Mere Coincidence?

He died just six hours after we said goodbye. Everyone knew it was coming but he had just been transferred to the hospice earlier that morning. When I arrived in the early evening William appeared groggy. I was not able to make out his garbled words. He responded to my greeting with exaggerated eye movements. I want to believe William remembered me.

We had met earlier this year at a sober home in Saint Paul where I accompany men in early recovery from alcohol and/or drug addiction. Officially my title is “spiritual coach.” The reality is more spontaneous, mutual and relational. William and I hit it off more easily and quickly than happens with some other men. In another context we might have become great friends given all we shared in common.

William had accomplished a lot for a man in his early 40s — a distinguished leadership role with area nonprofits and health care providers, nearing completion of his Masters in Public Administration at the Humphrey School, a beaming father of boys ages 5 and 8. All this, along with his marriage, was at serious risk due his nasty alcoholism.

Anyone who knows anything about addiction understands never to be surprised, to have tenacious hope, but to be realistic about the prospect for disappointment and heartache. That sort of realism has come to temper my relationship with men at the sober home. So I was deeply saddened — but not shocked — when I learned a few months into our companionship that William had “left through the back door”, a euphemism for having relapsed.

I had so hoped it would be different for one so inherently good and talented. That was not to be. I regretted not having had a chance to say goodbye, a chance to intervene and save him from drinking. Yet, I’ve learned the difference between caring for someone and taking care of someone. One is healthy, the latter is codependent. In 12-Step language, each of us — not just the addict — needs to admit our ultimate powerlessness. Let go, let God can be harder than we’d ever imagine.

Yesterday was the first I’d heard anything about William’s whereabouts or well being. His sister, Kathryn, emailed to say William had spoken about our conversations at the sober home with her. She wanted me to know that he was being transferred from the hospital to the hospice. His health had taken a sudden turn for the worse; his liver and kidneys were failing. She thanked me for all I had done for her brother.

Of course, everything in us resists being at the bedside of one dying. So I toyed with the idea of merely assuring Kathryn of my gratitude, thoughts and prayers but preserving a safe emotional distance from the powerlessness of the moment. But I have learned, reluctantly and with much resistance, that life is really quite simple — Just show up! Deep inside my better angel was telling me that nothing would keep me from where I’d rather not be!

William appeared to be sleeping, alone in a room equipped for two. Lighting was subdued. Everything was quiet. His hair seemed more wispy than I recalled; his cheeks and neck looked puffy. My greeting brought a flutter to his eyes and a few mumbled words. He knew someone was there and I want to believe he knew who I was. At least he didn’t seem agitated or restless with my presence.

My goal was not to say anything stupid or inane like, “You are going to a better place.” I thanked him. Reflected back to him what a good man he was, how he generously made our community a better place and how he loved his boys. With my hand gently stroking his folded under a sheet, I told him we love him. He responded with single-syllable sounds and exaggerated eye movements. I whispered a prayer. He responded to the sign of the cross I traced on his forehead with a furrowed brow.

That was last evening. This morning Kathryn emailed to say she had arrived shortly after I had left. She began playing music William enjoyed and he had slipped into unconsciousness by 10 pm. He died quietly shortly before 2 a.m. She thanked me for having shown up.

But there is more, always more. Ruminating this morning about the evening’s events a warm consolation washed over me — suddenly I recalled that last evening was the sixth year anniversary of my last drink. Last evening, unknown to me at the time, I was brought to the bedside of a brother alcoholic. Mere coincidence?

Who did what for whom? Who deserves thanks for all he has done for the other? What is the gift that awaits when we recognize and accept our radical powerlessness, the radical solidarity of our human condition? In morning light I rest in the assurance that William did every bit as much for me as I was capable of doing for him.

I refuse to believe that God is a grand magician who makes such coincidences occur to dazzle, tease or reward. I reject the notion that God is a master puppeteer who pulls our strings to orchestrate human interaction. Rather, I’m convinced that the mutuality of gift that William and I each experienced last evening happens all the time, to all of us, and there is nothing we need do to make it happen. Just show up! Open our eyes!  Recognize the gift of it all and open our hearts to receive. It’s all gift; yes, everything!

“Thank you, William, for the gift your life has been to me and to so many. Thank you for being an occasion for God to reveal the serenity and love to which we are all called and in which you now fully abide. Rest in peace, my friend. Rest in peace! Truly, you have entered through the front door!

_________________

Names have been changed to protect personal privacy. Otherwise, the story is entirely true.

Beyond the Expiration Date

Recent x-rays prove it! My mildly arthritic hips are reminding me that I have an expiration date. Not the sort explicitly printed on Jeb the Dog’s peanut butter — “Best used by August 2016.” But it’s written just as clearly in mild hearing loss and the fact of having shrunk an inch of height since topping out at 6’1″.

Waking from 11 hours of sleep after our first night at the hermitage, Jeb the Dog took me on an early morning walk past the barns, beyond the free-range chickens, aside the lake onto a wooded path to the road. A cascade of new smells enticed Jeb so I agreed to walk to the “T” where we intersected with another gravel road.

As we turned to retrace our steps, an imposing yellow sentinel stood to our right. “Dead End” it cautioned. Blinding eastern sunlight enshrouded its stark warning. Aside, a solitary barren tree pierced the horizon. No other reminder of mortality needed, these starkly alert any who would proceed that we will ultimately find ourselves at the end of the road.

What brought me to the hermitage was most assuredly the pregnant solitude of nature on the cusp of Spring. Perhaps this is the same impulse that has always inspired Christians to celebrate Easter on the first Sunday after the first full moon of Spring. (Who’d forget that formula once put to memory!). Amid all that converges at this transitional moment in time, I am well aware that Holy Week lies just ahead.

Jesus’ death is intended to remind us of our own. For much of my sixty-five years I’ve given that lip service. I’ve more readily basked in the soft pastels of Spring and rushed to Easter morning ignoring — if not denying — the cold, painful journey that leads up to what I want to celebrate.

This year is different. I’m now on Medicare and can no longer claim that I’m taking “early” Social Security. Arthritic hips, diminished hearing, bone loss are all cautionary signs that a very real “end” lies down the road. Call it my own personal expiration date if you wish.  This year I’m inclined to call it my own pathway into Gethsemane.

Whatever you choose to call it, not one of us is exempt from walking this path. Despite our denials, our clutching to whatever we wish, our refusals to yield control; we have no alternative. Jesus sweat blood, pleaded for some other way. Yet transcending his own ego, surrendering his own self-interest, Jesus yielded to love, in love, for love.

From this solitary vantage of the hermitage, after some sixty-five seasons of Lent, and multiple signs of my future expiration, I am inclined to believe that Jesus did not die for us. He’s not our “easy way out.”  Rather, with love, he showed us how we are to do it.  Because of Jesus, it is possible for us to know the way. In fact, therein lies our salvation.

________________
This reflection is inspired by Living in the Light of Death by Kathleen Dowling Singh, PhD in “Ripening”, vol 1 #2 of Oneing: An Alternative Orthodoxy published by The Center for Action and Contemplation; Vanessa Guerin, editor (2013) pp 41-46.

Transformed by Emptiness

It’s important for us to learn that imperfection is our natural state. For if we don’t, we will forever seek to fill the emptiness that cannot be filled with all manner of things, and mistakenly assume that we’re supposed to do something to change it. But what this emptiness calls for is acceptance and gentle perseverance with the lives we’ve been given. With acceptance comes peace and greater capacity to love.
+ Maryann Edgar Budde

We may not like it, but Lent is that necessary season for us to get in touch with our emptiness, fallibility and finitude. Sound too pessimistic or depressing for our feel-good culture? Well, perhaps it does — unless we grasp the great human paradox of death/resurrection. That’s the invitation!

As St Francis of Assisi — certainly the most popular Christian saint of all time — said so eloquently: “It is in dying that we are born to eternal life.” Francis was not just referring to our ultimate end-of-life demise. He was speaking about the seemingly infinite opportunities and requirement to “die to self” that consistently come our way.

Our friend, the current Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington DC, expresses this invitation so well in the quote above. We got to know Maryann when she was the rector of St. John’s Church in Minneapolis. Today I can do no better than to recommend her reflection [here] for your prayerful consideration.

Live the Life You’re Given, Not the One You’re Not

Laparoscopic surgery ranks right up there with GPS as a marvel of modern life. Just had the procedure a couple of weeks ago for a hernia. But as marvelous as it is, I’m learning it provides no miraculous return to “as good as new.” There are some things — like a bit of arthritis in my hip — that are a function of age and will not change.

What are we to do? Well, within the range of options I’ve chosen to smile. Yes, smile! Seems like a new companion has arrived to stay so the best thing to do is to become friends. The temptation to complain and play the “poor me” card surely pops up. I’m skilled at playing the sympathy card!

But as my parents, and other elders deserving of emulation have taught, we really are about as happy as we choose to be. Somehow they smiled, spoke mostly of what is good and praiseworthy, cultivated gratitude. Their sage advice might be: Smile anyway! Live the life you are given, not the one you’re not!

Are episodic hurdles like hernia repairs and chronic conditions like arthritic hips misfortunes, a tragedy of our inevitable diminishment? Or, can we smile? Can we befriend these physical inconveniences as the companions they are, even befriend them? Can we receive them — even invite them — as reminders and bearers of true wisdom?

Just wondering… do we fear death to the degree we fear living, really loving, being truly alive, fully human? In the much loved Canticle of the Sun Francis of Assisi speak of “sister death.” It is said the last words he spoke were: “Welcome, sister death!” What’s that all about?

Yesterday, returning about twenty freshly washed plates from Thanksgiving dinner to a shelf over my head I wondered, “Should I be doing this?” A cautious fear of falling accompanied my navigating an icy driveway. Can such new-found cautiousness lead to an ever greater curiosity rather than some debilitating concern with diminishment?

Yes, we are about as happy as we choose to be. As my parents used to say, “life is pretty much what you make of it!” I first remember them saying that when I was a disgruntled adolescent. Now at 65, a renewed curiosity about what they were trying to pass on accompanies me.

I wonder… is our fear of death commensurate with our fear of living, really living life as it comes to us, not as we wish it to be? Are we free to really, fully live only to the degree we embrace our finitude, our finality? What is the wisdom of true elders?

More and more, I’m curious about whatever comes to us as a function of age with enduring truths that will not change.

Thanks for Everything, Even Death

Ending! So many endings! The end of the year is fast approaching. My scooter went into storage a few weeks ago. The patio furniture has been returned to the garage rafters. Trees are barren now. Even our Thanksgiving gatherings are primarily focused on gratitude for what has been.

Brittle brown stubble, a bit frost touched, marks once lush pastures at Wellsprings Farm. Sunset encroached on my days at the hermitage while dawn’s laboring toyed with my eager, expectant eyes. Ice settled the lake’s surface to a silent sheen, a blanket of white crystals acccenting nature’s somnolence.

Call it culmination, fruition, fulfillment, ending, whatever! There is a certain finality built into all things. Ultimately, we all die. Once death leered on the horizon, frightening, tragic, to be fought and denied, or simply ignored. Eventually, a certain silence dawns. Our eyes eagerly pierce and parse its darkness.

An enduring gift of these recent hermitage days echoes still, blanketing my anxious questioning, casting light beyond my fears. The gift? A poem by Michael Dowd:

Without the death of stars, there would be no planets and no life.
Without the death of creatures, there would be no evolution.

Without the death of elders, there would be no room for children.
Without the death of fetal cells, we would all be spheres.

Without the death of neurons, wisdom and creativity would not blossom.
Without the death of cells in woody plants, there would be no trees.

Without the death of forests by Ice Age advance, there would be no northern lakes.
Without the death of mountains, there would be no sand or soil.

Without the death of plants and animals, there would be no food.
Without the death of old ways of thinking, there would be no room for the new.

Without death there would be no ancestors.
Without death, time would not be precious.

What, then, are the gifts of death?

The gifts of death are Mars and Mercury, Saturn and Earth.
The gifts of death are the stardust within our bodies.

The gifts of death are the splendors of shape and form and color.
The gifts of death are diversity, the immense journey of life.

The gifts of death are woodlands and soils, ponds and lakes.
The gifts of death are food: the sustenance of life.

The gifts of death are seeing, hearing, feeling — deeply feeling.
The gifts of death are wisdom, creativity, and the flow of cultural change.

The gifts of death are the urgency to act, the desire to fully be and become.
The gifts of death are joy and sorrow, laughter and tears.

The gifts of death are lives that are fully and exuberantly lived, and then
graciously and gratefully given up, for now and forevermore. Amen.

Yes, for all that was we give thanks. For all that is and will be we give thanks. For all endings, even death, we give thanks to the One in Whom we all finally abide.

_________________
“The Gifts of Death” by Michael Dowd taken from Evidential Mysticism and the Future of Earth, Evidence: Oneings, A Publication of the Center for Action and Contemplation, vol. 2, #2; 2014, pp. 22-23.

November’s Singuilar Brilliance

The Burr Oaks are bare now. A solitary hackberry, much like a petulant younger sibling, vies for our attention from the kitchen window. It is no match for the sentinel oaks’ black knurled limbs cutting sharp furrows across November’s grisaille sky. Long winter looms though our larder is full.

Life is no less rich but registers differently, satisfactions more somnolent, gratitude more easily recognized as gratuitous. Example? On Wednesday we celebrated a dinner marking a young friend’s birthday. Five of us filled the table: our host, the 23 y/o honoree, her boyfriend, my husband and me.

Now well into our maturity we reveled in Grace’s vitality, potential and dreams. Yet, they are not ours. We vicariously share her eager enthusiasm for all that will open before her and everything which awaits her savoring and creativity.  Still, we will never witness Grace in her full stature as the woman of consequence she will certainly become.

When fickle November sun, filtered by the looming oak, pierces our kitchen window we feel only its light — bright, blinding luminance. Summer’s radiant warmth is now gone. We grow content with singular brilliance penetrating our shuttered eyes. Like barren branches that have yielded their fruit, color and sheltering foliage we stand exposed without shame, in our nakedness.

No longer do we ask Grace’s question: “Where am I called to go?” Rather, in full stature of our knurled maturity, our question becomes: “Where am I called to let go?”

With the brilliance only November yields, we take stock of an abundant harvest. All that remains is gratitude for everything that has been given. Yes, everything!

Unrelentingly True to Life

2015 will be remembered for its unrelenting display of October splendor, truly spectacular! Bright blue skies consistently frame brilliant yellows and blazing red landscapes. This morning softens the exuberance with an array of gray which Hopkins so aptly dubs “all a world of wet.”

Yes, October is the most honest month, the one most true to life. We are given the opportunity to rehearse and prepare for what lies ahead with vigor, gratitude and prudence — the wisdom garnered from all that’s gone before.

Our annual harvest is not limited to earth’s bounty. We are nudged by this seasonal reminder to embrace the fullness of our nature. A poem recently discovered expresses why October has become my favorite time of year…

If we could,
like the trees,
practice dying,
do it every year
just as something we do—
like going on vacation
or celebrating birthdays,
it would become
as easy a part of us
as our hair or clothing.

Someone would show us how
to lie down and fade away
as if in deepest meditation,
and we would learn
about the fine dark emptiness,
both knowing it and not knowing it,
and coming back would be irrelevant.

Whatever it is the trees know
when they stand undone,
surprisingly intricate,
we need to know also
so we can allow
that last thing
to happen to us
as if it were only
any ordinary thing,

leaves and lives
falling away,
the spirit, complex,
waiting in the fine darkness
to learn which way
it will go.

___________________
“Learning from Trees” by Grace Butcher. Text as published in Child, House, World (Hiram Poetry Review Supplement No. 12, Hiram College, 1991). I am grateful to Parker Palmer for introducing me to this poem.