We Are All Haiku

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We are all haiku—

Only here for seventeen

Syllables, three lines.

Sweeping Changes, Gary Thorp

 

I attended a memorial service for a friend this week. It was held at a Friends’ Meeting House and followed the Quaker model. There was no formal service; those present spoke when the spirit moved them.

At first, I found the lack of ceremony vaguely dissatisfying, as I have found Quaker and Unitarian services. Most likely my Roman Catholic and Episcopalian experience has infused in me an unsubstantiated conviction that it really doesn’t count if ritual is missing. But as I sat there in silence, I came to appreciate this outwardly simple form, that it can lead, if you allow it, to an inner exploration that can sometimes be obstructed by organs, trumpets and incense.

My friend was not religious, so references to God and “in a better place” were missing. I found this consoling, those present respecting, and perhaps sharing, her philosophy. I liked that.

She and I were relatively new friends; we met about five years ago. I knew her only after tragedy had visited her, and found her stoic, accepting, brave in carrying on a life with a major void in it. She smiled often, but I never saw her laugh, not really. So I was gratified to see pictures of her in an earlier time, arms around her daughter, both wearing wide grins. I looked hard at that picture, and saw my friend, before.

Old friends spoke of her enthusiasm, her risk-taking, her love of fun. What a gift that was to me, to know that she had experienced joy. I will remember her with different eyes now.

In her life, she showed me courage, stoicism, a wry wit, laced with truth and a profound personal honesty. And it is these characteristics that I will model. She faced death with that same honesty, and knew when to say goodbye.

The world has lost a gifted poet, and an old soul. But we are better for her years with us.

On Being Mortal

Being-Mortal

Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal, is a sobering, and I think necessary, read for all of us. It is much more than its thumbnail reviews, much more than “make the most of your life now, tell your children how you want to live, how you want to die,” although those are important components of his message.

Rather it is a thoughtful presentation, made palpable with his use of real-life situations, of what it means to grow old (not “older” as we obliquely phrase it). He depicts in accurate, albeit disturbing, detail, the physical changes that, regardless of our vegan diets, our daily trips to the gym, all of us face or will face.

He describes our reliance on the medical-model, treating conditions which are, essentially, untreatable, and brings to bear the soul-searing reality of not only nursing homes, but also of those euphemistically named assisted-living facilities where the focus is safety and security, at the disturbing cost of freedom for those who are treated as helpless children. This is not to disparage those whose back-breaking work at these facilities care for those who require it. Rather, he points out that some who are housed there would benefit from a focus on maintaining independence.

Gawande asks us to consider just who it is who demands this security? For many, it is the children, those who want mom to be safe, forgetting that her newly-circumscribed life may not be what she wants.  Perhaps she’d rather take her chances with a fall. Perhaps not. But, Gawande exhorts, ask, don’t assume.

Still, many of my cohort, as we grow older, fight aging and death with all our powers, when, certainly, death is the natural order of things. Rather than accepting that, we exhaust our psychic and physical resources to push that reality far from consciousness, energies that we could be using to savor our days, to appreciate, even relish, the simple pleasure of everyday routines, of companionship with people who accept us as we are.

The Buddhists hand us a lovely paradox – we live longer when we stop trying to live longer; we are more alive when we stop trying to be more alive.

And are we all not concerned for our legacy, especially as the time shortens for us to do that which we intended to do? Gawande suggests that the content of that legacy changes as we mature, that as we become less interested in achieving, we become more focused on being. Oh, those Buddhists.

And as for me, I do want to remain actively engaged with the world, enough that I will also enjoy those times when I retreat from the world. I want to keep my freedom and am willing to pay a price for that. I don’t want to be a burden; I’ve had “the talk” with my lovely daughter, who understands.

The medical-model wants to fix. For the aged, it is a battle that cannot be won. Gawande suggests that we direct our attention to the sustenance of our souls. And, for me, if I can figure out how to do it, it will be the focus of my future.

 

 

 

 

 

None of Us is Golden

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None of Us Is Golden

We’ve lost some good souls these past weeks – two young, bright lights in Roanoke, and a few older ones, whose radiance remained bright through the years, Oliver Sacks, Wayne Dyer. These were the “famous” ones, the ones in the news. And some of us also lost people whom we loved, who contributed to our lives as only they could, people whom few outside their small world would know, ordinary people, ordinary, just like us. We understand why we feel sad, bereft when they leave us. But why do we ache when strangers, but only some strangers, die? We feel sad, for a few seconds, when we read about fifty Syrians who suffocated in a truck; we shake our heads in sorrow when 100 are drowned in a hurricane that struck an island that is “somewhere down there,” or the forty-five people who were murdered in Baltimore in the month of August. It is sad, but far away from us. We breathe a sigh of thanksgiving that it was they, not us, and feel, for a moment at least, that death cannot touch us.

But a young woman, beautiful with a million dollar smile, a camera man, who looks exactly like someone we all know, murdered almost in front of us, that hits home. We carry books written by Oliver Sacks, feel that he is speaking just to us. We read Wayne Dyer, and take to heart at least some of his advice about the power of intention, the personal power that each of us possesses to find and bring happiness to our lives and the lives of others. These two left a legacy, a written one, as well as one written on our hearts. When those whom we admire from afar vanish, it brings us back to reality. If it can happen to them what chance do we mortals have? For none of us is golden, none of us is safe, from life, from death.

The two young journalists left us a legacy of appreciating the moment, of a spirit and a smile, and perhaps a groundswell for reasonable dialogue on gun control.

And for those of us whose losses are more private, those we love have left us a legacy as well. And it is ours to remember:

“They leave holes that cannot be filed, for it is the fate – the genetic and neutral fate – of every human being to be a unique individual to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

Oliver Sacks, 1933-2015