No, wait. Not exactly that but sometimes it sure feels like it. The fires in northern California have been devastating, surreal and overwhelming to say the least. It is hard to count my blessings right now given that I surely have many. After all, my life was minimally impacted in relative terms. I lost no loved ones, my housing remained intact, although I did evacuate when the advisory was issued by the Sonoma County Sheriff’s office. The smoke-saturated air hyper-laced with toxins, felt like it carried minimal oxygen. Imagine suffocation with foulness. It was hard to breathe and especially hard once it became so dense it hurt to take it in. Read more →
How long it takes to get to spirit. Whether you believe in God, have a knowingness about Him or are an atheist, there is a spirit in mankind that is undeniable. I recently finished When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi about his life and death on the planet. In the living parts he clearly describes the tension between the two states: of the linear, scientific world and that of a kind of awareness, consciousness or spirit. Oh, he doesn’t use that term exactly. Rather, he talks of meaning, morality, ethics, connections between people in such a way as to define the untamed heart. Channel it as he might, he seems to bypass the heart to the brain, the mind, as the knower of things, the mechanism for meaning, or so it seems. He thinks of it as his identity, the mind, and yet he learns a more complete lesson in the end from metastasized lung cancer.
Being Loved Into Death
For it is not until nearly the end as he approaches the culmination of a career “cut short” as a promising neurosurgeon and scientist that he is required to leave the brain behind. Ostensibly, he is drawn to the wordless yet highly communicative heart as he defies his scientific linear training as a physician and connects only with spirit–his wife’s, his infant daughter, his parents, siblings and close friends through love, the unmeasurable ‘mechanism’ that is all of us. Always present but taking a backseat in the physical world, the Spirit lies in wait, our true nature revealing itself, silently, breathlessly, subtly, until we are ready to live on the buoyancy of only that. Kalanithi seems to convey that Love or Spirit carries us from one world to the next. And so it was, as brilliantly, as giving, as kindhearted and hard-working as Kalanithi had been as a neurosurgoen, always striving towards accomplishment, no matter how noble, that ‘his’ Spirit finally, patiently requires his attention through a different kind of giving of himself. With a foot in one world, he straddles the next describing his ‘death’ experience.
I loved this book, the Breath–Air book by Kalanithi. But oddly, like all of us ensnared in the body, I was waiting for his final insights sooner, restless for spirit to reveal itself through the written word. Finally it came although from my perspective, it oddly was the deathbed scene with his words to his daughter, and wife’s conveyance post-passing afterwards, that the true nature of the spiritual man known as Kalanithi is revealed. By that I mean that even though using words to communicate, it is only in the incalculable energy and action of a lifetime of intention that it becomes evident, that and the gift of his shared death. Implied in this is knowingness. We know it when we see it as did he. Ironically, so often Spirit reveals itself as an aggregate looking backward even if through the distillation of a high voltage moment.
What Kalanithi took a short lifetime to discover is that his life’s meaning through work, giving and connecting is part of his identity as neurosurgeon/scientist, it is not the whole of it. While his words throughout the book, the description of his struggle as a physician, son, husband, and ultimately father is carried through linear, descriptive fashion, it is his effort to give of himself through sharing the ‘death’ process that reveals his spirit. His initial intention to help relieve the suffering of mankind through his profession sets the stage. The final eight or nine months he writes the manuscript however renders the true language of Love, his ‘spiritual identity,’ if you will. Ultimately, the body with it’s ever-fascinating brain is merely the delivery system of the less visible but more potent heart, the seat of Love that operates both here and in the hereafter.
I often wonder, what would I do, how would I behave, could I give anything to anyone, let alone a wider ‘audience’ as Kalanithi has done, if I knew the impending demise of my earthly body was ticking against a more specific clock. Sure I know the idea of that. But of course the idea is not the knowing. ‘Knowing about’ is never the same is knowing. The soul lives on. The spirit that reveals itself to me in flashes continues once the body ‘gives up the ghost’, of that I have no doubt. And yet, trapped in time even when it seems there’s little of it left, what would I choose to do, how could I extend myself to others, how would I spend my precious final days, weeks, maybe months offering meaning to anyone?
Jocelyn P. Newark, R.N. talks with Paul Kalanithi, M.D. Resident in Neurological Surgery, at the Stanford Hospital and Clinics on Wednesday, February 5, 2014. Stanford University ( Norbert von der Groeben/Stanford Hospital and Clinics )
None of us can know until we ‘get there’ if in fact we have any forewarning at all, that our time is truly running out. And yet, Kalanithi’s thought-provoking book prods everyone to examine themselves, for me to examine myself. How can I commit to extending whatever gifts I may offer to others even if I have no information about life’s deadline. And even if I don’t have an exact answer now, there is an answer. It is my charge to find it, stumbling through to the end until it– Spirit–presents itself as to purpose and expression. After all, at the end of the day, Kalanithi’s book is not just about his death, it is about his life. What’s more, it is also about our own, about what it means, about the aggregate of a lifetime of intentions and our expression through one final gasp.
This may not even be anything for public consumption. Instead, it just might be for my own edification and relief. The hard times I am going through in my personal life and the dangerous times our country is going through currently seem parallel. While I don’t feel like a move to Northern California is dangerous, it certainly has generated a ‘hitting bottom’ kind of experience that is frightening, disorienting. It seems I have brought myself to some kind of brink, knowing not where or how I am to land.
When I made the decision to move, I did not realize there was a severe housing shortage in Sonoma County, the place I have chosen to relocate. Not only have I never been very good at money generating, (though living thrifty), it seems it has finally caught up with me in a serious ‘in-your-face’ kind of way. Having insufficient resources to make the move (was counting on cheaper rental prices,) it has caused quite a high degree of apoplexy manifesting in periodic crying jags, occasional chest pains and food binges.
Because of this poor “investigative journalism” and serious research on my part, I find myself backed into a corner, knowing I’ll have to work, and fast, as soon as I get up there. I lurch uncontrollably between terror and fright, fear of mental collapse (which quite frankly could be a relief) and prayer. Sometimes the prayers include begging, pretending I’m more spiritually gifted than I likely am, yet on the flip side, aware of a deep and abiding faith that springs to the surface in fits and starts.
Enter Donald Trump. For many years now I have tried to learn from not just my own mistakes but those of others. This is not an easy task given the denial part of the human ego. One has to be capable of and WANT to be honest with oneself, taking responsibility for one’s choices and actions. While I shudder at the thought of any comparison between The Donald and me, I see how it’s often easier to attack another, blame a situation, etc, as a psychological tool to avoid the scrutiny of one’s conscience.
I can see how easy it is for me to ‘blame’ my karma, parents who didn’t encourage me, failed to teach me certain things, the turbulence of the 1960’s and 1970’s, and, and, and….the list can be endless if I allow my indulgence of such things, which sometimes I do. But at the end of the day, while there may be reasons for one’s flaws, character defects, etc, one cannot escape accountability. There is a consequence for me in my life choices regardless of any origin or source. It’s a universal law. There is a consequence for Donald Trump in his (regardless of how cruel his father was). And there is a consequence for all of America who has either chosen DT, continually chooses to either be blind to or ignore the perilous times we have ALL played a role in getting ourselves into, individually and as a nation. And for those who have failed in other ways, enlightened though they may be in erudite interpretations, have neglected to do much about the dangers we face themselves.
No Shame in Falling
They say confession is good for the soul and I do believe in it. But confession is no easy undertaking. You have to be willing to expose yourself (mostly to yourself) and one has to rank at least 200 on the honest/integrous scale of consciousness. Not everyone is able nor can. But for anyone able, it seems looking in the mirror is required at this time, and certainly for me.
Years ago I had a cousin, Cliff Cushman. He was the darling of our clan, having won a silver medal in the 400 meter hurdles in the 1960 Olympics in Rome. Fast forward to the Olympic qualifying heat in 1964, where he fell and was disqualified from that year’s games. There have been several people in my life who have inspired me. Cliff is one who was inspirational in my early years. Bennet Mermel is another in my later years. There have been others, some I’ve not actually met in person but who have inspired me the just same – inspired me to get up, try again when failure seems imminent, but to at least try to the degree I am able. Not only is this true for me personally, but also for our nation. for we must all ‘get up’. Some people don’t believe we are at a crossroads in our democracy, believing instead in a pied piper who promises them a return to past glory. That is not where we are at!
I leave you on this Memorial Day with Cliff’s letter he wrote to the youth of Grand Forks, North Dakota after he fell. It is a challenge for me personally and for all of those capable in our nation to pick ourselves up, take a cold, hard look in the mirror and ask ourselves if we can go on blaming others for own shortcomings without ever looking at our own. Cliff Cushman was shot down over North Vietnam in 1966, just two short years after clipping the hurdle. He may have lost his body that day in the jungle, but I am sure he did not lose his soul. It is high time we check our own, for those of us who are able. It is time I check mine, both personally and as part of the collective American Experience.
Captain Cliff Cushman’s 1964 Letter
To the youth of Grand Forks:
Don’t feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for some of you! You may have seen the U.S. Olympic Trials on television September 13. If so, you watched me hit the fifth hurdle, fall and lie on the track in an inglorious heap of skinned elbows, bruised hips, torn knees, and injured pride, unsuccessful in my attempt to make the Olympic team for the second time. In a split second all the many years of training, pain, sweat, blisters, and agony of running were simply and irrevocably wiped out. But I tried. I would much rather fail knowing I had put forth an honest effort than never have tried at all.
This is not to say that everyone is capable of making the Olympic Team. However, each of you is capable of trying to make your own personal “Olympic Team,” whether it be the high school football team, the glee club, the honor roll, or whatever your goal may be. Unless your reach exceeds your grasp, how can you be sure what you can attain? And don’t you think there are things better than cigarettes, hot-rod cars, school dropouts, excessive makeup, and ducktail grease-cuts?
Over fifteen years ago I saw a star — first place in the Olympic Games. I literally started to run after it. In 1960 I came within three yards of grabbing it; this year I stumbled, fell and watched it recede four more years away. Certainly, I was very disappointed in falling flat on my face. However, there is nothing I can do about it now but get up, pick the cinders from my wounds, and take one more step, followed by one more and one more, until the steps turn into miles and the miles into success.
I know I may never make it. The odds are against me but I have something in my favor — desire and faith. Romans 5:3-5 has always had an inspirational meaning to me in this regard: “We rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us.” At least I am going to try.
How about you? Would a little extra effort on your part bring up your grade average? Would you have a better chance to make the football team if you stayed an extra fifteen minutes after practice and worked on your blocking?
Let me tell you something about yourselves. You are taller and heavier than any past generation in this country. You are spending more money, enjoying more freedom, and driving more cars than ever before, yet many of you are very unhappy. Some of you have never known the satisfaction of doing your best in sports, the joy of excelling in class, the wonderful feeling of completing a job, any job, and looking back on it knowing that you have done your best.
I dare you to have your hair cut and not wilt under the comments of your so-called friends. I dare you to clean up your language. I dare you to honor your mother and father. I dare you to go to church without having to be compelled to go by your parents. I dare you to unselfishly help someone less fortunate than yourself and enjoy the wonderful feeling that goes with it. I dare you to become physically fit. I dare you to read a book that is not required in school. I dare you to look up at the stars, not down at the mud, and set your sights on one of them that, up to now, you thought was unattainable. There is plenty of room at the top, but no room for anyone to sit down.
Who knows? You may be surprised at what you can achieve with sincere effort. So get up, pick the cinders out of your wounds, and take one more step.