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

 

 

Advertisements

On Self-Absorption

I’m realizing that one of the big components of living and developing a spiritual life is to continually train in the art of lessening our tendency to be self-absorbed. The less we feed and nurture our sense of self-importance, the more we are able to build a strong foundation for living a happy and contented life.

For the sake of attempting to avoid misunderstanding, it’s important to mention here that self-importance and self-absorption are not the same thing as being self-assured or having self-confidence. When we are self-absorbed we have a heightened sense of self-importance. When this happens, we have the tendency to be very self-conscious, thinking that others are always paying attention to us wherever we go. We have little awareness of how others are feeling or what’s going on for them in their lives – everything is about us and how things affect us. We tend to get caught up in our own busy affairs and have little time to extend ourselves to others. I’ve also found that highly self-absorbed people tend to be surrounded with constant drama – there seems to often be something of a dire nature happening that consumes all of their time and energy (the law of attraction at play). This quality of being frequently presents itself as victim-hood, as well. People who are self-absorbed are filled with people to blame for their situation and have very little ability to take responsibility for things – they experience a problem and know right away who to blame for its creation, but are unlikely to do anything about it themselves, other than complain and point out problems.

The more we come to understand that our life is not our own, the more we step into the interbeing nature of all that is. In my experience, living a spiritual life is a matter of learning how to care well for ourselves so that we are able to care well for others. It’s about making each aspect a priority in our lives: self-cultivation and care/support for others – time for ourselves and time for others, in an intentional and skillful way.

Here are some things I myself do that serve to help me lessen my own levels of self-absorption:

Continue reading

Nourish to Flourish

For those of you who follow along with my blog here, you may recall that I sometimes use this platform to work on upcoming practice related talks I’ll soon be giving, usually at my local sangha Be Here Now, as it helps me to plan out and organize my thoughts about what I want to share.  This time, however, I’ll be offering a talk to a group of volunteers with a local nonprofit called CASA, which stands for: court appointed special advocates. (From their website: CASA of Missoula provides independent, trained advocates for the best interests of children within the judicial system who are at substantial risk or have experienced abuse or neglect. We provide consistent, long-term advocacy until every child resides in a safe, permanent home.)

As I was asked to talk about the relationship between our energy output and our energy input, I’ve titled this talk Nourish to Flourish.

I’ve often thought about offering these kind of support sessions to volunteer organizations or in work-place settings, as both non-profits and many professions require annual trainings, continuing education credits or have wellness programs built-in. So, this is my first step in that direction.

Talk Prep:

I’d like us to start by having us all count how many breaths we take in the span of 1-minute. And we’ll try our best not to alter our natural breathing rate as much as possible. (Bring a timer and set for 1-minute – instruct folks to remember their number.)

Now, I’d like us to do 5-minutes of quiet sitting together, to settle into the room and this time here together, as simply a way to help us bring our attention and presence into this space and transition from wherever it is we just came from. So I’ll invite us to gently close our eyes and softly focus our attention on the sensations of our breathing in and breathing out…feeling as our chest expands and contracts….feeling as our stomach rises and falls…and noticing how we’re feeling, tuning into our body and our mind…(monitor time for 5-minutes, sound bell to start and end) (NOTE: I find that using the pronoun ‘our’ when doing guided meditations, deep relaxations, or in practice talks in general has a more communal and relational feel to it, verses the more common ‘you’ or ‘your.’ It is also has a less “preachy” or “instructional” air to it when I include myself in the mix by using the word ‘our.’ I mean, we’re all in this together, right? I’m practicing, too!)

So, let’s re-test our breathing rate. Again, for the span of 1-minute we’ll count how many breaths we take, without trying to alter our breathing. (Time for 1-minute.) Ask: How many people found that your number went down after the 5-minutes of sitting? How many people found that it stayed about the same? And did anyone find that it increased? It might interest you to know that the optimal breathing rate for highest functioning and good health is around 6 breaths per minute, with the medical norm around 12 breaths per minute, and the average adult is now breathing even faster, at about 15-20 breaths per minute. And severely ill patients have an even higher rate.

Continue reading

A Fruit of the Practice

Two nights ago, I was reminded about one of the fruits that has unfolded as a result of my practice of cultivating mindfulness and joy: the ability and capacity to remain mentally at ease, upright, and stable in the midst of challenging circumstances.

Despite feeling a bit overloaded with organizational and schedule related tasks of late, I agreed to volunteer for an evening school-related function at a local art gallery, as part of my stepson’s involvement in the literary magazine program at his high school. On Monday night his literary mag teacher sent out a long and heartfelt email, sharing about her recent health struggles that will soon send her to the Mayo clinic in Minnesota, along with her first and sole ask for parent support to help pull off their largest fundraiser of the year, which would be happening in 3 nights time. After learning about her health struggles, and other personal challenges she shared about in the email, and considering the late notice that would likely render many parents unable to help out, I decided to pitch in to help a little more than I usually would.

I volunteered to make and bring both an appetizer and dessert item, enough to feed 20 people (as requested), and I also offered to help set up at the event beforehand. This resulted in prepping and baking for 5-hours, until 9:30 at night, after working a full day at my nanny job on Wednesday, followed by going directly to the event for set up the next day, after another full day of work. Since we were rather short-handed, I stepped in to help manage and maintain the food tables throughout the event, as well, and stayed until the end to help with clean up. So, for a second day in a row, I immediately followed my 7-hour work day with another 5-hour set of active tasks. This would be a lot for many people, regardless of health status. However, with the added element of living with chronic pain, due to a nerve condition, 12-hour days for me are most often out of the question – my schedule of 7-hour work days twice a week are enough to put me in bed as soon as I get home at 4:00pm. I do have the capability, however, to pull it off when I need to, once in a while, knowing that my pain levels will be elevated for a few days afterwards in response and I’ll need to adjust my activities and schedule accordingly, in order to rest and recuperate my energy.

Continue reading

Life & Death

IMG_8449

“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.

Continue reading

Environmentalism

Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, MT

Clark Fork River in downtown Missoula, MT

 

Definition – Environmentalist: Any person who advocates or works to protect the air, water,animals, plants, and other natural resources from pollution or its effects.  While the actual definition of this word sounds good to me when I personally think of what an environmentalist is I automatically think about the same thread that can often tie together any collective label that tacks on an ist at the end (activist, feminist, racist, anarchist, elitist…) – anger.  For better or worse, and probably for both, I conjure up an angry person or people.

Over the last two weeks I’ve attended the premiere of a locally made documentary on Montana coal export to China, a two-day conference on human trafficking, and six days of nature films as part of our annual International Wildlife Film Festival (IWFF), many of which spoke about environmental degradation and pollution.  I volunteered at a food pantry that gives out food to families in need and yesterday I led a team from our mindfulness center that joined the efforts of hundreds of volunteers in the 11th Annual Clark Fork River Clean-Up.  So over these last two weeks I’ve spent time learning, connecting with and developing understanding around a variety of complex, major issues that affect our local communities and the world.

Clark Fork River Clean-Up in Missoula, Montana.

Clark Fork River Clean-Up in Missoula, Montana.  (Pictured: Caras Park, volunteer lunch)

Continue reading

Cultivate In & Open Out

IMG_4660

Life is wildly precious.  It is filled with beauty beyond measure that can wrench your heart wide open and shine the light in forgotten corners that are otherwise steeped in shadow.  When I attended my first large Thich Nhat Hanh retreat in 2007 I came away with a deep belief, that I still carry with me, that in the world, in life, there is more beauty than sorrow.  Which is also to say, there is more light than darkness.  We may get caught in the realm of thinking that it is the opposite – that there is more suffering, more dis-ease than goodness but I see the world as containing more gifts to be grateful for over burdens to be embittered by.  It’s up to us which realm we live in.  That in which cultivates joy and freedom or that in which perpetuates suffering and holds us down.

One of the most instrumental tools I’ve found to practice honoring and embracing life is through volunteering.  When we give freely our valuable time and presence to someone or something else bigger than us, to those in need, the environment, or the wealth of other great and worthy causes, we are cracking open our field of vision and deepening our understanding of life itself.  And when we begin to widen our perspective of the world and all of its inhabitants the cultivation of gratitude is inevitable.

Those that highly regard life as magnificently spectacular are those that are reverently grateful for what is.  Life is a great gift.  Practice gratitude.  Practice seeing beauty.  Practice smiling.  Let us practice living our lives for all of us and not just ourselves alone.