Dying Alone

My neighbor, Eva, and I share a wall. It divides our apartments, intersects our lives, leaving jagged the edges where we do not meet. One of those edges was Harriet, who shared a wall with Eva.

This past week, Harriet died. She was found in her favorite chair. It seems hers was a peaceful death but it required a police presence to prove, so for a while her apartment was a crime scene.

Our apartment complex is a 55+ community, and most of us are well beyond middle age. Death is part of the deal of living but in the tenor of these times, death by natural causes has to be proven when a woman dies alone.

We should have known is what Eva and I say to one another but we never know death’s arrival.

It is not that death visited, it is that death came and no one noticed. For days. And then, someone did.

When there was no answer on Harriet’s landline, an extended family member called the police. Later, Harriet’s son, Dave, arrived. To be fair, the police could get here more quickly. Dave lives an hour away

No neighbor checked on Harriet with any regularity, if at all. Eva tells me she is working through her guilt. She and Harriet have a history, and it’s a good one, but their daily strolls around the apartment complex are long gone, almost another lifetime.

Only a few walk with us forever. Yet, living in a community where moving out usually means either nursing home or death, it seems as if connection–being good neighbors–would transcend our differences. It doesn’t.

Harriet’s death troubles me, too. Like Eva, I know I could have done more, much more. I didn’t try hard enough. When Harriet’s chihuahua, Hal, was dying, I did everything I could except give Harriet the one thing she needed, support.

She was angry, afraid, lashing at everyone. Losing Hal was losing her connection to life. All I needed to do was listen. I don’t remember doing much of that. Nor did I see her often after Hal died.

Son Dave took Harriet to her appointments, picked up her medications, and brought her groceries. He saw to her needs but he never came just to visit. That was not their relationship, and both accepted their differences. They loved, regardless.

Dave is not a talker. He just gets on with the next thing, which rarely works out for him. Like the time he brought Harriet a new-to-her recliner. She loved overstuffed recliners and wore out at least three in the time I knew her. It was where she watched TV, slept, ate, and smoked.

She all but burned up each chair. Harriet had congestive heart failure and terribly painful neuropathy. Heavily medicated, she would fall asleep in her chair, cigarette still burning. Eva tells me Harriet had all but quit smoking but just a couple of months ago, Dave brought another recliner. It had bedbugs.

As Eva says, some people are born under a dark cloud, and Dave is one of them. So it seems.

Pencil-thin, husky-voiced, and quick with a southern-spun retort, Harriet never pretended to be what she wasn’t, which is not to say she usually told the truth. Like all of us, sometimes her lies caught up with her, but she held onto them as long as she could.

I could have offered Harriet more. I didn’t. I live with that jagged edge, but in pain is the expression of experience. Mine is not to fix anyone or anything but to meet people where they are, as they are, and walk with them long enough to hear their story. In death, there are no more chances except for the living. Thank you, Harriet.

Eva says we should go no longer than two days without calling each other. Okay, I say. Maybe Eva wants Harriet to know that she, too, is grateful.

Note: For a bit more about Harriet and Hal, you might enjoy “Love Lives in Inconvenient Places.”

The Best Feeling Ever

I always wander home, eventually, ever surprised, once again, that no matter where I roam, I am always home. “Wherever you go, there you are.” (Jon Kabat-Zinn). The hearth of home. Joy.

Yes, joy. No, really. Joy, in all of its rejoicing, delight, exultation. The best feeling ever. It’s always there. I just don’t realize it. I get lost. Why is that?

When does home become a foreign place? It doesn’t, of course. It is I who become a stranger in a new land, when ideal replaces real. When joy becomes only a brilliant light, unsustainable. Unreal.

Joy is not a momentary flash, all show. Joy is pure prana, the energy of existing. It is home. The trappings and trimmings change but joy seeps through any moment, no matter how dark.

Joy fills the cracks of experience, pulls the pieces together and seals them with grace. That is the hearth of home, no matter how the house might appear. Within are the rooms of a lifetime. The exploration never ends.

Still, I wander from time to time, and it is in impermanence that I wander– when change arrives–I go in search of what is gone but don’t yet accept. It is a fool’s errand but I go anyway.

Once I realize I have been running, I stop. That’s the easy part. It is at home that I am face-to-face with the change that sent me running. At a glance, it is minimal. New disc herniation at the base of my neck, a gnawing stomach in protest of ongoing chemical intake. Low sodium and fluid retention issues, maybe heart involvement.

The leitmotif of autoimmune-spinal cord disease, ever involving all of the body. Any newness wears off as soon as it is discovered. Where is the joy? Nothingness, groundlessness, may warm the cockles of my Zen heart but my humanness cannot help but hold cold.

No, I do not feel joy in this moment. I have to trust it is there, nothing more and nothing less, as I pick up the pieces, restructure my home, shake up one routine after another. Rearrangement, new structure.

It is very like a jigsaw puzzle. I know what the picture looks like. That doesn’t change. It’s the rearrangement of the pieces, the energy of grace, that gives me shape. I sink into my surroundings, the room that I occupy more than any other.

It’s comfortable here, my hearth of home, and every time I return I wonder why I ever left. My electric, adjustable queen-size bed, room enough for notes, naps, food, and stand for my desktop keyboard. The comfort eases the ache of arthritic joints, supports my spine and damaged spinal cord. Sturdy and soft, I am ever grateful for home.

From here, I reach out to the world and it calls back. Connection, the experiences of a lifetime. Easy to shut down but in absence, connection changes. Impermanence is inevitable; it does not pause because I do. Easier to stay connected, experience after experience, no matter what.

All of us have only our kind of love to give but I wonder if we know it’s invaluable, pure joy, light no matter what. Life is not limited to one lens, one look, one way. Maybe that’s what I find most difficult.

I don’t want to sit in the eye of any storm anymore because I know to come through is to be changed. That is the way of life in this dimension. It’s not so much what I lose or who I no longer am. Not anymore. It is change itself. That’s new.

A voice from within welcomes me to aging, which I cannot escape, either. There is a lilt to the voice that I recognize as joy and the grace of experience. They whisper trust, and I do. After all, they are always with me.

The caverns of my mind go dark but not completely. There are cracks in every experience. It is the light that wins, as a friend told me, which is not to say living in the light is ever easy. It’s not, nor is it meant to be.

For most of the last six weeks, friends have kept me busy, some on Words with Friends. Slivers of light, both friends and words. It was not writing but it was words. And a blog post here and there. No thing and no one ever stays but each is an experience, all mine.

KMHuberImage; writing

Each time in my wandering, I wonder if I will continue to write. There will come such a day when I won’t, and it is closer. It surprises me that I accept that so readily but I do. With each illness flare-up, I am less, physically. Winter is hard, even a Florida winter without a “snow event.”

A corneal abrasion in my left eye shut down my sight for a while. Corneal abrasions are common but this one occurred in a mishap at a vision clinic and nothing about this incident stayed in the realm of the usual.

Never one to stray far from the written word, I listened to audiobooks, fiction and non. In reading Fire and Fury, I was reminded of what it is to sit through yet another storm of our collective chaos but unless we immerse ourselves in this experience, we will never move through it. The longer we look away, the harder it will be to face who we are.

And in that, I find my way home, again, replete with new life lens, healed corneal abrasion, and if not new vision at least light enough to string together sentences, keep connections, and find ones anew. Still others yet to discover.

Everywhere I go, there I am.

Thanks to Leonard Huber for the Seattle area traffic images, both light and dark.

 

 

 

One Long Moment

Acceptance is a lifetime practice–one long moment–less about events and more about impermanence.

I know the drill. Everything is going fine, life is good, and in a nanosecond, the entire landscape changes. It’s a new life lens: the joy of the extraordinary or the bottomless gulf of grief–and everything in between.

Life will not be as I want it, no matter how hard I hold or push it away. Somewhere between these two is a moment of not clinging and not avoiding–accepting what is–where forgiveness is not such a chore, its heady fragrance in the crushed petal of the violet. Life has changed.

Mine is to accept the experience–come what may–as neither doormat nor fortress. In acceptance, I respond with compassion. It may not be what others want but if I am mindful, I offer all I am able.

The older I am, the more I accept what a treasure change is.  Still, I am a slow learner and sometimes given to stubbornness, steeped in the fear of being old. Yet, at any age, I am who I am.

Acceptance will not sit with fear. There is no room. The fragrance of forgiveness too heady. The pull of the life experience too strong.

I think that is the seat of self. Ageless? I don’t know.

It is the body that ages and mine not so well. I look older than my years; I have since my 50s. In my mid 30s the right side of my face began to sag.

Too much medication, wrong kind of medication, not enough medication. I don’t know. Maybe it would’ve happened anyway. I really haven’t noticed in these last years.

These days my visage sags with wrinkles, like the smoker’s lines above my lips. I don’t single out any one face furrow. They are the lines of my life, altogether.

Although I no longer drink, I once drank heavily. I know how fortunate I am in not missing alcohol. I thought it a change I would never make. Same with smoking.

I discovered that finding “life in the present” is as heady an experience as any martini—more so, actually—even better than the cigarette after dinner or sex.

Aging keeps me curious; judgment feels unreliable because it is. Aging reveals me as I am, flawed but ever viable. I need neither regret nor expectation. Who wants boomerangs?

In awe, I sit in the seat of self, where all gifts are given and received. Some are surprises, not all an easy open.

I may have an expiration date but the energy that animates this entire physical dimension does not. I’m not trying to stop any processes. I want to learn the grace of acceptance.

The body is a marvel at adapting to change. It is lifetime acceptance in action, forgiveness a given. All I need do is follow its lead and keep my life lens open.

The Look of Failure

Failure is its own kind of boomerang, and the sooner taken in hand the better for everyone. I know this, which is not to say that is what I do.

I’ve learned that to reach for failure is to seize the spectacular. I avoid it for as long as possible. I stay in step with my ego as it tells me, quite forcefully: “Just keep at it. It will work.”

All the while my body sends signal after signal to stop: ”This is not working. Let it go.”

My heart opens to failure as my ego flashes a neon sign: “Don’t screw this up.”  Of course, I already have. I am too busy to hear the sound of failure.

Ever patient, my heart shows me a seat to the spectacular while my ego offers only the slough of despond.

Only to the extent that we expose ourselves

over and over to annihilation

can that which is indestructible

be found in us.

Pema Chödrön in When Things Fall Apart

Exactly.

This is a failure I feel in my bones, literally, and my heart oozes with pain. I did visit the shores of the slough of despond momentarily, too tired to indulge in labels and finger-pointing, mostly at myself.

After spending the last 24 hours alternating between sleep and the meditative state, I hold failure’s boomerang in hand, feeling anything but spectacular. Still, I stay in my seat.

When things fall apart, it is not an easy view. Yet, the heart is compassionate and knows nothing is revealed in angst. That is a scene best left on the cutting room floor.

Best to begin from the beginning.

This past week, I signed on for a writing gig that may have been possible back in the day–eight or nine years ago, maybe longer.

Yet even with better health and greater stamina, it would have been challenging, as I did not have sufficient background. I had to spend too much time researching, which did not leave me enough time to write.

I kept working harder but not smarter. If I had, I would have heard the sound of failure.

I was fortunate to have a thoughtful and compassionate editor who recognized my limitations and as much as she helped me, there was no meeting the deadline.

It was up to me–and no one else–to say, “I cannot do this.” I waited too long and now others must scramble to complete my work, in addition to their own. My concern for failure was greater than my consideration for my colleagues.

Therein lies most of my pain but what is done is done. To anguish over what cannot be changed benefits no one. That is not admitting failure. That is hopelessness.

KMHuberImage; Mudhen; St. Mark's Refuge; Northern FL

To admit failure is to fall apart. Only in such moments does forgiveness reveal itself. I suppose that doesn’t seem spectacular—maybe I misuse the word–yet to sit in the seat of self reveals the human drama, and I know of no more breathtaking experience.

Only the heart can put on such a spectacular show, absorbing the annihilation that failure feels without judgment or looking through the colored lens of blame.

Failure reveals more than a wrinkled reflection; it is beyond the reach of any selfie filter. It is not a gloss. A reflection ripples with the tide or the wind, never providing more than a moment’s glance.

It is the mirror of the heart that reveals all failure, each one its own crack, healed in its own time. Forgiveness is the glue and knows no deadline only the steady beat of renewal. And that is indestructible. To me, spectacular.

A Place Not Far Away At All

I once believed peace a place far away, a land I would never know. I had too many bad habits, too many questions. How could I find time for peace?

Turns out peace is available in every moment, always an option. My choice. No two moments are alike so accepting and accessing peace lasts a lifetime.

I choose Zen as my practice but peace is not picky. There is no one way to peace and for every way there is an open shore.

Initially, I thought if I meditated every day for five minutes, 15 minutes, or an hour I would know stillness. Not exactly. I was still assigning peace a label.

Sometimes, I sit in stillness but the whir of thought–chaos–is more my meditative state. Mine is mindfulness meditation rather than transcendental. I meditate in the moment just as it is.

Remnants of that meditative state are what I bring into my day, sitting in the seat of self, as the emotion of the day–the chaos–plays out. Rather than judging, I find strength, something I once sought outside myself.

There is peace in such trust of the self. It takes the fear out of emotions. Within, I let them rage until I discover what it is they are really about. They are remarkable tools, emotions.

To let the storm rage is to sit in the safety of the self. Then and only then am I able to make a mindful response rather than getting tangled up in self-righteousness. The world does not need any more of that.

I have an increasing appreciation for the singularity of the candle, its flame stands brightly no matter the odds. At some point every wick gives way to a puddle of wax.

That doesn’t sound very reassuring or peaceful but it is, I suspect. To find stillness in the middle of chaos–to sit in the eye of the storm–is to know peace.

It’s the hardest thing I ever do, living in the present moment. Maybe it’s the only worthwhile thing I’ve ever tried.

Fear gives way to mindfulness. It puddles up. It simply is no match for mindfulness. I am not sure what is.

From what I know of history, worldwide mindfulness is one weapon we have not leashed upon the world. If we had, we would know.

Albert Schweitzer wrote, ”We cannot continue in this paralyzing mistrust…another spirit must enter into the people….” Exactly.

Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön said if we ”want to effect change it is not through self-righteous anger.” No, it is not.

What might this other spirit look like? How else to navigate the chaos that is the life experience?

It is not as if the demands of the day line up neatly. They sail in from everywhere. Some are arrows that wound deep. Others are boomerangs, visits from previous poor choices, demanding yet another decision.

It is up to me decide every day, confining myself to what is and not what might be or is no more. That is the focus of trust–peace–perhaps lasting no longer than my next breath.

It’s not how long it lasts but that it is always available. For me, that is Zen—easy, uneasy.

The Energy of Being in the Moment

I found a way of walking on air with prednisone this past week. It has been more mindful than you might think. And groundlessness was the key.

I would not have suspected that prednisone would provide yet another perspective on Pema Chödrön’s teaching of groundlessness.

In other words, work with the reality I have–be and stay present. Not something I had ever tried with a prednisone increase to reset rather than rejuvenate my body.

Initially, being present seemed counterintuitive. Why not go with the energy and have a few days of doing things like everyone else? Was that not being in the moment?

Not a one of us gets life full-blown forever. No one light shines without going dark. And even if it did, our appreciation would go blind.

Life is never about going back. It turns on a dime. Whether it stays on edge or lands on heads/tails, it is a new tale to tell every turn.

I remembered why I finally turned to meditation as a serious practice. I had no place else to go, nothing else to try. I wanted meditation to be a panacea but nothing is in isolation.

Some days, there is a clarity in meditation for which I have only the experience–no words. Other days, the thought chatter reduces me to tears.

I no longer show up with expectations.

It is the only way to wake up in a dark night of the soul and find a sliver of light. What else is the present moment other than a single sliver, just enough to light the night.

Some days stay all but dark. In this world, to get up in the morning is an act of courage for anyone. Life is not a Pollyanna prance.

What is more frightening than being in the moment? In other words, what I feared most about being in the moment was being in the moment.

But each day is all I ever have. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow a mere maybe. Both are mucky lands of “what if.”

It is only in the present that I settle into groundlessness. No thing and no one stays. The fabric of life–of what we take hold–is its impermanent experience. Maybe that is magic. I don’t know.

I once believed there to be a bit of magic in prednisone. After all, its possibilities seemed endless because energy is just that—endless. But I am finite.

This past week’s increase in prednisone has been unlike any other for me. It did not start out that way.

Old behaviors kicked in immediately. Within hours, I was anywhere but the present, my thoughts spinning with the possibilities of a six-day energy spree.

That kind of energy is so seductive, rather like chocolate. And too much of a good thing is just that. If meditation has taught me anything, it has taught me the power of pause.

I could exhaust myself with energy and at the end of six days, be in worse shape than when I started. Just a mere sliver of light that moment but it seemed a beacon.

That is how mindfulness rolls, a singular sweep of the scene, weaving one moment into another. An undulating tapestry. A web without a weaver.

Mom’s Last Door

Today, the Memorial Mass celebrating my mother’s life is being said.

I am over 2000 miles away. Ours has been a long-distance relationship for almost two decades.

The last time I saw my mother was four years ago. Increasingly, we shared physical disability. Soon, neither was able to travel.

Most Sundays, I wrote a weekly letter to her, just a page or two. She was no longer able to send email so for the last 2 ½ years of her life, I wrote her a letter.

She did not write back. The give-and-take of regular correspondence was not the purpose of the letters. Mom wanted to know about my life, the day-to-day of it, and so I told her.

Some weeks I wrote her about Zen Buddhism within the context of her own devout Catholicism.  It pleased her that I practiced a kind of “faith,” even if that is not how I would have described my practice.

Once that distinction would have mattered but in writing the letters, the word faith fit. Mom had a deeply personal relationship with God, an unwavering faith and trust in His grace. She believed “Let go and let God.”

Mom respected people’s beliefs; they need not mirror her own. She knew how to listen and many turned to her. She showed me I do not have to agree with people but I do have to hear them.

It took me decades to appreciate that in my mother but when I did, it opened so many doors for me.

I think it always opened doors for her, too:

Let my last door open into the light of late spring.

May it be shadowed with the announcements of those who walked

into darkness before me—right foot disappearing first,

body leaning into the unknown, trailing hand making mostly

mysterious gestures: I’m all right or come along; it’s what I thought

or it’s not what I thought.” *

Mom died in winter–in Wyoming–her memorial service is in late spring. Just two days ago it snowed.

Spring still lags. I know she would appreciate that.

An avid gardener, Mom knew late spring better than most. She accepted its elusiveness and never doubted it.

I have no doubt its light opened her last door.

*Wendy Bishop, “My Last Door” excerpt from My Last Door, Anhinga Press, Tallahassee, FL 2007.