Autumn

It was the Autumn Equinox 2002.  We lived on New York’s Long Island, a 20-mile-wide swath of sand and rocks dropped by a glacier a few eons ago. “The Island” radiates west to east, beginning at the grimy industrial edge of Queens and Brooklyn. The land flows 100 miles to the East, separating the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, from Long Island Sound to the north. The sand surrenders to the water once again at the rough rocks and windy cliffs of Montauk Point. Long Island’s flexible, mutable geography supports little elevation, other than a few hills and some sand dunes in continuous flux.

From the pebbles of the north shore, or the southern sandy coastline, you can turn your back on the millions of people, the tangle of highways, and the hundreds of square miles of overstuffed suburbia. From that position, there is open sky; a celestial amphitheater in the reflection of the open water.  On that day in 2002, I stood in that locus and witnessed the zenith of a short lifetime. Autumn happened in the momentary pause between the exhale of Summer and the inhale of Fall.

Madonna, child, and a cat

Leonardo da Vinci, Study for a Madonna with a Cat, about 1478-80

 

I was a Hospice volunteer then.  I sat vigils, and ran errands for those who couldn’t get out anymore.  Mostly the need was for family respite; a planned visit that allowed family caregivers a few hours of personal space. Just a short breather for sanity’s sake. Tending a family member at the end of life is hard. It extracts the very best, and the absolute worst of us; all at the same time. In the sacred atmosphere around the end of life, all of our well-guarded facades are ripped away. We find our long-denied emotions dropped there on the carpet, at the end of the bed.  Sometimes that “short time left,” is achingly long.  For others, the longest life will never be long enough. I had some “regulars.” They are the best teachers and they were generous with their lessons.

There was Rose, feisty 80 lb., 90-year old, who arranged for her own discharge from a substandard nursing home. From her wheelchair, via front lobby pay phone, she reported her own neglect case to the Adult Protective Services Elder Abuse hot line. When they came to investigate, she convinced them she was put there against her will, and she was returned to her home. Her victory, was much to the chagrin of her concerned; but unavailable, adult kids. She admonished her children for their attack on her independence with a promise, “If you put me in a nursing home again, I will just have to die.”  After six months of hard fought freedom, supported by tenacious Hospice folk, they did, and she did. She remains a personal hero of mine.

Ellen, was another petite powerhouse. The top of her head reached my shoulder.  She spoke with the quiet, polite lilt of her Killarney childhood. Despite her bone warping rheumatoid arthritis, she displayed the personal pluck of the new bride, just “off the boat.” She had come through New York harbor, emigrating to the US in the 1960’s to join her brand new, US Army husband.  It was the drugs prescribed in large doses to help the pain of the arthritis that caused her kidney cancer; a “potential side effect.”  I brought her groceries, and she made us Irish tea that could melt rust.

On this Equinox, September 21, 2001, this request for assistance was very different. The woman from the Hospice office sounded frantic.

“Everyone is out on calls, there is no one can get there now, will you do this?”

“This” was pick up morphine from the Pharmacy in Ronkonkoma and drive west at rush hour to Oyster Bay on the north shore.  There was a baby there dying at home, 2 days old. Her parents had asked only for some morphine to ease her labored breathing in her final hours.

I used the shortcuts to avoid the Long Island Expressway, snaking through the side roads and finally onto the Oyster Bay Expressway to where it nearly ends on the sand. Turning off the final exit, I found the gateposts of the community. This was a grand old North Shore neighborhood built when Wall Street folk began to wander off Park Avenue and onto Long Island fairways. Green islands of manicured grass swept upward to meet sculptured shrubbery, leading the eye, and the invited foot to the imposing front entries.

I found the address and pulled into the wide driveway.  Holding the medicine in my hand, I said a prayer for this family, for this baby, for myself to be helpful, and as unobtrusive as possible.  My heart was beating in my ears as I walked up to the dark wood door.  I looked for the name on the bag.  Her name was Autumn. Her birthday was yesterday. I rang the bell and kept my tears in check.

An older man, the grandfather I thought, threw open the door.  He greeted me with practiced affability and a hearty laugh, his words somehow tumbling through a clenched jaw.

“Come in, Come in please!”

I stared at the man, perplexed by the manic hospitality.

“Have I had come to the wrong door?” I thought.

The ice hit the side of his glass, the crystal jingled like the ringing of a tiny bell. I wondered if I was being mistaken for a cocktail party guest.  Sensing my confusion, and taking no chances that I would abandon his doorway, he reached out to pull me into the foyer. The quick movement spilled his neat Scotch down his wrinkled suit pants, and onto the marble floor.  He watched somberly as the amber liquid sought equilibrium. He seemed so grateful to have an alternate place for his attention.

“Come in, come in! Would you like a drink?”

I thought then, “Certainly I am in the wrong house.”

I looked beyond him, across the foyer, up the single marble step and into the living room. The expansive space ran across the front of the house facing north to Long Island Sound. Early evening light radiated through the long windows lending a warm late September glow to the pale carpeting. The shadows were lengthening; daylight was waning, and no one had thought to turn on a lamp. Tossed on the long green sectional were hastily discarded jackets, and a new diaper bag.  Mother and baby sat in a wingchair covered in mauve brocade. Dad stood behind the chair with one hand on his wife’s shoulder and his eyes on his daughter.

I imagined the other woman in the room was the grandmother. She sat in a matching wingchair, heels together and hands folded in her lap. She was so still, I wondered if she was saving the air in the room for her granddaughter.  Her eyes couldn’t leave that tiny body.

I understood now the terror of this Grandfather. The grief in that room was vast and raw. He couldn’t find his way into the room. The intimacy was too much. I could hear her strained breathing from where we stood in the entry and I remembered my task. I reached out and gave him the medicine. He stared into my face, unseeing, frozen in place.

“What is her name?” I asked the Grandfather.

“Autumn, her name is Autumn.” He said.  His face relaxed, his eyes filled with tears.

“Is there anything else you need?” I asked quietly.

The Mom looked up then, softly she said with a smile, “No, we are fine.”

48a97514de0710e707c34ad992dd96eeIn the young woman’s face, I caught a glimpse a 15th century painting of Madonna and child. She smiled at her daughter, talked to her, held her.  This was her child’s life, and she would not miss a second. Whatever would come later, she was here for her, now. By the time the Grandfather had reached the top of the marble step, I was quietly closing the door behind me.

I had too many emotions to drive amidst prosaic commuters.  I had just witnessed “love” in its most pure state. I was ungrounded and profoundly grateful for my healthy children. I drove the three minutes to the beach, and parked my car in the empty lot. I walked across the boardwalk, past the closed snack bar, and out on the sand.

As I watched, the sun dropped into the western horizon.  A sail boat moved across the water toward the harbor. The long shadow of the mast on the water reminded me; this was the Autumn Equinox. Down the beach to the East, there was a jogger, the slight woman ran easily along the shoreline.

From behind her, seemingly from out of the water rose a huge ball of orange.  At first I thought the brightness of the sun was echoing on my retinas. I looked to the left and there was the sun setting, looked to the right and a harvest full moon was rising at the same time. It appeared I was standing on a different planet. The jogger, a woman near my age, came to where I was standing, breathing heavily from her long run down the beach.

We looked at the sun, the moon and each other, grateful that there was another human to witness. It was comforting to have validation. We stood silently until the sun dipped below the horizon, the moon rose and the moment passed into memory. There was a wordless wave and she was off down the beach, and I was back to car and home.

I had a message from the Hospice office when I got home. “Autumn passed peacefully.”   I can only guess how many lives were touched  Autumn, a tiny ethereal being who never touched the Earth. The date has magical proportions for me.  It remains a day to wonder, to appreciate, to imagine:

 What kind of spirit comes into the world for only two days and leaves with the sun and the moon as her companions?

 

Leonardo da Vinci, Study for a Madonna with a Cat, about 1478-80 …

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leonardo da vinci paintings | Head of Madonna 1508-1515. Chalk on red-

 

We are in the Totality!


Tomorrow we will find ourselves standing in the center of the path. Here in Salem Oregon, we are beneath the swath of earth that will experience 100% of the eclipse. We are in the TOTALITY! 

We traveled here to see family. It seemed auspicious to plan a family visit at a time that will be remembered as a singular event by our children and grandchildren. I recall viewing an eclipse through a pinhole box sometime in the 60’s, surrounded by generations of my family. As we left, the hype was minimal in northern New York where the view is not so impressive. Here, the planning for impossible traffic jams and unruly hordes began months ago. At t-minus 25 hours, the streets are empty.

The upcoming solar eclipse on August 21, 2017 has been dubbed, “The Great American Eclipse.” It is a narcissistic view; distinctly American, that the celestial workings of the universe are relevant only as they impact our country. The sun; our source of energy, and the yang or male aspect of our personal and planetary existence, will be blocked by the moon. For 1 min 56 sec, the Yin, or female aspect will occlud the sun’s influence. On Monday morning we will see what ancients saw. At that time most of us will look up at the darkened sky and celebrate our good fortune to live with such surety of survival.

I am reminded of my own personal experience with TOTALITY. It was a decade ago in a different time and place. We took our questions of a personal and community nature “outside.” It was the practice to sit alone in nature, minus creature comforts and without contact with others, for a complete rotation of the sun. Many important understandings came with the flies and the hummingbirds. I will always carry the revelations of this intentional exploration with me. They stripped away the noise, bringing the “meaning of life” down to the elements.

The epiphany happened when the night lived beyond its usual boundaries. In the inky blackness, fear and fatigue altered perception. I remember in my bones the moment when separateness known as ego slipped away. The rustling and the night calls ceased. Everything; animal, wind, breath went still. We all waited.

Until that night, I didn’t know this happened. That dawn, I sat on the ground in community with every other creature and plant as we waited for the return of the sun. We all sat in rapt devotional silence at the darkest part of the night. It had never occurred to me that the arrival of the next day was a question.

Breaking through current human constructs, laying them aside it IS clear. Continuation of life is not a given, it is a gift. The birds and the animals knew enough to sit quietly. Many People around the world sit quietly at sunrise to wait reverently and respectfully to see IF they are granted another day. And it clearly was IF not when. When you seek that space of existence, you are in the TOTALITY.

I look forward to tomorrow morning. I hope it reawakens my sense of gratitude for each day as it dawns. It is a miracle.

Indiscriminate Death

I went to the blue big box store for some hardware and a quick stroll through the green houses filled with flowers.  Standing amidst the colors of summer is like visual music. Humming this tune most clearly, are the precious pollinators; the bees.

m.flicer.com

 Unfortunately these particular flowers are potentially loaded with systemic pesticides called neonicotinoids. These added chemicals can bring death home to the hive, riding the notes of sweet pollen. ‘NEONICS” banned in Europe, are used heavily here, present in many, if not most botanicals, from big box stores.  

http://www.beyondpesticides.org/programs/bee-protective-pollinators-and-pesticides/chemicals-implicated

I stopped to watch the bees on a blue Nepeta in full bloom, counting 10 bees on a single plant. The bees were being bees; unconcerned about place and time. Bees really mind their own business. They are focused and totally driven by the needs of the hive.

Those engaged in gathering the means of survival; the creation of more bees, are mature and experienced females.  This is the final job of a multi-career bee. The bee you see gathering nectar is no youngster.  She has already in her life cycle: cleaned the hive, nursed the larvae, guarded the front door and fed and protected the Queen.  These sweet ladies are on their final run.  Gathering is dangerous, and maybe the best task for a bee. She does this work at the end of her life until she dies.  She does this “in community, for the good of all,” but she does this task independently.bee-1322845_1920

The Garden Center folk had just unloaded some fresh carts. These racks of flowers had just arrived from parts unknown, and they came with hitchhikers. I spotted three shiny green bees working alongside our usual yellow and black crew.  They were smaller, hairless and coated in metallic emerald green.  If “Oz” has bees they would look like this. I thought perhaps, they weren’t real bees.

Having a serendipitous moment, I imagined them to be an alien race on reconnaissance. Or could they be some researcher’s cleverly designed mechanical drones seeking answers to our shortage of pollinators. The real bee drones are male and generally don’t carry that level of responsibility. They are pretty much “one trick ponies.” One pirouette in the sky with a new Queen and they are done and dead drones. They have some domestic duties back at the hive. but are the first to be exited when the pollen pickings get slim. Google identified these green newcomers as Green Orchid Bees from somewhere “South of the Border.”

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I turned the corner, moving finally toward Hardware. Just two aisles removed from the Summer kaleidoscope of Mums and Marigolds stood a shelf four tiers high and twenty feet long. Any product commanding that amount of shelf space in a big box store is a moneymaker. The shelves were completely filled with red, white and blue plastic containers, four deep.  They were arranged in precise rows seemingly at attention, with  weapon-esque sprayers strapped to their sides,  all ready to dispense some twisted human justice.

What I saw was a conquering army poised to attack.  Concentrated poison promising insect free, lifeless gardens standing right here in amongst the plants. Plants that need insects to pollinate their flowers.  I began to feel a pattern forming. I begin to feel sick.

inverseprosopagnosia.tumblr.com

I walked the length of the aisle, twice, looking at each container.  There was a theme: an illustration of the potential “damage”, chewed leaf, aphid covered rose, thin grass etc.  A superimposed grossly magnified insect portrait of the perpetrator of this disaster was front and center. The truth was told in tiny print on the back of the label. This elixir is willing and able to kill everything it touches, every kind of bug, indiscriminately.

What about those who prey upon those, who prey upon them? We can assume that birds, frogs, dogs, cats, children might also be at risk with improper use, wet weather or unexpected wind. The pictures on the bottles are not the enemy, it is us.

 

Aphids on Roses have never ruined a life. Angry words, resentful thoughts, these can shrivel an adult, and a child won’t fair as well. (see Be Careful They will Hear You

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I was face to face with the masters of our universe.  The mightier purveyors of Indiscriminate death and maniacal manipulation. These products are created from the depths of impossibly deep pockets with no international borders. These are the products of behemoth industries, soon to be a single industry. These potent killers are on store shelves everywhere, deadly poisons in user friendly packages.

 

macro-photos-6A metaphor for the smiling well-groomed folk that occupy the media arena. Throw some anger and hate out into the world like meat to hungry dogs.  See how we tear at it, anxious to feel the burn of anger.  Keep spraying the country with fear and anger.

I stood in the Big Box store and took in the schizophrenic rantings of the chemical trade. “Fertilizer and weed killer in one application.”  Yes, this company makes cancer causers, and cancer treatments, pharmaceuticals, sunscreen and Pesticides and pills.  They are indiscriminate in their creation, indiscriminate in their killing.  And we are willing participants.

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And we, as a culture are indiscriminate in what we choose to spray on our lawns and out of our mouths.  Angry hateful spiteful thoughts are poison in red white and blue wrappers that promise you a better life.

We have all become extremists in our views, no time for discourse, no time for thought.  Repeat what you heard, assume you know what I think, assume your information is correct, and assume you know best.

You can always get out the pesticides for everyone else.

I have assigned myself the task of living with as much integrity as I can dig up or cultivate in my garden. It is a far simpler way to live. I will disconnect from the continuous pollution and poisoning of our emotional environment that is seeking to damage our cultural connective tissue.  When it is acceptable to celebrate hate, it is time for the rest of us to generate something different.

Wake up and stop spreading poison. It is impossible to know who the enemy is…

“If we continue to spread poison only those who created it will survive”

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Be Careful They Will Hear you

Indiscriminate Life

A long time ago we lived in suburban harmony with our elderly neighbors.

Their children had long since gone and rarely visited. Well into their eighties, they were hardy and self-reliant. Their life was quiet and orderly; it had been a long time since children slammed their door or laughed too loudly at their dinner table.

damsel

In contrast, our side of the fence was much more interesting. The couple deeply enjoyed the neighborhood’s comings and goings.  They watched all they could from their corner perch with avid, but polite, gusto.  With the practiced observation of retired teachers, they watched the kid’s bus stop antics, where the cat chose to sun himself, how many people were here when we were away for the weekend. They missed nothing.  Our shared boundary was a mere 15 feet from my frequently open kitchen bay window.  It was not so much a barrier to sound, as a loudspeaker. If you had something personal to say, better to say it in the other room.

Occasionally, the scrutiny would become too intense for teenage tastes. The front door would close, the oversized backpack would clunk on the table with a deep sigh and a complaint about “being watched!”  To which I always replied,

“Be careful, they will hear you.”

I couldn’t imagine the hurt and embarrassment were they to discover that their attentions made the children uncomfortable.  Children are too close to the beginning, to understand what life feels like, near the end.

It took a few years, and some more advanced spiritual seeking to realize this statement; which became a cheerfully maligned family mantra, was Truth on so many levels. When cruel or critical words are said, even in jest, the subject does hear them, across miles, across time, across lifetimes.  Another’s criticisms can gnaw at our free will and our soul, whittling us down to a manageable size.  Usually just slightly smaller than that of the critical observer.

And it gnaws at the soul of the speaker too, poison is indiscriminate.

Hibiscusbeetlesflic.kr:p:nkDdei

My neighbors never commented on words overheard. These octogenarians were of the generation that understood the power of language; they grew up on radio.  They practiced respect, and what I believe they would have called: “propriety.”  They held opinions far removed from mine yet we could share them, and still remain in community.

My patch of green earth is far removed from the rhetoric and doublespeak that surrounds us like a plague. I have opted out of this sport of trashing and bashing because it doesn’t much matter who you are for or against, no one is listening. Endless regurgitation of facts of fiction far removed from context, are meaningless and divisive.

I suspect that is the point.  Fear and anger are the opiate of the masses.  Keep us busy fighting amongst ourselves and we will miss the markers of a society in decline. Maybe our culture has reached a turning point, and maybe that point has passed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caregivers and Other Heroes

I saw her first in silhouette, the bright sun from the third-floor western window etched a crisp black image of a faceless woman on my retina.

She leaned forward stiffly, bending to the oversized recliner in the corner of the dim room. The chair’s resident was lost to the shadows. She turned to look into the hallway, just as I looked through the open door. A tiny flash of recognition and a flush of emotions shot up my spine.

Hope“I have seen this before,” I thought.

I looked away quickly, waved cheerily to another resident and moved on up the corridor. I had a “planned” conversation at the end of the hall, I would go there first. That is what we do isn’t it? Put the recognized task firmly in our path, effectively blocking from view any unexpected possibilities that might crop up. A “plea” could be followed by “needs,” bringing forth evocative emotions; always better to stay “on the path” for efficiency’s sake.

“I will stop on the way back, a little later.”

But “later” wouldn’t do. Time is mutable in the cosmos of the fragile, frail and elderly. Appointments are secondary to bodily functions and short term memory. The only real time to manifest anything is “right now.” I barely felt it; just a small shutter. Then as awkwardly as a stiff brake applied to rusty track, I eased to a stop. Rich images of my own experience oozed from of the cracks in my demeanor. Something about the figure moving against the bright light had elicited a memory.

It was a summer evening, a cabin in the Adirondacks, multiple generations were gathering on couch and floor to watch “family movies.” There it was! My elders illuminated in silhouette, crossing the projector beam, crisp black images against the brilliant white screen. They were unmistakable in form and movement, reaching out for the arm of a chair in the inky blackness. I was a child then, as was the technology of watching the past. These were short, silent wonders of physical film. The movie camera my Mother piloted had a sound; a mechanical “whir” that elicited good behavior and hastily assembled, always smiling family cliques. Film feels different from our avalanche of IPhone personal documentaries and excessive disc space. On film, time is short, images are precious, life is a temporary condition.

I heard the brittle film creaking dryly around the gears and sprockets of our 1960’s movie projector. We watched long departed family in mid-century vignettes, wrapped in golden patina, roll by on 35 mm. celluloid.  There I am at three. There is my great grandmother, and my parents looking happy and fresh. But 50-year-old film is tenuous, as people are impermanent. Unexpectedly, the precious film would rip, sending the take-up reel flapping as a single frozen image melted before our eyes. In the space of a breath, our elder’s elders were gone.

Endymion

Endymion George Frederick Watts http://www.georgefredericwatts.org

Back in this continuum, I had stopped dead in my tracks in the busy hallway.  A strong scent of desperation reached out to me, I stood there blocking the path. Something tense and taut in the faceless woman’s posture had caught me deeply in my solar plexus. In my belly, there was an echo of the anger, fear, and impossible deep sadness of ambiguous loss.  I heard her then,

“My husband is right here in front of me, and yet my Husband is gone.”

This was a cocktail of grief almost too strong to be understood by anyone not of this tribe. I had intended to pass the unfamiliar room. I could return later, maybe. Something in the scene sought more than a bookmark and a cursory promise. Some ethereal wisp of this woman met me face to face in the hallway. She spoke to my soul again.

“I am here,” she said, “I am still here.”

Such is the destiny of Caregivers.  They give all they have; pouring heart and soul, optimistic intention, and endless time into their fragile loved ones. And for most, the end of this Hero’s Journey finds their own hands empty. I hope their hearts are as full as those who have passed gently into the next world under their care and comfort.

  “Long Term Care or Health Care Center are the current alias for “Nursing Home”.  I think the newer terminology is an accurate assessment.  Extreme medical interventions at the end of life, create “Terms” of residency that are so much “Longer,” than ever before.  Death can be elusive for those who haven’t made their “end of life” choices prior to an emergency. For the people who live and work here, “Nursing Home” hails from another era. The “real nurses,” those who chose this profession to care for the sick, lament the lack the time for giving “real nursing care” to their residents. And for anyone who lives here: make no mistake! Long term care surely isn’t “Home.”

Professional caregivers are saddled with mountains of paperwork, onerous regulation, and workplaces that are perennially short- staffed. Not surprising that caregiving positions go unfilled. In this locale, a CNA, the backbone of “hands on care,” might start at $11.00.

She, (they are predominantly women), will care for as many people as necessary. There is no “I will pick this up tomorrow,” in this field. These hardworking caregivers cannot drop a confused resident in the drawer for another day. Every need must be filled- Now. Short staffed might mean 15 people to toilet, feed, put to bed, medicate in an 8-hour shift. This is Long Term Care, (LTC) such as it is in 2017.

I have a love-hate relationship with these facilities.  I love the people; I hate the concept of sick elderly as commodities. I hate the low pay for the people doing heartbreaking, back-bending work of caring for our family members. How can it be that so little financial resource is engaged in the actual “hands on” care of our precious elders? These choices were made for them by illness or circumstance. Many residents have complicated medical needs beyond the scope of home care.  Many are just too frail for the outside world. They cannot go home. These are folks of “the corridors.” They are all here: the optimistic, the compliant, the fighters and those that have gone on to different realms while leaving their bodies here.

Finding myself blocking this particular corridor, I stepped aside. The aid passed by with the complicated apparatus of physical impairment and a weak smile. I was not “unwelcome” here, but I was sometimes an impediment to efficiency. Stepping up to the room, I saw the resident of this long-term care, “half room.” This room held two residents, thoughtfully separated by a wall that extended halfway to the door.  You may hear your neighbor, and all that he experiences, but seeing them is avoided, unless coming or going to the shared bathroom.

Love-and-Death-2

The silhouetted woman looked up as I knocked on the open door. No longer looking like a Facebook profile with no photo, she had a face when I entered the room; a worried, fragile, thoughtful face.  This side of 70, trim and neat, she wore a plaid blouse tucked into pressed jeans, and carefully combed hair. She welcomed me,

“Come in. Please come in. Thank you for stopping.”

I made a mental note: Always Stop. Sometimes the real beauty is in the basics.

I introduced myself as volunteer, interested, and willing to listen. She waved her hand toward the low bed with the blue blanket and I sat next to her, opposite a tall man with gentle grey eyes.  It was her husband in the recliner. He was looking comfortable and well-tended, but lacking the measure of ease that can be a byproduct of some kinds of confusion.

“He is doing what he has to do,” I thought.

He seemed acutely aware of her circumstances; frustration, overwhelm and sadness. Forty years of communication doesn’t fade quickly. I wonder if he knows already how it will end, and that there is nothing he can do to change this scenario. He smiles, at her, at me, at everyone who enters the room. She introduced me and I shook his hand. Realizing no sound made it through the space between us, I showed him my tag and he read my name.  He seemed to find pleasure in using the words.

“When they know he can’t hear, people don’t bother to talk to him,” she said. “He has almost no hearing and his hearing aids are missing again, for the third time!”

She described multiple visits to area hearing experts, trials of expensive equipment and his final acceptance of his deafness. Acceptance, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. The frustration in her voice made the words tremble, but his gaze never changed. I realized then; direct communication with this gentleman, has been rerouted through his wife. She had fought the battles.  She had intervened.  She was here day after day, interpreting the world for him.  I wondered where “she the person, the professional,” was in this plan?  Where had she gone, and could she ever come back?

“I am a nurse, I took care of him at home for 8 years, until I couldn’t physically do it anymore.”

I tried to imagine this small woman negotiating even the most standard activities of daily living with this man at twice her weight, head and shoulders above her in height. There had been multiple medical issues, across 15 years, it had been a slow decline.  She had lost family members and close friends, most recently a sibling. She recounted the death of a parent during childhood and I suggested that this was a great deal of grieving to be carrying.

“What I grieve the most is our conversations.  I miss eating breakfast with him and talking. I come here every day for his lunchtime so we can share a meal together.” Describing her trip in from their rural home an hour away had been treacherous a few times this winter, “I waited too long to go and got caught in it!” she said. 

Proudly, I thought. She had conquered her fear of driving alone to their rural home in the dead of winter.

TimeI wondered if the taut tension in her slight body was the result of a few too many white knuckled trips home. She smiled with a nervous laugh, and I saw just a piece of “her” wink back at me.

I wondered what she would be like without three layers of worry and the awareness that she was saying goodbye to her life’s partner in grueling slow motion. She talked about their close two-person family, and her immersion in a productive career; creating current nursing guidelines for facilities such as this one.

After years of struggling at home alone with his physical care, she is here.  She moves daily between “home” and “Health Care Center.” It appears that she is soaking up the last sweetness of her lifetime relationship, while she can. She is a maelstrom of emotions, and yet there is no other place she would rather be than here; at his side. Such is the way of Grace. The best caregivers understand how tenuous and temporary is their precious and nearly impossible to bear burden.

And this is only one bed, in one room, in one facility in a small corner of New York.

 

The-Dweller-WithinIn 2014 there were 1.7 million beds in Long Term Care facilities in the US.  Projection for 2050?

25 million.

Who will be there to care for these people?https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_03/sr03_038.pdf

I like to imagine that those who have gone before, use our experiences in the” here and now,” to encourage, teach, and even give the occasional “heads up” about what lies ahead on tour life path.  They encourage us to be thoughtful and care deeply for the people around us. We will be “that” soon enough. This experience raises questions for me, and indeed all of us! If I’m a bit “off,” and you have been asked to make decisions for me; this is your reference material.

BWOwl“Our bodies were not designed to go on forever. If I am badly broken, don’t fix me.  I have already had an extraordinary life! Save the bionic parts and the fancy interventions for the children. From the beginning of time people got old and died, usually at home. I imagine a gentle process where my world gets smaller, and I get slower until I wind down like a clock and just stop. I can imagine it might look messy and sad from the outside, but don’t be concerned. The Fall doesn’t look like the Spring or the Summer, it is a wonderful season in its own right. No worries, it will all come out just fine.”

On this day, I took the elevator at the end of the corridor.

I returned to my car in bright sunshine. I was left to wonder at that brand of courage, love, tenacity maybe all three that I witnessed in this couple. I backed my car out of the space, took a long last look at the building, and experienced a rush of gratitude and appreciation for the relationships, the good health and the ease in my life.

“I can go home.”

Thank you for the experience, I am grateful.  I wish gentle passings for us all.

All paintings by:

George Frederic Watts (23 February 1817 – 1 July 1904; sometimes spelled “George Frederick Watts”) was a popular English Victorian painter and sculptor associated with the Symbolist movement. Watts became famous in his lifetime for his allegorical works, such as Hope and Love and Life. These paintings were intended to form part of an epic symbolic cycle called the “House of Life”, in which the emotions and aspirations of life would all be represented in a universal symbolic language (From Wikipedia).

http://www.georgefredericwatts.org

 

 

 

 

Listen Deeply and You Will See the Feeling

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Three Flags by Jasper Johns, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

One day last week, my email received delivery of a random real estate listing. Trulia, the real estate website, resurrected my email from the basket on the shelf called “unsubscribe.” For this listing, and only this listing, I became “active” once again.  What is true for internet is true for the ethers: We can hide, but we never really disappear. Just for a moment, I hesitated to tweak my dormant real estate perusal habit but the copy was tantalizing:

“Mid-century home, custom built in 1955 for “Famous Scientist,” (not his real name) who worked on the Manhattan Project. A remarkable, one of a kind home, tucked away on a circular drive on 4 acres wooded lot.”

I could have deleted it.  I’m not looking for a house, but where is the fun in going only where you’ve planned? Peering into the few unfocused images of the listing I saw an “impression” of the backyard from the sun porch on a summer day. Purple Coneflowers shown in full bloom with just the hint of two square bee hives tucked under the trees. Another photo taken at oblique angle offered a taste of a warm welcoming kitchen; handmade wood cabinets, shining cottage hardware next to the bright window over the sink.

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Yes, there is nothing more intriguing than a house with history, with the clear stamp of the sensibilities and soul of the previous owners.  How previous, is sometimes the most interesting part.

No need to buy a house in order to interact with its history. Sometimes it is enough to walk through, just a “meet and greet” for whatever reason. My predilection for homes in flux is not unlike my Mother’s affection for walking through Garden centers long after her own herbs and flowers were a sweet memory. We come to enjoy, we come to support, we come to give love, because we can.

I googled the original owner and found a respected career of science and leadership. Amidst the curt, contained Academic language, I sensed there was more. What it was like to come home, to pick up life and career, after helping to create the first Atom bomb? What does changing the world feel like on a personal level? How does a man with such a big history come to live in such a small house, surrounded by nature as it must have been in 1955? Was the world different then? Were the rules clearer? The enemies more distinct? Or was that the only perspective at the time, to fight darkness with darkness, destruction with destruction.  We will never know.

“Open House” Saturday, no showings before Saturday morning.”

We were headed out of town for the weekend. I would drive by soon, “just out of curiosity.” Thinking that was the end of it, I returned to my conscious task of moving all the digital history I chose to keep, from limping old computer, to the new sleek model. Along the way, my last decade flashed by; pictures, music, my own written reflections streaked through my day. It was a day of memory and ghosts and happy sad thoughts.

Well of course our plans changed, one door closed, another opened, invisible walls slid to the side and Saturday afternoon was available after all.  Thankfully there is more to our lives than only ourselves.“We will stop there between the chowder festival, and a walk with the dogs, just for fun.”

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Rounding the curve, there were a dozen cars pulled off into the greasy snowbanks of this mismatched early 1960’s neighborhood. Unmatched pairs of curiosity seekers stepped carefully across the ice coating the narrow gravel ellipse that was “the circular drive.” The scene was unexpectedly eerie. A moving shadow of a wildly overgrown Rhododendron played on the front bricks. Ambitious White Pines of all ages pushed up everywhere; through rock walls and driveway edges. Their sweeping branches leaned in; precariously close to the bedroom windows, creating soft snare drum rhythms on the single panes.  Years of shed needles shut out groundcover, dampening new life as efficiently as algae chokes a pond. No doubt, there was deep sadness here.

As a gardener, I knew there hadn’t been one here in quite some time. The robust had prevailed, the diminutive had faltered.

The memory of ivy and vinca maintained their presence guardedly in the cracks of the brick face and between the rock walls.  Two of the largest of the sticky White Pines had been hurriedly chopped in the handful of days between advertisement and open house. Their hacked-up stumps still oozed golden sap on this chilly winter day. The small branches and woodchips that were their remains, splayed out across the dirt driveway as if a wily wizard had “shazamed” them in the moment before we pulled up. Always be wary of quick fixes and fresh paint, they tell the problem, if not the story.

Passing through the multi-paned front door there was a sense of desperate confusion. The ecstatic realtor was holding court, beaming her pleasure at the bewildering excitement of this bargain crazed crowd. Handing out cards and cookies she seemed completely unaware of the storm forming around her. Small knots of people huddled in the huge great room. Windows filled an entire wall to the southwest, and yet it was dark and dank.

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I heard snippets of wistful conversations about the patina of the floors, the built-in book shelves, the brick fireplace. A luxurious and graceful mature Spider plant squatted casually at the end of the long pine mantel holding the sole bit of life in this cold room.  I wondered where it had come from, and how soon it would get to go home. Scented candles burned on windowsills, an attempt to discount the heavy, throat closing aura of mold, damp, and viscous stillness. I stepped back into the wordless part of my brain, seeking direction.

Being careful not to touch anything inside the house seemed paramount. Unclear on why we were here, I stepped outside, to get a breath, to get some perspective. There were several couples out in the trees, one man looked back at the house, gesturing his amazing ideas, imagining an HGTV dream of reclamation and redemption. “The roots of this loss are everywhere,” I wanted to shout to them, “The pain is too much, let the trees take care of it, they know how.”

Standing outside on the pieces of slate that had been a patio, I regained my senses and noted the floating rungs of a wooden staircase leading precariously up to the nearly flat roof of the living room.  It had no supports, nothing linked it to ground. “He must have visited Loretto Chapel,” I thought, remembering the church in Santa Fe with Ripley’s credentials and a spiral staircase that curls to the balcony totally without support.  The story goes; it was built for the nuns to sing in the balcony by none other than who else: an itinerant carpenter.

This lesser accomplishment had been marked off limits by an insignificant strip of yellow Caution tape.  It had been tied there and pulled off by some light-footed optimist.  All at once I realized, “This is a New Mexico house.” The large open rooms, a kitchen only as big as it has to be, windows that look out on open space, and a stairway to the roof for star viewing. Is this some of what he brought back from Los Alamos?  Having lived in New Mexico and its opposite, New York, it seemed obvious.

“Yes,” I thought. “I miss that too.”

Wanting to complete the journey ASAP, we galloped through the empty rooms, newly painted and unoccupied.  The biggest bedroom had a beautiful window, seemed a nice place to watch the snow fall from bed. The closet held nothing except a week’s worth of professionally ironed dress shirts. The office was murky; the presence of briefcase and folders was unexpected and confusing. I barely crossed the threshold, and didn’t linger. I imagined the unconscious occupant moving quickly between the three necessary rooms, office, bedroom and kitchen. He would keep close to the wall, avoiding a look into the living room, and then, with a quick sprint, out the door. I wondered where they had stashed the furniture and how anyone could stay here, even temporarily.

It was a quick tour, it was just too much to stand in for very long. I had renewed gratitude for my cozy home, and my physical ability to stand in the sun. Back in the car, we returned to our reality and decided upon our dog walk trail “de Jour.”  We would walk on the track bed turned bicycle path, starting from the Lock 7 on the Mohawk and going south along the river. It was a bit farther than we needed to drive, but walking by water is always a good idea. I hadn’t been on this part of the trail for many years.

Down the hill and across the Mohawk, the dogs in the back seat were ecstatic.

Our old Toyota, still sporting New Mexico tags turned left to River Road skirting the vast riverfront property that is Knolls Atomic Laboratory. I remembered then, the short biography about the scientist who came home from Los Alamos after the war and settled here to work the rest of his life at Knolls. As we entered the roundabout by KAPL I realized our mission.

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Buffalo II, 1964 Rauschenburg, Robert

We parked the car, the dogs sprinted up the incline. Once reached, the path was straight flat and continued endlessly out of view.  We walked past ice covered ponds, water roaring through rusty culverts, and  frosted vegetable fields, harvested this time of year by the hungry wild things.  We walked 2 miles south heading towards Vischer Ferry, where just around the corner, water from upstate New York hills flowed into the Mohawk River, and onto the deep moving currents of the sea-bound Hudson.

I had just read a book about the old Celtic thoughts on the specific attributes of trees.  They are all unique in their attributes and abilities to be used for medicine and hold the integrity of the land. As we walked they waved, the birches, the alders and especially the water soaked Willows.  We were walking with the current, “in the flow.” We reached a small building at a beautiful curve of the river and took stock of our place and time. It was after 4 when we decided to turn back to the car. The going back was harder, the day was colder and even the pup was dragging when we finally saw the poles that marked the parking lot. It was a full day.

I am reminded this day in February that research and inquiry go in both directions. I watched a TED talk this week from an impassioned Astro Archeologist.  She finds the relics of human past from satellite images worked with algorithms.  Her contention is that we have awareness of only a 1/1000 of a single percentage of human experience that rests hidden from view under our feet. “It is time to turn the pyramids upside down…” she said. From the heavens, they look for the very subtle impressions in the earth that indicate the map of human history (https://www.ted.com/talks/sarah_parcak_help_discover_ancient_ruins_before_it_s_too_late?utm_source=tedcomshare&utm_medium=referral&utm_campaign=tedspread)

I took this as a personal AHA! Moment.  There was something about that image of looking at our planet, our lives, our past, from an “other side of the atmosphere” point of view. It cleared my myopia and I laughed out loud. No need to wonder if those folks we choose to “research” or remember aren’t peering right back at us with equal interest. Do relationships and interactions transcend physicality?  Of course they do. I write these words and I hear the deep chuckle, “If only you knew, if only you know.”

Arrien, Angeles, 2007, The Second Half of Life: Opening the Eight Gates of Wisdom, audio

Parcak, Sarah, https://www.globalxplorer.org)/

Three Flags by Jasper Johns, 1958, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Buffalo II Rauschenberg, Robert, 1964

Let Yourself Grow!

Winter Landscape at Sunset

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Winter Landscape at Sunset, Anton Mauve (Dutch,  c.1885-87.)

“Look deep into nature and you will understand everything.”

— Albert Einstein

This week in mid December the thermometer at the wide window of my western exposure has reported -7 to 44F. Standing close to the fire in the woodstove, I watched the “outside life” slide slowly into the quiet whispers of winter. In just a few hours, the last leaves caught in the wire fence, tufts of emerald green grass, and stiff stalks of Kale disappeared beneath brilliant white snow edged in hard grey ice. The sky darkened, the wind blew. The Poplar communities huddled together, the white Birches leaned and dipped, carrying pencil thin snow loads in silence, until wind or sun relieved them of the burden.

The spare plainness of organic form on light, black branches on white snow, wiped away any subtlety or shading. The four elements of life shouted out their truth; the earth is quiet, the water still, time in the light is short! Sporting illusions are meant for gentler, longer days. Epiphanies come fast and furious in this stark landscape. Ice isn’t gentle, and cold has no conscience.

We are not separate from what we like to call “Nature.” Bring on your fancy down jacket, and the heat tape, we are that which we call Nature, and she is us. Skate if you wish across frozen natural truths, you will eventually come home to the thin ice of Earth born mortality.

I have already accepted the mantra:

Whatever works for a tree, works for me.

edvardmunch1915winterlandscape

Winter Landscape, Edvard Munch 1915

These are my gentle alignments that come to pass on a quiet walk in the overgrown backfield on a snowy December afternoon. The frosty air clears my sinuses. I watch as the dogs push warm noses into mysterious snow mounds. They look up at me with fantastically funny white beards and a comic’s straight man face, “What? What’s so funny?” New snow is a dog’s miracle.

Extraneous thoughts drain out of my head like the watery mucus from my running nose. It’s very bright, very clear.

“A bonus!” I think.

The snow adds so much light to a dark day. I am grateful for the reflected light that fills my eyes in the days of long slow darkness. I have left my backpack full of, “I need to,” over there, leaning against the side of the barn. When words stop, senses come out of hibernation.

Stepping back, there is a crunch of boot on fresh snow. A tall elegant Truth strolls by me, donned in ice-encrusted branches with hoarfrost festoons on curled brown leaves. I follow the crooked finger with my eyes, walking across downed Goldenrod and winding grapevines to the rear tree line where I see the Dogwood relative splayed out across the fence. The still attached leaves had taken on ice and snow and the weight was too much. The cold caused brittle, the wind blew, and the graceful tree was snapped in half. In a tenuous fracture, she was broken from the weight of water and ice encasing the leaves that clung to her branches; a casualty of the natural progression of cold and wet at the entrance of winter.

Standing in the hour of sunlight of the afternoon of just pre-solstice December, it came to me. In this light it was crystal clear. It is our inability to let go of our leaves at the end of a season that causes human beings so much angst, and yes, agony. It is our inability to accept that seasons come and go, wind happens, all things have a natural ending as well as beginning. It is just all grist for the mill. To argue this changes nothing. To cling to the past is to be weakened, taken down, cracked open in the cold leveler that is winter.

I heard it clearly out there.

“Let it go already! Give it up! Move on, forgive,

 Let yourself Grow!”

The anger, the hurts, disappointments, the stuff, the sadness, let it all go. Toss it onto the great sacred compost heap of human experience. Let the leaves of past seasons become the rich indiscriminate fertilizer of collective wisdom.

Out in the field, my crunchy truthful friend spoke.

“No need to understand the whys, drop the leaves on the ground and walk away.”

 

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Winter Day Ending David Grossman

In the past week at this Northern latitude, mountainous grey thunderclouds have tumbled across our upper landscape. It has snowed, rained, precipitated in shapes that only the far Northwest Native people would recognize as separate entities. We have been blown about by winds capable of moving massive arctic fronts across our entire continent. We have been frozen solid, thawed, wet and flooded all in the same afternoon.

These are powerful forces and yet the trees, for the most part, stand strong in the wind, despite the cold, despite the short days. All the while, in the dark ground, the roots stretch out, growing thicker and stronger, reaching out to new depths.

 

Tomorrow will be a short dark day, the next the darkest yet, the Solstice of 2016. I intend to enjoy this time. I wish you Safe passage and Much Growth this blessed Winter season.