Sunday, November 28, 2010

Death is everywhere. So is Life.

Tri-colored Fall

In 1984, I was driving my Pontiac Fiero down the road when I felt a thump-thump under my rear wheel. I looked in my rearview mirror, confused and wondering what that unusual sensation was, and to my horror, I saw a cat flailing in the street.

I immediately pulled over and began calling for help. I was very young in 1984, not at all prepared to deal with a crisis like this. Neighbors came out from their homes. A kind man- I will never know his name but will never forget his face- sat me down on the curb and told me not to look. I wept. And wept. And wept. The non-insect-killing, animal-loving vegetarian took the life of cat. It was not a moment of glory for me. Literally, I was inconsolable for days.

Yesterday, a woman driving ahead of us down our street in Sedona hit a small bunny. The bunny appeared to be fine; that is, she wasn't bleeding. The woman, shaken, stopped and asked if I would help. I immediately got out of the car with a soft towel and slowly approached the bunny. I wrapped her gently and placed her in a small box.

She was breathing, but her placidness meant she was badly injured internally. I took her home and began calling animal clinics. Images of the cat I'd killed 25 years earlier intruded. This was my chance for redemption. I will save the bunny, at any cost.

I called three clinics to no avail. Finally, a vet referred me to a woman who was "very skilled at small, wild animal" care. Hopeful, I dialed her. The bunny sat next to me in the box. Her breathing labored, I stroked the area between her eyes gently. It seemed to calm her.

No answer. I called again. Still, no answer.

I dialed animal control for guidance. They were, let's say, less than helpful. "Let nature take its course," they said, clearly misunderstanding my quest for redemption. I hung up frustrated. Then, in a matter of seconds, right before my eyes, the bunny leaned back in her warm box I'd intended as a place of comfort and recuperation from her injuries. She stretched out her front paws and looked at me as she took her final breath. Helpless, completely and utterly helpless.

"Death is everywhere!" I cried out loud through the house.

I wept, and wept, and wept.

And when I felt as if I'd wept enough, I dug a hole in my meditation garden, under the patina fountain where squirrels drink and birds play.

I wrapped the bunny-I-couldn't-save in velvet, designer shoe bags, and named her "Joy-Chen".

And I whispered to hear, "I'm sorry I couldn't save you."

"Goodbye little Joy." Atonement would not come on this day.

This morning, I woke up to small snow flakes dancing through the wind. The birds were singing, and the squirrels feasting on red berries and juniper.

I was quiet, contemplative, thinking about Joy and the cat and redemption.

And I said, in my mind, to the cat I'd killed so long ago, "I'm so sorry I killed you. I'm so sorry." A single tear ran down my face.

Perhaps, atonement did come that day, ever so subtly, and disguised as something else.

Death is everywhere. So is life.
They are inextricably intertwined.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Finding crumbs of gratitude amidst many tears...

I know that Thanksgiving is about being thankful. Full of thanks. Giving thanks.

I remember my first Thanksgiving meal of 1994, only four months after I watched Mother Earth swallow her body. The pain is indescribable. I can actually reach the pain, after 16-1/2 years, I can actually still reach it.

I sat at the table that day, my head down, meal and accoutrements provided by anonymous others who were too afraid of my suffering to do anything but drop-and-run. I remember thinking, "I cannot be thankful. I cannot be thankful. There is nothing, nothing. Just emptiness and aching and pain."


So I noticed a bread crumb on the table and thought, "Can I find a crumb of gratitude? Somewhere amidst all this pain, is there anything for which I can find gratitude?" Yes. There were many things, looking back. But then, I could only be grateful for one thing: love. The kind of big, overflowing, unconditional, reckless, and fearless love of a mother for her children. And for the year 1994, that single crumb had to sustain me.

I can say that my list of sufferings since her death are endless. I could write (and have written) pages and pages of the agony and despair, crumbs enough for many loaves of bread. Ah, but now, I have equal loaves, probably more in both breadth and depth, for which I am grateful.

And today, I'm reminded of Rilke's precious words:

. . . So you must not be frightened

if a sadness rises before you larger

than any you’ve ever seen, if an

anxiety like light and cloud shadows

moves over your hands and

everything that you do. You must

realize that something has happened

to you. Life has not forgotten

you, it holds you in its hands

and will not let you fall. Why do

you want to shut out of your life

any uneasiness, any miseries, or

any depressions? For after all, you

do not know what work these conditions

are doing inside of you.

and Rilke's delicious words continue in
E Sonnets to Orpheus,

Want the change. Be inspired by the flame

where everything shines as it disappears.

What locks itself in sameness has congealed.

 Is it safer to be gray and numb?

What turns hard becomes rigid

 and is easily shattered.

Pour yourself out like a fountain.

Flow into the knowledge that what you are seeking

 finishes often at the start, and, with ending, begins.

Every happiness is the child of a separation

 it did not think it could survive. And Daphne, becoming a laurel,

 dares you to become the wind.

And for the fire, and the earth, and the water, and the wind, and for all of this, and all of that, I am truly thankful.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

In a Flash: How dying can teach us how to fully live...

This existence of ours is as transient as autumn clouds.
To watch the birth and death of beings is like looking at dance.
A lifetime, like lightning flashing in the sky,
Rushing by, like a torrent down a steep mountain.


If you bring forth what is within you
What you bring forth will save you.
If you do not bring forth what is within you,
What you do not bring forth will destroy you.


I've always loved the Tibetan Book of the Dead for its willingness to stand face-to-face, letter-to-letter with the Big D. Oh sure, there are plenty of books about loss and grief and death and trauma and even some books for the gero-group on becoming psychologically ready... and, and, and... but few books are written to help prepare people- at any age- for Death. Heck, its even one of the reasons why I'm so intrigued by Johnny Depp. Who else tattoos "Death is Certain" on his arm?

One of the things I've learned from the great wisdom traditions is that dying well requires a mindfulness and intention about living well. And this mindful intention helps to enhance our lives each and every moment in which we allow our self to confront our mortality. And how, precisely, do we engage with life in such a way?

Some suggestions from a few wisdom traditions that have helped me include:

1) From Buddhism: Accept suffering as part of the human condition and then (when ready) transform it. Forgive others. Forgive the self. Realize that everything is spiritual or numinous, even if you're a secular humanist. Be humble.

2) From Christianity: Serve others with loving compassion unselfishly. Don't talk about loving others- do it. Let them experience, firsthand, the Light within you, do not speak of it. Recognize the futility and transitoriness of the material world. Believe in grace and offer mercy. Practice humility.

3) From Judaism: While alive, fully engage in rituals both celebrating and mourning the transition to Olam Ha Ba. Remember that saving one person is like saving millions. Be humble.

4) From Hinduism: Be aware of your deeds and thoughts, both spoken and acted and also those unspoken and unrealized. Surrender your self to the needs of others. Self-efface.

5) From Sufism: Practice futtuwah- loving the other in an empathic way before loving self with humility and service.

There's an awful lot of anti-narcissism going on here, isn't there? So contrary to the natural state of human existence when the "self" is so porous that it often absorbs every molecule in its path, like the Dyson of humanity. Makes me want to anonymize my blog and yank the photo. Hmmm. Is a dollop of vanity okay?

Thank goodness I didn't name the foundation or the CBRS movement after my dead child.

Joking aside, there is clearly something here.

This mindful and intentional living is hard work. It's so much easier to live mindlessly and accidentally and recklessly and wantonly and self-indulgently and all-about-me-ly. But the latter brings an unpleasant death, I'm certain.

So, I've sat with the sagacious thoughts of the desert fathers and mothers on many nights, through many sunrises, and sunsets, and rainstorms, and warm days, and barefoot walks. Those great wisdom traditions have inspired me to live such that I strive to bring forth the beauty that is within me rather than the ugly. I want to live in the way of my true self, in such a way that I am ready for Death when Death calls me by my true name.

And so that as I'm taken down the steep mountainside of our momentary, lightning-flash existence, standing face-to-face with Death one day, I will die well because I have lived well. And I will be truly going home.

Monday, November 15, 2010

From Research to Practice: The system actually works!

Long ago, in a little Mexican restaurant, the smell of cilantro and lime dancing across the room, while normals around us laughed over margarita lunches, I met her. And the collision of two lives - and two deaths- would incite a paradigm shift that would change many other lives.

Rewind to 2004 when I was contacted by a grieving mom, Jodi, after the traumatic death of her daughter, Nia. Jodi and I would go on to form a therapeutic alliance that was very private. This was because Jodi was both a lesbian and a grieving mom.

Over the course of several years, I came to realize how unique her experiences as a single, lesbian, mother of a dead baby were... and a research study was born.

The manuscript, set to be published in a top tier academic journal early next year, was based on a qualitative, exploratory study on this subculture of the bereaved. All because of Jodi. Well, actually, Nia.

Here is what I found in the abstract:
Research on parental bereavement has focused historically on single or partnered, cross gendered (heterosexual) bereaved parents (Rando, 1986; Miles, 1978; Donnelly, 1982; Knapp, 1986). No studies to date have yet been conducted on the unique experiences of same-gendered bereaved parents. This multiple case study focused on child death in same-gendered parent families. The goal of this study was to yield information that will expand on the existing body of knowledge regarding parental bereavement as well as add to the dearth of literature on lesbian parenthood and challenges that lesbians may face as a marginalized group. This research study was conducted using in depth interviews with six self-identified lesbian mothers who have experienced the death of a child at various ages and from various causes. Results suggest that lesbian bereaved mothers experience a type of double-disenfranchisement after their losses, and that social support is often insufficient to meet their psychological needs. Because previous research has not been published on this specific population, the findings may be worthwhile for both the lesbian and gay parenting community, community advocacy groups, and clinicians who serve them.

Now, lo and behold the system actually worked!

From micro-practice ------> hypotheses --------> research --------> outcomes ---------> practice.

Thus, Nia's death gave birth to an support outreach for a doubly disenfranchised group, featured in Echo Magazine.

Now this is how the academy is supposed to work!

Margaritas anyone?

Oh, and thank you Jodi. Thank you Nia.


The soul still sings in the darkness telling of the beauty she found there; and daring us not to think that because she passed through such tortures of anguish, doubt, dread, and horror, as has been said, she ran any the more danger of being lost in the night. Nay, in the darkness did she, rather, find herself.

--St. John, Dark Night of the Soul

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