The fragrance of nature, particularly water and trees, has always brought something powerful to the surface of my mind, a kind of happy joy that is spontaneous and immediate. Nature conceals a deeper meaning, drawing me to its depths without knowing entirely why. Since I was a little girl I have always loved it. The natural world is an essential ingredient of what I am, just as much as the gristle and bone I walk around in. Sometimes I think it’s about identification. But that’s not it exactly. I am aware of being an animal, a mammal specifically. And yet it is the essence of spirit that I really identify with, coming from some ‘other’ that created all of this, that I am a part of.
Life For It’s Own Sake
On a recent family vacation in Lake Tahoe I was reminded ever more powerfully of this fact. Because it is a fact for me. A reality. I could be a tree. I could be a body of water. But it makes no matter because I have been blessedly created as a human, and how lucky is that? Even if one believes in no higher power or God, let’s say it’s fate or a roll of the dice that I was created thusly, I still value it immensely. While I happen to believe in God, I recognize not everyone does. Are these individuals no less grateful to be alive?
In any case, my nephew took this picture off the end of a boat touring around the lake and sent it to me. I was not onboard, instead stationed back at the resort like a sentry, resting inside but catching the faint whiff of pines and water regardless of my physical location. The picture is compelling, as compelling as the state of being. This was puzzling to me in the beginning, at least until I started to view it differently. The opaque quality in a milky, cataract kind of way disturbed me at first. I wanted to bring it into focus, to clarify the view. And then I thought, isn’t that what we are always trying to do? To fix, to adjust what we think we see into one meaning that suits our purpose?
And the foreground of waterwheel, intrusive and initially dominating, became something to be managed, fixed, so that one could better get to the the dusting of pine-topped mountains beyond. When I ignore this fuzzy, filmy veneer, the restless idea of it, I can focus instead on the essence of sharing space with nature, conjoined, being an intimate and authentic part of it, even as it’s steward and, as such, as essential as the earth itself and sky above.
A Larger Lens
I am transported to a primordial soup from which we all come regardless of belief system. It is quite simply a knowing, with nothing arguable about it. It is rooted in depths of certitude, ineffable though it may be, a oneness that defies explanation even though I struggle to explain it in the here and now.
And so I leave it here, the unanswered and unanswerable mystery of being born not just a human but being born here, now, in this place and part of a whole that is an inexplicable existence. The mysterious gift of life, the nature of it all, a dust mote traversing the universe through space and time, me who has been afforded incredible Grace and peace as evocative as the whiff of the pines and water themselves.
Where is the soul of America? Where is our “It” factor, the moral compass we once strived to steer by? Is It in the smeared face of the immigrant, the stoic Native American, the descendant of a pilgrim?
Is It in the Liberty Bell? Is It in the crack of it? In the Statue of Liberty perhaps? Is It in Custer’s Last Stand? Is It in the forging forth of the wagon train? The Iron Horse? The Alamo?
Is It in the Cotton Gin? The model T Ford, the Tesla? Is It in the super computer? The iPad, the launch pad of Canaveral or Houston?
Is It in the slave, the slaveholder, Jefferson’s Monticello, the Declaration of Independence? The Bill of Rights? Is It in the parchment, the whisper of It?
Is It in the hallowed ground of the World Trade Center? Is It in the shadows its decimation has left?
Is It in the thud of fruit, heavy with ripeness as it hits the ground in Southwestern Michigan? Is It in the Grand Canyon, its river sluicing through the depths?
Is It in the silence of snow, heavy on the baugh of a lone bristlecone pine in the Sierras? Is It in the thrashing fish resisting the fate of the hook-filled mouth? Is It in its fight, or it’s surrender?
Is It in the plow that turns over a rich loam soil in the fields of Iowa? Is It in the ditch digger, the school teacher, the factory worker, the astronaut leaving earth’s gravitational pull?
Is It in the athlete with the freedom to take a knee? Is It in the creativity and ingenuity that flourishes in this land, prompted by inspiration, vision, utter desire?
Is It in each American’s heart? The marrow, gristle and bone, the structural integrity supporting that most vital of organs? Is It in freedom’s age old yearning but one that has waned to a shadowy sliver of what it once was, the integrity of it, the hunger and thirst for it?
Does it shame us to see that hunger for freedom’s expression reborn in brown skin, speaking in tongues that frighten. Has that sense of integrity, the fierce determination to crawl, sail across danger-filled seas, to fight for the inalienable right of it, simply been lost in translation in our bloated sense of self-righteousness and self-aggrandizement, and spoilage?
Have we traded the promise of Plymouth Rock for the wolf pack of the Tribal Win?
Are we so frightened, filled with our own sense of entitlement we’ve lost our own sense of soul, of compassion for others “not like us”? Have we forfeited charity, decency, equitableness? Can we regain any of these values before the rancid, fetid hatred and selfishness that has infected our way of life dominates our national landscape?
Do we have the courage, fortitude and maturity to save our own American soul? To be honest, to forfeit “winning” and ambition at any price and reclaim integrity, decency, prudence, honor? Have we sacrificed the good of the whole for the privilege of the few?
Can we recapture our American soul? Do we have the strength to be humble, to look ourselves in the depths and acknowledge that we are losing any moral compass we once had?
You learn a lot about yourself and others when you are in a physically compromised situation like I have been for the last six months. Between a couple surgeries and multiple fractures in my back, I’ve been laid low. Having a history of being fiercely independent previously, I have had the opportunity to learn the fine art of being dependent on others, at times feeling like a burden, a very uncomfortable position to say the least!
The Spiritual Squeeze
I have been forced to learn about patience, humility, and grace, none of which comes naturally to me. Quite the contrary. Being a single person for most of my adult life, I have taken undo pride and no small amount of egotism, feeling quite self-satisfied with my own fortitude and sufficiency.
Asking others for help now, sometimes from the smallest gestures to larger ones that might inconvenience them, has been challenging and sometimes downright painful for me in my current situation. It has come easier though is still uncomfortable and sometimes laced with fear and guilt.
I have found some people are generous and offer willingly while others get downright nervous or withdraw, pulling back with the subtlest of mortification, their pupils contracting inward scanning their own lives and responsibilities. Then there are those who offer but don’t really mean it, mostly unavailable when you get right down to the specific request later on.
It is very easy to be judgemental about this latter group, having operated from this very behavior myself in the past. I want to judge them when they turn me down, usually feeling a bit sorry for myself in the process. It is a lonely road. But the catch is, while I want to condemn them for being selfish, absorbed, uncaring or unsympathetic, the finger has quickly curved in on myself with the whiff of past recognition.
One of the greatest gifts of my life, and I say this with all humility, is the occasional ability to move quickly from judgmentalism to forgiveness to acceptance. This was aided not long ago by flashbacks of moments when I’ve declined to help others during my far more vigorous, busy and able-bodied history. I remember drawing away, pulling back, thinking I’ve got too much on my plate, sometimes offering help but knowing I don’t really mean it myself.
Recently I asked a woman in my apartment building if she could put a pain patch on my back and be available if I needed help for a few days, trying to explain that my regular backup people were away. Recognizing her reluctance from the get go, I tried to make clear it was short term. Her response was vigorous and persistent, telling me she was very busy, she wasn’t the best person to ask, she’d do what she could but couldn’t make a commitment.
Invariably she kept steering me away from her, stating she worked 55 hours a week, could I get a nurse, call the ER, whatever. I like to think my decline of help to others was gentler, more subtle, but guessing I’ve been as transparent at times as she was with me, I doubt it. Becoming more angry than fearful I wouldn’t have help, I pressed her and she ultimately relented.
Remarkably, while I was very upset initially, I moved quickly to taking stock of my own past behaviors in this regard, knowing, knowing not only did I have to forgive her but also forgive myself. This struck swiftly and thoroughly and I felt relief, free of having to project my judgement onto her. This forgiveness and relief lasted about 12 hours!
It is a hard thing at times having to take a steely-eyed look at ourselves, yet without examining our own behavior, what good are any lessons that are presented to us. After all, isn’t that what we’re here for? To learn, to grow, to evolve, to transcend? If I cannot forgive her how can I forgive me, and vice versa? We are all on a path at times intersecting with others, teachers of a sort, and presented with these golden opportunities. While this might seem like such a simple example, for me it is no less important than the earth shattering larger spiritual or ethical challenges in life.
At the end of the day, we are all at our own place of consciousness and development. When I forget that, that someone else no matter how obnoxious or irritating they might seem to me, or self absorbed and self centered, I am the one who suffers on the inside both emotionally and spiritually. I suffer in the judgment of that other person, But mostly I suffer in the condemnation and judgment of myself. To love oneself is just as important as to love another, to have compassion for the impairment that may be developmental, less visible than broken bones or surgeries in another, that is no less real but far less obvious.
The seemingly complicated state of fleeting forgiveness towards my reluctant neighbor squeezes me spiritually to step back, to really assess why I’m hurt, frustrated or scared and to at least try to identify with her. And even if I can’t stay in that space, I know I’m able to return to it at some point. Oh, the lessons of an illness, what consciousness-raising grist it provides for growth, acknowledging she too has her own struggle of guarded isolation and remoteness, filled with fear and self protection that felt as threatening to her as mine was for me in that moment.
And So It Goes
At the end of the day it does no good to compare me to her, her to me or even her to the two steadfast friends who have provided support and compassion but just happened to be gone at that time of seeking another’s help only to be thwarted by my neighbors reticence, no good at all. Identification is one thing, comparison quite another for comparison is filled with judgment. Whether I get irritated or not is irrelevant at the end of the day if she’s doing the best she can as I was in earlier situations—and even now—but lose the thread of ongoing understanding and forgiveness as a constant I can return to. Because I will invariably have to repeat the lesson, God willing, and by my own intention, be squeezed into that place of love and forgiveness of self and another we all seek until it all sticks.
Never in a million years did I think it would be this difficult just to get a colostomy after struggling with 14 year tumor excision history. For some crazy reason I was under the delusion that I’d be up and around moving relatively easily a couple of months after the initial surgery. Ha! I couldn’t have been more wrong. No one knows if they will have surgical complications. I was in that category of 100% believing it would be a trajectory of healing that had nowhere to go but up, forward, continually gaining strength, and improving. I suppose I was naïveté on steroids, confessing to being an optimist besides.
Years ago a former therapist told me only optimists get hurt. At the time I thought that sounded sort of odd. Asking her to explain, she laid out the following: pessimists expect the worst and are therefore rarely disappointed when something goes awry; Realists accommodate to whatever outcomes occur, using the intellect to manage any disappointments that come their way. But optimists, rarely fearing negatives, possess an expectation all will be well. The ship leaves port to arrive at the desired destination assuming all will be well. The hitch? The slide into disappointment when things do go wrong can be disorienting, sometimes debilitating, throwing the ship way off course, adding insult to the original injury, becoming unmoored.
Success Not Success
I could tell you the first surgery to remove the tumor and subsequent body parts that hosted it was highly successful. It is the truth. My insult occurred when three weeks later I had to have a second surgery to remove an unanticipated kink in my colon. Shocked, pissed, depressed and, well, pissed some more by the entire set back—which was substantial—my recovery has been slowed, sometimes feeling glacial. This event was peppered with other lesser setbacks such as UTI’s, lumbar compression fractures exasperated by required bed rest, wound healing that has been slow, etc, etc, etc!
In hindsight some of these setbacks feel more like nuisances at this point though not always. Rather, it is the aggregate of complications and slowdowns, the cumulative totality that has been the most difficult to adjust to, adding fuel to the disappointment fire. My intellect informs me, and rightfully so, this could be worse. It also reminds me of people who truly DO have medical situations far more dire and problematic than mine. After all, I am tumor free for they have removed the body parts that were its host. There is no “there” there! To say I remain incredibly grateful is the understatement of the century.
Yet still I grieve. Still I am pissed, at least at times although it does seem to be waning a bit. Feelings of loss are not just for missing body parts. Rather, they reflect an energy system that shrinks away from a physical life I once took for granted. They are for a psychological and emotional operating system of navigating the world and my place in it, as if a supernova is in the process of burning itself out in my small personal firmament.Turning that two ton ship around from optimism to realism necessarily has to be done by degrees much like a ship’s navigation.
This way of looking at my world involves patience, honest and authentic acceptance, and faith! The faith in not only things will be well, but that they already ARE! That the process of degree by degree learning to think and feel differently is beneficial and may even lead to a kind of salvation regardless of the slow-motion, occasionally agonizing discomfort that I feel going through it. The trilogy of qualities listed above have always been challenging for me, especially patience. I’d like it all healed NOW, body, mind and spirit!
Turning in Slow Motion
Having no other real choice, I trudge on in fits and starts with a new emotional, psychological, intellectual and spiritual mechanism that requires patience, forgiveness, compassion and understanding. Ain’t no other way. I guess that demonstrates at least a modicum of acceptance. I definitely feel the benefits of these qualities as they slowly come into focus, albeit it ever so slowly—degree by degree. Oh how I wish I could be on the other side of it. Of course that is not how evolution of any kind operates, at least not until a momentum has built to a critical mass creating a new order.
I know I am blessed. I even imagine, truly, in the end I will view this entire surgery, setbacks and all, as an unexpected gift, besides the obvious life saving measure that it is. In an odd way I’m beginning to see it has merely been a delivery system for a change that has been required of me all along: a blessing in disguise as a medical event. To know thyself one often needs to be tested, a catalyst of sorts, to hit bottom as it were. I may have unknowingly generated such a catalyst.
A New Radar
Some years ago after Michael J Fox had his Parkinson’s diagnosis, I was struck by what for me was a profound statement he had made. It went something like this: I could never sit still until I could not sit still. The habit deeply ingrained in an interior way of how we think and feel, how we approach our world, often requires something cataclysmic to get our attention. I see the value in having such an event, even as I have resisted and cursed it at times. “Lucky is the man who has lost his leg to find out what he is truly made of—not grizzle and bone. Rather, of a sturdy faith in the unseen ineffable Self.”
“Who would you be without your story?” Byron Katie
My recent move from Encinitas, CA to Sonoma, north of San Francisco has been challenging, interesting, exhausting, and enlightening, with generous splashes of happy thrown in. After a mere month or two, while physically settled, I’m hardly that emotionally and psychologically. Yes, I have my core, my spiritual inner being, that feels pretty much centered, constant, with periodic inner tremors gradually subsiding. One of the most unsettling elements however is that of identity. 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.
I’ve been reading “Gift From The Sea” by Anne Morrow Lindbergh recently, feeling even more affected by it than the first reading years ago. The beauty of it, her poignant insight, strikes a profound cord someplace deep. Take, for example, the following passage: Read more →