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Life & Death

Every year, for the past I don’t know how many years (8? 10? 12?), I help with the set-up for the Tree of Life Ceremony, which is put on in early December by the hospice organization I volunteer for on a weekly basis, meeting with patients. This annual event is a time to remember our loved ones who’ve passed away, whether recently or many years ago. There’s a tree lighting ceremony that takes place in Rose Memorial Park, followed by a non-faith based service at St. Paul Lutheran Church, situated a few blocks away, and is concluded with a reception in their fellowship hall. The reception is stocked with typically over 100 dozen cookies that the staff & volunteers bake, warm beverages, and is a chance to peruse the banners (see pic above) we put together, which display the many names that community members have submitted in memory of those who’ve passed away. This year, we had over 900 names.

Yesterday, while helping with the set-up process for this event, I worked alongside a hospice staff member who shared with me the story of how she just moved to town not long ago at the request of her daughter, who was wanting her help in trying to get back to school, while raising young children and still recovering from a car accident that left her with brain trauma just under a year ago. Her daughter was stopped at a light here in town and hit by a texting driver, going 50- mph.

Switching…

While arranging the names on the banners, I unexpectedly came across my grandmother’s name: Claire Carlson. My grandmother, still alive, is on hospice care in Arkansas. I spoke with her just the other day and was the last grandchild to do so. She’s expected to pass away in the next few days.

When I think of her, I think of watercolor paintings of flowers and landscapes on crisp white paper, framed by my grandfather, when he was alive. I think of the tomatoes she was forever growing in pots and how I used to steal candies from her nightstand – though, I suspect she knew full well and didn’t mind.

When I think of her, I think of summers spent at boardwalk art shows, a mixture of sun and sea coating my skin and tangling my long hair. When I think of her, I think of my grandfather, even though he’s been gone for over 15 years.

And I reckon she passed down her artistic flare to me, though my mediums are the written word and music. Still, it takes an artist to decode this one, richly given life in such a way where melodies can be heard and beauty can be seen in even the smallest drops of everyday. With an artist’s eye, I look out onto the world, misshapen with strife though it may be. I gaze in its direction as though it were a sunset or rise, a marvel of ingenuity on display.

When I think of her, I think of how fortunate I am, truly, to be here, now.

Switching…

Sitting in a pew last night at the church, listening as the hospice chaplain and one of the bereavement coordinators shared skilled words of nourishment and support, I thought of the many friends I’ve had who’ve passed away, especially over the last couple of years. I thought of those who will pass away soon, such as both of my grandmothers. And I also thought of everyone I take for granted, thinking they will live another 30 or 40 years – all those I figure I will have an endless amount of time to absorb into my heart.

One thing I most appreciate about being a hospice volunteer is that in meeting with patients who are dying, it opens my eyes and my heart to those who are living around me, firm in the understanding that we can all go at any time. Befriending death allows me to befriend life.

Switching…

Written in August, 2016:

I’d been visiting Al every Tuesday at 10:00am for over a year, before he passed away, 3 days ago. He was 91 years old, though he often liked to tell me he was 100. I never disagreed, as it seemed to bring him a wave of pride and pleasure to share with me the fact that he had reached triple digits. Besides, I figured, whether 91, 94, 97, or 100, they’re all milestones in my book, each one indicating having lived a long life.

Back in April, during one of our weekly visits, I decided it would be a good idea to jot down some of the things he said. I sat next to him with some paper and a pen and told him my intention. He found it humorous, and mildly baffling, that I wanted to record his Words of Wisdom, as I called it. He didn’t feel what he had to say was of any special value or worth remembering. But he obliged me just the same.

Here’s what I scribbled down that one day:

Your mental attitude is hooked to well being.
You don’t realize how you can mold your life.You are the one commander of your own mind and body.Don’t let it get away from you.
I still think of myself as a young man. Hell, you have to.
A smile will get you more friends than a grimace. You’ve got to smile at society.
Nothing in my life has been dead serious. Nothing can’t be changed.
Gray hair ain’t heavier to carry around – and they take less water.
When you get up in the morning, get a smile on your face.
He called this one Al’s Secret to Longevity: If you have a choice between making a friend or an enemy, always make a friend. I always figured it was better to make a friend.
Walk away from cranky people, they’ll affect you.
Carrying a grudge gets to be pretty solid after awhile.
Boy, it’s nice to be alive today.

In memory of Al, 1925-2016

 

 

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In Mourning

In loving memory of Alison Matthews, who passed away on July 3rd, 2017

and her husband David, who passed away last night on August 6th, 2017

 

A string of sangha friends have died in only one-month’s time – a period of mourning is at hand.

Breathing in, I see myself as a rain cloud.
Breathing out, I allow myself to grieve this sacred sorrow.

What am I to understand from all of this loss? 3 friends in the last month, gone. 2 friends this time last year, gone.

This life is extinguishable, yes.
Those I love will continue to die, yes.
Right now there is pain and heartache, yes.
At some point, this pain will pass, yes.
This life is precious, yes.
This day today is a gift, yes, most assuredly.

 

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Here’s an excerpt from a speech David gave last year:

“I have a very strong connection to Martin Luther King, Jr. He was the speaker at my commencement in 1965 at Oberlin College. I lived through that troubled time of the ‘60’s, and through all the years since, with Martin Luther King as a powerful guide…

This individual man who was called by God, opened himself fully to universal mind. Two months before his assassination in April of 1968, in a Sunday sermon, he spoke out the summary of his life, and what he knew to be important. It is the antithesis of despair, and the call to each of us to make a useful life.

He said:
Once in awhile I think about my own death and my own funeral, not in a morbid way, but I ask, “what would I want someone to say?” If any of you are here when it is my time to meet my end, don’t make it a long funeral. And if someone gives the eulogy, ask them not to make it too long. Ask them not to mention the Nobel Peace Prize – that’s not important. Ask them not to mention all the other awards, or where I went to school. Those things are not important. On that day I would like someone to mention that Martin Luther King, Jr. tried to give his life in the service of others. On that day I’d like someone to say I tried to love somebody, say that I tried to feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. I want someone to say Martin Luther King, Jr. was a drum major, a drum major for justice, a drum major for peace; say that I tried to be a drum major for righteousness. And all those other shallow things won’t matter. I won’t have anything to leave behind- no money, none of the fine things of life. But all I want to leave behind is a committed life. And that’s all I want someone to say.”

 
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Posted by on August 7, 2017 in Uncategorized

 

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Time

Last week I turned 38 years old. On the eve of my birthday, a sangha friend passed away. Alison Matthews, age 63.

63 is an age generally considered to be on the younger side of someone passing away. 63 is not old age. I am continually reminded about the preciousness of life, especially in the wake of others who have passed on. Earlier today, I was visiting with a hospice patient. During our weekly visits, I’ve taken to bringing a newspaper with me and reading aloud the news. As I was reading the Today In History section I came across this: In 1937, American composer and pianist George Gershwin died at a Los Angeles hospital of a brain tumor; he was 38.

One never knows when our time will expire. So often, we live as though we have a limitless supply of time. In reading world news and local obituaries, however, I routinely come across people who’ve died at all ages and stages in their life. For me, this serves as an important reminder: there’s no guarantee that we will see old age. And that applies to myself, as well as my beloved family and friends.

Being in touch with death and dying keeps me in close contact with my gratitude for life. Volunteering with hospice affords me the opportunity to train in the art of living life well, with however much time I have. And I am deeply touched and nourished by all of the patients I have the honor and privilege to meet with, who serve as my teachers in this regard.

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Posted by on July 11, 2017 in Everyday Practice

 

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On Grief and Loss

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Last night marked the fourth and final installment of a series I put together at our local mindfulness center entitled: Mindful Community Conversations. Once a month since September we’ve focused on a different topic, each featuring a different speaker. My vision was to help create and hold space within our mindfulness practice, in order to shed light on certain topics that are often very challenging and difficult to talk about and address. The topics I chose were: Chronic Pain & Illness, Depression & Addiction, Dealing with Difficult Emotions, and Grief & Loss. Our format started with 10 minutes of silent sitting meditation, followed by a 20-30 minute talk from the speaker and ended with an open sharing circle. As the facilitator for each evening, I prompted our sharing time by inviting folks to offer their name and a little bit about what motivated them to attend the particular evening’s topic. I found that the openness, intention, and strong mindfulness practice of each of the speakers allowed for a very powerful opportunity for community sharing and healing to take place. I continue to be moved and inspired by the coming together of sacredly held circles of people.

Our topic last night was on Grief and Loss. Our speaker was my sangha friend Greg, who’s one of our five ordained members of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Order of Interbeing here in town. He’s also a hospice chaplain, so his depth of practice and experience with death and dying is vast. I greatly enjoyed his talk and the sharing that followed, from those who attended. I know that all of the words spoken last night will continue to slowly filter in and through me, and benefit my outlook and perspective in a myriad of unforeseen ways.

This morning, in the darkness of the hour of 5:00am so common and crucial to much of my writing, I wrote this:

To love is to know one day
you’ll grieve the loss of those you’ve extended yourself to,
and it won’t be pretty.
It’ll be devastating.
It’ll be devastating in ways impossible to comprehend until it happens.
And holes will manifest in the open field of your heart.
Holes that will remain as part of your landscape,
like the scars of a deforested hillside ravaged by wildfire.
But, eventually,
you’ll be able to find yourself in the emerging
from those dark places,
amid everything that has been lost,
and you will take back up
the tending of your field.

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Posted by on December 2, 2016 in Everyday Practice

 

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Death in Three’s?

Perhaps you’ve heard of this common myth: Death comes in three’s. While I’m not sure where this myth originated from, or what basis, if any, it holds in actual reality, I do know that I am currently experiencing it. This morning I found out that someone I know passed away last night: Brother Phap De, a monastic from Deer Park Monastery, in the tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh. Phap De is the third person I know who’s passed away in the last month.

I’d gotten to know Phap De (pictured below holding the hands of two children during an outdoor walking meditation this past January) on my winter retreat stays at Deer Park over the last three years. Most notably, I spent time with him doing stick exercises, as he led them most mornings after sitting meditation. I greatly enjoyed his presence and approach to practice, the way he’d always remind us to smile while doing the exercises, his kind-heartedness, and his grandfatherly warmth.

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Words of Wisdom

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I’d been visiting Al every Tuesday at 10:00am for over a year, before he passed away, 3 days ago. He was 91 years old, though he often liked to tell me he was 100. I never disagreed, as it seemed to bring him a wave of pride and pleasure to share with me the fact that he had reached triple digits. Besides, I figured, whether 91, 94, 97, or 100, they’re all milestones in my book, each one indicating having lived a long life.

Back in April, during one of our weekly visits, I decided it would be a good idea to jot down some of the things he said. I sat next to him with some paper and a pen and told him my intention. He found it humorous, and mildly baffling, that I wanted to record his Words of Wisdom, as I called it. He didn’t feel what he had to say was of any special value or worth remembering. But he obliged me just the same. (Sometimes it takes a writer to determine what’s noteworthy – as you’ll see, he’s very insightful.)

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Posted by on July 21, 2016 in Everyday Practice

 

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Remembrances

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From Wikipedia:

The Upajjhatthana Sutta (“Subjects for Contemplation“) is a Buddhist discourse (Pali: sutta; Skt.: sutra) famous for its inclusion of five remembrances, five facts regarding life’s fragility and our true inheritance. The discourse advises that these facts are to be reflected upon often by all.

According to this discourse, contemplation of these facts leads to the abandonment of destructive attachments and actions and to the cultivation of factors necessary for Enlightenment. According to the Ariyapariyesana Sutta (Discourse on the Noble Quest) MN 26,[1] the first three remembrances are the very insights that led Gautama Buddha to renounce his royal household status and become an ascetic after experiencing strong feelings of spiritual urgency (saṃvega).

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I’m currently preparing a teaching talk that I am slated to give at our local sangha, Be Here Now, next week on the topic of impermanence, where I plan on breaking down each of the Five Remembrances and offering tools to work with so that they can become a practice, rather than a mere list of words floating in the ether.

It’s easy to encounter these remembrances (listed in the above image) and feel overwhelmed by them or experience a varying degree of fear, sorrow and/or anxiety about them. It’s very common to have feelings of aversion arise, as in: “Yeah, yeah, I know all that, but I don’t want to think about it right now.” We may want to plug our ears or just bury our heads in the sand and forget all about them. But the Buddha advised: “These are the five facts that one should reflect on often, whether one is a woman or a man, lay or ordained.”

When the Five Remembrances are turned into a reflective practice they have the capacity to awaken us to the beauty and wonder of life available in the present moment. In remembering and understanding these five inherit parts of life we become free to enjoy the very here and now, just as it is, because we know everything and everyone are subject to change, and that to take life for granted is a waste of the precious time we are afforded.

Here are some of the ways I practice with the remembrances in order to bring them more fully into my daily life:

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