” What do you think the ducks might say?
[8] “Small Wonder” by Barbara Kingsolver, from the book Small wonder (2002).
[9] The participatory mind (1994), by Henryk Skolimowski, page 26.

Monday, March 7, 2011

One foot on the earth, one foot in the stars


(by Jenny Sasser, based on a first version written in 2007)

Part One:

The goose with the deformed beak, the one we’ve seen wandering yard-to-yard through the neighborhood, just minutes ago took a walk through my front room!  He entered through the back door and caught Happy the dog and me completely off-guard. I was resting on the couch, trying to stay cool and calm in the heat of summer, a few days into a lengthy convalescence after a major health crisis.

The canine and the water fowl engage in a parabolic orbit around the coffee table. I get off the couch slowly, grab the dog and deposit him in the bedroom behind a closed door. He seems shocked by the goose visitor, evidenced by the fact that he doesn’t hurl himself against the bedroom door in an attempt to escape and re-enter the fray.  Our visitor, meanwhile, avails herself (?) to Happy’s water bowl – she seems pleased to discover water and is very thirsty.  She takes a bit of a bath, as well. I watch her for a few minutes, noting that she has shit twice on the living room hardwood floor (better that, than on the rug!), and I snap a couple of cell-phone photos to confirm I’m not having a post-hospitalization hallucination. Then I invite the goose to return to the outside world, this time through the front door.

The goose camps out on the unshaded front stoop all day, and it is a hot day. While I attempt to nap, the goose taps with its deformed beak on the glass section of the screen door: tap tap…tap tap…tap tap.  Before the unexpected arrival of my goose friend, I had been reading The wild braid: A poet reflects on a century in the garden[1], by Stanley Kunitz. I had just finished a passage in which he described befriending a family of owls:

One day, as I stood under a great chestnut tree deep in the center of the woods, I heard rustling in the branches. I looked up and saw a family of owls, a mother and four fledglings, all on one branch…I vowed I would become a friend of theirs, and realized I must not disturb them in any way. (p. 30)

Kunitz later befriends the owl family and to such an extent that eventually they use his arm as transportation back to his farmhouse attic, their new home from where they come and go as they please for the rest of their lives.  He goes on to say, “My encounter with this family of owls was one of the most intimate of all my experiences with the animal world, a world I would consider to be part of our own world, too” (p. 30).

Part Two:

A week prior to the time I started writing this essay I had been hospitalized for my “twirly guts,” as my student Darcy calls my ailment.  A much coarser and humorous designation that the official nomenclature: “transient jejunal intussusception without lead-point.”

When I started reading the Kunitz book I didn’t realize it would be so much about frailty, pain, aging, mortality, and impermanence.  It was an intense and beautiful text to be reading while in the throes of being confronted with my own frailty, pain, aging, mortality and impermanence, not to mention reading it on heels of reading the Annie Dillard text, For the time being[2], which I read while in the hospital undergoing many medical tests and procedures. (Dillard’s text is a strangely assembled accounting of many of the most terrible, tragic things that can befall human beings, and how these experiences shape us, connect us, and remind us of the profundity of the human journey.)

Back to Kunitz—there’s a particularly apt passage that I resonated to strongly in which he reflects upon his recovery from a near-miss with death:

I feel I experienced a kind of resurrection and I’m absolutely grateful for having emerged and yet I have no delusions. I’ve not been promised anything but a period of survival, that’s all.  There is no pledge of survival beyond that.  I was changing stations, that’s it.  It was an interesting experiment, but I don’t want to repeat it!” (p. 120)

Part Three:

As I am preparing to take my daily walk (and as I am washing the goose shit off the front stoop) I have the thought: All of this – my brush with serious illness, my mom’s ruptured cerebral aneurysm, Gramma’s near death – is practice, preparation for the times to come, the unavoidable periods of infirmity, vulnerability, shifting energy, illness that can’t be avoided or withstood, the ultimate demise of the embodied self, death.

Part Four:

(It is quite difficult sitting in meditation with all of this physical pain in my gut.)

At the sangha yesterday, our teacher uses the phrase “gentle and precise” to describe the quality of our attention.

I have been called back to the medical center in a couple of weeks, this time not for more tests connected to my “twirly guts,” but for a re-check mammogram for my left breast.  When I saw that the medical center had left me a voicemail message, I hoped it would be a reminder for the upcoming colonoscopy, but I had a feeling that it would bring news of my breasts.  So I returned the nurse’s call and she informed me that I had to come back in for another mammogram – but not specifically why. I felt hot greasy waves in my gut, I felt buzzing around my edges, I felt diminished energetically.  I emailed my doctor for more detailed information, and she assured me that a re-check is quite routine especially for first-time mammography recipients because there isn’t a history of images to compare, no baseline yet, and also because younger women have “dense” breast tissue.  She said not to worry but definitely to follow-up as soon as possible. Ah, another medical mixed-message!

One of my anxious thoughts was--How can I plan for the future, take on new projects, dream about things, when I am living with all of this uncertainty about my body’s soundness? 

Trying to muddle through this thought on my own made me feel temporarily insane, and so I did something not too common for me, especially not when I’m feeling isolated in physical pain: I reached out to a friend for some help. And in the process of trying to articulate how afraid I was feeling, and the thoughts at the center of my fear, I had a realization (or, perhaps, more accurately, a remembrance): The incontrovertible truth is that all of us humans have to live with existential uncertainty. I mean, think about it, really think about it--traveling through the life course is in part about making plans for a future we have no way of knowing for sure we will get to live!  Every time we plan, when we take a few steps forward in our lives, when we make a commitment to a project or a person, we are placing our faith in this mostly unknown but hoped for future. And we are placing faith in our selves as unfolding beings, in our ongoing becoming. How beautiful, and brave, yes?

Maybe the “gentle and precise” practice really comes down to being present, whatever might be happening for me at any given moment in my body, embodied as fully and consciously (and courageously and audaciously) as I can be, in the here and now, for the time being.


[1] Kunitz, S.  (2005).  The wild braid: A poet reflects on a century in the garden. New York: W.W. Norton.
[2] Dillard, A.  (2000).  For the time being.  New York: Vintage Books.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Honey, Where's My Wallet?



If my mind is anything close to normal it is  remarkable that as part of my memory declines, part improves. 

I can remember with great detail my bedroom at age six: white walls with taped nautical charts, twin bed covered with a blue blanket, and a view of the telephone pole next door that I could see from my bed. I can also remember my very first school lunch pail: green painted metal  with a cool brown thurmos attached inside with a clamp. All this and much much more is returning to me but I can’t seem to remember where I dropped my wallet or put down my eyeglasses or the tickets to the show I had in my hand just five minutes ago. 

Why is that?  Not “Why” from a neurological or brain function standpoint.  I understand a little about flaking brain cells and reluctant and lost neurons.  I want to believe that there is a bigger maybe even a cosmic reason for this.  I don’t subscribe to the notion that since aging always ends in dying, the purpose of aging is only to die; will someone please tell me that this short term memory loss has a positive side!  Perhaps there is an evolutionary or  “survival of the fittest” reason? Could there even be some wisdom in this? Could my mind even be refusing to take in new information so as to preserve and maybe enhance those old images and experiences?  Hmm.

A person I know suggests that I am stuck in the past like many older people.  I don't agree, though.  This seems different.  I don't think of myself as self-centered; at least not to any greater extent than younger friends and cohorts.  I don’t even like to reminisce about the old times but yet I am drawn to review these memories not to relive them but maybe to commemorate them somehow.  Exactly what were the courageous, hurtful, honorable, and loving events that shaped my personality, character and values? Another side feature is the more in touch I become with these memories the more I trust myself in the present and the less I seem to need recognition and approval. Hmmm.

What a gift this is!

Returning to the short-term/long-term memory story, psychologist James Hillman postulates that the key to aging successfully is to continue the human developmental process throughout the life cycle.  This requires that we remember our past in order to deepen, refine and honor our thinking and character in the present.  In other words the aging process requires the memory to confirm, fulfill and be in the world as we really are. Sort of like "Aging as an art form!" 

Armed with this approach I might just be able to celebrate losing my keys or forgetting the clothes in the dryer.  Something to think about?

Blessings!

David