Last night I volunteered at my stepson’s middle school. Along with a few other duties I perform I also serve as school photographer for their facebook page. While setting up for the last orchestra concert of the school year I came across this trashcan in the gym. While the poster was to advertise the band concert that will be happening tonight I loved the deeper message right away and was compelled to take a picture.
You only live once. Dear friends, may we not waste the precious moments we are given.
“Sharing” by Juan’s Photography, Seeley Lake, Montana
When I saw this card at a local artist’s shop downtown I was drawn to it right away. I wandered into the shop having some time to spare before attending a community conversation on death and dying a couple of weeks ago, a monthly event hosted by one of our three hospice groups in town. Each month there’s a different topic along the theme of death and dying. Two weeks ago the subject matter involved end-of-life decisions and how and why they differ greatly between doctors and the rest of us.
I’ve been a hospice volunteer for almost 12 years and in that time I’ve learned a great deal about living and gratitude and acceptance through my visits with those at the end of life. In our society it is common to shun aging and death. It’s common to think of death as a morbid topic. But death is part of life, not separate, and not optional. When I look at the photo on the card, pictured above, I see the circle of life. To me the dead pig head is not gross or repulsive, it simply is what it is. On the back of the card it reads: “Shot from our bedroom closet in Seeley Lake. The good Momma Raven shared this feast with her babies that were waiting in the nest just a few trees away.” As one life ends, another begins. This is the way of life.
(This is a continuing series of posts on my journey with chronic pain & RSD)
Since RSD is not common and most people have not heard of it before here’s a definition:
From rsdhope.org: Complex Regional Pain Syndrome, or CRPS, formerly known as RSD or Reflex Sympathetic Dystrophy is a progressive disease of the Autonomic Nervous System, and more specifically, the Sympathetic Nervous System. The pain is characterized as constant, extremely intense, and out of proportion to the original injury. The pain is typically accompanied by swelling, skin changes, extreme sensitivity, and can often be debilitating. It usually affects one or more of the four limbs but can occur in any part of the body and in over 70% of the victims it spreads to additional areas.
What came after the diagnosis I will only touch on in brief. I am more interested in going into detail about how I’ve been able to use my mindfulness practice to grow and heal in relationship to my disease and physical pain. I see no real benefit to anyone in my going over at length all of the bad days and challenges I underwent those first few years after my injury. I think it’s easy to think that sharing these moments provides some relief but I think more often than not it simply perpetuates suffering and keeps us stuck in the cycle of pessimism and complaining.
In 2005, a few days after turning 26 years old, I had one of those seemingly cliched days that I had only heard about but not yet experienced (and honestly hoped not to since they sounded a little too dramatic for my taste). I had a day that changed my life forever.
It was early July and I was out in the backyard with my then 5-year old stepson Jaden and his 3-year old friend Cadence. I was Cadence’s nanny at the time but due to the fact that my car had been set on a fire in a random act of arson (among a string of others that summer) the day before I had no way to get to the family’s house for work and so he was dropped off at our house for the day. It was a warm summer day and the boys were playing. We were in the midst of continuing the renovation work on our house and a brand new front door was propped up against a table in the garage waiting as its first coat of fresh paint dried. The side door to the garage was open and one of our two cats wandered in and then a large crashing noise soon proceeded, followed by the cat bolting like the wind. Hoping the door’s windows weren’t broken I rushed into the garage with bare feet (which is never a good idea, at least in our garage). As I was hoisting the door up and attempting to situate it more sturdily I accidentally dislodged a piece of MDF that was hanging at about eye level. The heavy wooden board fell right onto my bare left foot.
I’m nearing my 200th post in my almost two years of blogging and in that time period I’ve made mention of my chronic pain condition just a few times and only in passing. Much like my insight about how I, not long ago, wasn’t able to read world news because I simply wasn’t practiced enough in being able to balance myself to not get overwhelmed and cynical by its content, I too realized that I have not been quite ready to share about my ongoing journey in living with chronic pain. But I now feel as though I can begin to embark on this big topic.
I haven’t wanted to approach my illness for a few reasons but I see that mostly it had to do with these last two years of my diligent focusing on cultivating joy. In order for me to start unfolding and walking through my health challenges and have the ability to share my story with others I needed to learn and practice joy. Otherwise my words would’ve been clouded over with confusion and mis-understanding – I wouldn’t have been able to convey the whole picture. After a long string of quiet moments amid the cycle of transformation is when I often emerge with words to express my journey. I mean, one needs to have actually been to Peru in order to write a great telling of it hadn’t they? It’s sort of like that.
Sometimes we move in a direction simply because people around us carry us there. My wanting to share about living with chronic pain as a mindfulness practitioner is an example of this. When I spent a month on retreat at Deer Park Monastery in January there was a woman there who remembered me from the 21-day retreat in Plum Village in 2012. We had crossed paths only briefly in Plum Village but she remembered me quite well apparently. Throughout the month at Deer Park she kept remarking about how different I looked from when she had seen me in 2012 and how wonderful it was to see such a transformation in my pain condition and how I was moving. She said that I looked totally different. She was amazed and curious about how, in such a relatively short amount of time, my condition had changed. One day I helped her in the kitchen clean up after making peanut brittle and she told me about how she struggles with arthritis and how being on retreat at the monastery was the only time she wasn’t in pain. She wanted to know how I dealt with my chronic pain because in her eyes, although she didn’t know me, she saw that whatever I was doing was working.
Yesterday was one of those days where I spoke out loud to myself and asked the jokingly rhetorical question, “Is this day over yet?!” By 4:00pm I was ready for the day to be done, which wasn’t a good sign seeings as light lingers until around 9:30pm here this time of year. I don’t feel as though I need to go into details about my bad day, we’ve all had them and we will all continue to have them. There’s nothing especially unique about having a bad day. They are, despite what we may like to think, part of life.
This acceptance that in life there will be not so fabulous days is actually a very deep practice that can benefit us in many ways. When we practice embracing acceptance we also practice letting go of the fight we put up against such things as an occasional bad day and our ability to look deeply and develop understanding is nourished. This acceptance might not transform our bad day into a good day but it will allow us to stop struggling with those detrimental inner voices that say bad days aren’t supposed to happen or questions what the hell is wrong with us that we can’t snap out of it. And it’s this struggle with how we think things are “supposed” to be and not “supposed” to be that really makes for a bad day.
Yesterday, Sunday May 11th, I helped to organize what was entitled a Community Celebration at Ten Spoons winery and vineyard here in Missoula. The event was to celebrate the community volunteers, organizers, and city officials for the efforts, care, and time involved with the avalanche that took place here in March. It was also a time to honor and remember the woman who died as a result of her injuries sustained in the avalanche.
Despite the morning snow, chilly temperatures, and gray skies dozens of folks came out for the gathering. We had live music, a free raffle with lots of great donated items, speakers, and a wonderful spread of food. The event also allowed for the display of the many many prayer flags that have been made since the avalanche, in memory of the woman who passed away. The goal is to fly them temporarily on Mount Jumbo over the avalanche slide area, which is pending city approval.
In an attempt to get a little more movement into my days I’ve recently started taking walks. And to add a mindfulness practice element to these walks I’ve taken to using them as an opportunity to get in touch with gratitude. I’ve found that infusing gratitude into my walks also helps me to feel more inspired to get out and do it. It feels less exercise and chore like when I’m intentionally looking around to connect and appreciate my surroundings.
Yesterday I walked to the river, which runs through town. One of the bike paths is just two blocks away and goes all the way to the river, about a 30-40 minute walk from where I live. So I hopped on the bike path and away I went, iPod in tow.
Flathead Lake. Montana
We just had our local Montana Open Way Sanghas annual spring retreat which started Thursday May 1st in the evening and ended on Sunday May 4th in the early afternoon. Our retreat was held once again at the beautiful Flathead Lutheran Bible Camp in Lakeside, MT, which sits right on the Flathead Lake. Dharma teacher Michael Ciborski led our retreat, of which 48 people were in attendance. If you’re interested in listening to the dharma talks he gave during the retreat please go to: http://openway.org/audio
Our Montana Open Way Sanghas consist of four sanghas in three different cities in western Montana: Open Way and Be Here Now in Missoula, Flowing Mountains in Helena, and Open Sky in Kalispell. We are all Thich Nhat Hanh based sanghas with strong communities in our respective locations that join together for two annual retreats a year, mindfulness days, council meetings, and other events throughout the year. I feel very fortunate and grateful to be part of such a vibrant mindfulness community here in big sky country.
Meditation hall (aka the zendo)